I read an article by a literary (so called) editor in a British women’s magazine about why she detests reading Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
Some of her points were well taken although overall the more I read her anti-Anna rant, the more resistant I was to agree with her.
From her article, she complains how very difficult she found this novel. It was her fourth try, and for reasons that seem like martyrdom, she slogged through it a bit every day for 364 days no doubt so as to write about how much she despised reading it.
Her reasons for her hatred varied. According to this reader, she found all four of the major characters to be “utter idiots who make terrible life decisions simply from misinterpreting another character’s facial expressions.”
Okay, there are a lot of facial expressions going on in 19th century novels since censorship was prominent. But then I also imagine that real people in the pre-cell phone days did actually look at one another to decipher and decode feelings, emotions and patterns of behavior.
A lost art these days it seems.
The reader goes on to state how she could not find the magic in Anna that other people had—all the many, many, many readers from over a century who list this book as a must-read on their lists.
She simply hated it because it was not a book she enjoyed at all.
In fact, she reveals how she also could not get through the one Dickens book she had read (Great Expectations) and plodded through a forced reading of the Brontës’ Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.
That’s fine. And very common these days.
Nineteenth century novels, that is those actually written in the 19th century, are not going to satisfy contemporary readers who like this editor, prefer the more facile writing styles of “chick lit” and other post-Victorian novels, some of which I even liked.
But her biggest argument is that she believes that we should only read the things we enjoy.
Well, of course we do. I happen to enjoy and have enjoyed for the many times I’ve read them, all those books she hates.
Those particular novels were assigned to me in high school and college English classes and I am glad for it. It was required reading, but the likelihood of my not ever reading them would have been far greater.
I would then not have known nor understood, nor appreciate what great literature is.
Nor could I attempt to learn from and emulate these masters for my own stories.
Thanks to the Internet and the bottomless glut of self-publishing options and the oversaturation of mostly badly written genre novels (oh, so many, many detective and/or fantasy books with their never ending series), we are so overwhelmed with crap that it’s even harder to decipher what great literature is anymore.
Instead, we are conditioned to want quick, snappy and often shallow stories that we glance on our devices while we multi-task doing other things, usually also on our devices.
We don’t want to savor the inner workings of the human condition or decode those meaningful expressions on the characters’ faces.
We don’t have time for that.
Nor can we relate to the historical behavioral norms of 19th century England say, or get through those long Russian names in Anna. And who even knows anymore what political and historical events were going on in those days that affected the ways the characters act in the story.
Really, who cares?
We only want what we recognize right now in our culture, in our society, in our time. Even if the novel written today is set in another century, the characters have to act and speak in the modern ways we do.
Alas, disparaging the classics in world literature is part of a growing trend in anti-intellectual rhetoric and thought.
Popular culture is the rage, the addiction, the money-maker.
We have such little time, let us be entertained and quickly.
Don’t bother picking up a novel if it’s over 100 pages long. Don’t bother reading anything before 1900. Don’t bother trying to comprehend or at least appreciate the brilliance of Tolstoy, Dickens or any writer from another era.
Sure, go ahead and read other things that are lighter and humorous if that relieves stress and obligation.
But don’t dismiss or damn the great works of literature simply because a reader found it dull or irrelevant, or worse, felt coerced to read it but found no pleasure in it.
That is the reader’s unfortunate problem and misunderstanding.
I predict Anna and the true literary classics will be on “must read” lists a 100 years from now because there are always a few of us who still believe in and enjoy great writing.
Here is the article of complaint that I complained about:
Writing Wisdom: “Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.”–Annie Proulx, American Novelist, Short Story Writer. Journalist.
Need help and inspiration in writing GREAT fiction? Find both in my writing guidebook: THE FICTION PRESCRIPTION: HOW TO WRITE AND IMPROVE YOUR FICTION LIKE THE GREAT LITERARY MASTERS.
NEW! Now in paperback: https://amzn.to/2WwRXgE
SUBSCRIBE to www.irenezabytko.com for weekly WRITING WISDOM advice. You will also receive the WRITING WISDOM DAILY DIGITAL CALENDAR with great quotes by great writers coming to you every day in your email inbox.
AND THAT’S NOT ALL!
New subscribers will get a free copy of 100 LITERARY CLICHES TO AVOID , SCORN AND DELETE (VOLUME 1). Humorous and helpful! Plus my report on “The 7 Deadly Sins of Rookie Fiction Writers.” www.irenezabytko.com