Should some classic books we consider to be literary "masterpieces" be re-evaluated?

This column in Salonwas focused mainly on poking fun at the various non-professional literary reviewers on the Amazon website who would dare to find fault with various literary classics.

While I realize that books are generally considered classics for a reason I have to admit that some books classified as “classics” and “masterpieces” are nigh unreadable (by me) as engaging or interesting literature.

At what point do you step back from conventional and academic wisdom, and consider that maybe a commonly acknowledged classic or masterpiece is not as classic or masterful as you thought it was?

Just because a book is considered a classic for one reason or another does not mean everybody who reads it is going to like it. These kinds of reviews usually go wrong because the reviewers seem to think they can debunk the book’s reputation as a classic by proving it really sucks. But it doesn’t actually work that way. The book can have merit even if the Amazon reviewer doesn’t like it. I did read An American Tragedy a few years back and I found the first 500 pages thoroughly boring. The last 100 or so were much better, but it’s not like I am going to re-read it. And the reviewer of Where the Wild Things Are is an ass.

As far as re-evaluating books goes - sure, any reputation can be re-evaluated. One generation might consider a book a classic and the next might not. That kind of thing usually isn’t set in stone. Some books get taught for decades on end but others come in and out of fashion.

Yes, but if the reviewer is Mark Twain, it usually works.

How dare ordinary people post their opinions on the Internet ??:eek:

The Salon piece is really silly. Not every person is going to like a given “classic” not matter how universally acclaimed (and I doubt there has ever been any work of art which has not been criticized by at least one knowledgeable critic). And yes some of these quoted reviews aren’t the most incisive but I bet you could find hundreds of reviews on Amazon which are critical of widely beloved works but still insightful. In general the Internet opens up the culture to more voices and points of view and on balance that is a great thing.

I’ve read this article twice now, and I still can’t figure out if the author was just joking around or if she was really stupid enough not to know about the vast numbers of total idiots out there with time on their hands and an Internet connection.

The reviews themselves are pretty idiotic. They don’t actually address anything in the book. If I were going to waste my time showing how stupid I was, I’d at least try to make a joke out of it (“The Diary of Anne Frank? More like The *Diahrrea *of Anne Frank, ha-ha”), but they just sit there cranking out their review on how 1984 was soooooooo boring (???), trying to finish it before their drool shorts out the keyboard. Could we at least know what Steinbeck’s false message was or how Maurice Sendak’s message was wrong?

And yeah, looking at the review for Charlotte’s Web, I think the author is just screwing around with us. If she were really dumb enough not to recognize that review as trolling, then she would have spent the years the rest of us use to learn to read and write to decide what to have for breakfast every morning.

It’s not like there’s an official list of classic books that is written in stone. It’s pretty nebulous really, and books get put on lists or fade away all the time. How many people really read Marcus Aurelius any more? Not that many.

A ‘classic’ does not have to be universally beloved, and it doesn’t even have to be liked by a whole lot of people. Usually for adult books, a classic is a classic because it has something to say about ideas that are always important to people–in Adler-speak, it contributes to the Great Conversation in which ideas are discussed through the generations. It addresses some aspect of the question “How shall we then live?”

So a classic does not have to be enjoyable, it doesn’t have to fit 21st century ideas about what makes an interesting or good book.

Opinions about what is classic don’t come from students in the first place. While some Amazon reviews are obvious jokes, others are nothing more that what you would have heard in an English class at any time over the last century. The only difference is that you now get to write them down and share them with the world.

Few pieces of classic literature are accessible to a student’s level of experience. I was fortunate enough to be assigned Huck Finn three times, once in 8th grade, once in 11th grade, and once in college. It was a totally different book each time. I happened to love it each time, but I still didn’t get it. It was a different book yet again when I read it as an adult. (Now I hate the ending even more.) Even if I posted a positive review at the time it would have been worth nothing.

And if I were to post a review today as an experienced author and critic and reviewer, my opinion might have some basis to it but it’s still just one man’s viewpoint. A reputation doesn’t depend on *any *individual’s reviews. For fun check out Bill Henderson’s Rotten Reviews and Rotten Reviews 2.

Reputations are built through consensus opinion over years or decades – and torn down the same way. Fitzgerald is the classic example of someone who was a forgotten hack when he died only to have his reputation brought back by reissuing his books after his death. Hemingway and Dreiser’s reputations have gone up and down like the tide. There’s a backlash building against the big names of the 50s and 60s like Updike. British writers that were lionized earlier in the last century are now mostly ignored. You can compile entire books of opinions of how awful Shakespeare was.

Compiling funny reviews off Amazon is a sport. You can find countless similar articles in blogs and magazines and writers message boards. It’s all a big so what. They have the collective weight against the literature they discuss as the science threads here do on physics.

If you personally dislike a classic work you can try to figure out why others think its great or you can toss it aside and look through the impossibly huge pile of books you will never hope to get to in your lifetime and find something more to your taste. I’ve done the first and am now doing the second. Life’s too short otherwise.

What a pretentious load of crap. I’ll do the author a kindness and assume irony instead of stupidity.

For me, what was an irritating and pointless article completely undermined itself at the end when she held up the Bible as the greatest work of literature ever, and that she couldn’t believe someone gave it one star. It’s like she suddenly revealed at the end she was writing from a completely irrelevant context. Like a David Lynch where it turns out at the end NOTHING WAS AS IT SEEMED. Dun dun.

Also. Has this creature never studied a classic? You don’t have to like a book because it’s in the literary canon. You can be bored to death with it. Or resent its characters. Or its author. And so forth. I hate Heart of Darkness with a passion. It’s a still a classic and I’m still a valid reader of books despite that! Anyway, often the best discussion and analysis stems from criticism.

Books are written with the assumption that the reader will approach them with a particular interpretive frame. If you read using a different frame, the book often seems boring or pointless, even though it might have been powerful and moving to its original intended audience. This is particularly true of books that were written long ago. Tastes change, and the frame of the “standard reader” drifts over time, making it harder to appreciate what historical audiences enjoyed in classic works.

Many of the reviews at Amazon are written from the elitist perspective that the reviewer’s own unexamined interpretive frame is the only POSSIBLE interpretive frame. “It sucked for me, so it’s a sucky book!” But a big part of learning about literature is learning how to shift your frame to accommodate the work you’re engaging with. Moby Dick is a great book, but you can’t read it like you’d read Harry Potter. If you want to enjoy Moby Dick and get something out of it you have to shift your reading technique so you’re working with it and not against it.