There can be certain preconceptions of literature graduates both in regards to our approach to what we study and our prejudices around certain other types of literature: I mean, sure you like it but does it fundamentally undermine the assumptions of the decade in which it was written whilst redefining the human experience in a revolutionary approach to ideas of the individual within narrative – ideally whilst meta-textually referencing tropes from a different genre? (Yea, didn’t think so – talk to me when it’s found in manuscript form and read in the original medieval English).
Yet there is a profound unfairness in the assumptions that underlie such an image. No, I’m not here to defend the place and worth of literature graduates (keep jokes to yourself, please), rather the unfair assumption is the one we carry with regards to ideas of ‘good’ literature. Popular understanding of a classic text rests on ideas of lengthy, dense, and twee narratives of yesteryear in awkward language and with paragraphs formed of a single, elaborately punctuated sentence. It must be confusing, ideally difficult to follow and certainly difficult to understand. As such there are ideas of a level of refinement and inaccessibility that begin to infuse with the perceived quality of texts that are currently holding sway in that ever vague and ambiguous creature considered the canon and reflexively on texts outside of it. It is no good attempting to deny that this is not an impression nurtured and put forwards by the academic world, as there is inevitably an excluding aspect in the nature of any specialist discourse (sorry, my degree seems to be showing again), but we should not be fooled by such distinctions.
Excellent literature is not necessarily the same as difficult literature – although there are certainly texts that arguably fall under both categories – simply because a text that challenges you (in whatever way) and a text that you find difficult are not the same thing. What is often misunderstood is how wondrously accessible literature is, and should be. Indeed, a significant number of what are often considered definitive, enduring narratives today (hullo Dickens) were very much the disposable trash literature of their time: even the ever-revered Shakespeare became what he is by churning out cheap entertainment for the masses. So popularity means nothing, it may seem like an easy read now but it’s the defining text of its genre after 300 years of perspective.
This said, there is bad literature -or sadly unconverted pieces of coal as our dear Ms Hayden would so tactfully put it – texts so offensively bad in their plot, writing, or style that it seems unfair to even foist them upon posterity (Although, in the case of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall that it’s still in print can only be taken as evidence that posterity has declined to take it). Yet these are satisfyingly rare and however bad there is very rarely mindless literature in the way there is mindless television. One must engage. So don’t feel bad, or stop yourself from indulging in something that you can read in three hours, or can’t wait to dip into on your morning commute –books should be pleasurable and every now and then you’ll come across something great, that stays with you and shapes a little of your perspective on the world.
In this respect ‘classics’ are victims of their own image in that it can actively put people off reading them, they are considered difficult rather than challenging. Whatever may be your perceptions, there is not and will never be a hierarchy of literature. If it’s great, then read it, that’s what such things are designed for, if you don’t like it then stop. Novels are about escape, empathy, and exchange and that value is dictated by you. As such, you should never feel guilty about picking up anything that makes you think, that makes you experience, be that Harry Potter, Middlemarch, or even Finnegan’s Wake.
Although, with successes such as Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey in the world, there’s no accounting for taste.