Roundtable Post: Another look at literary classics

Have you ever read a ‘classic’ or best-seller that really pissed you off? Or something taken to be a major work in some genre but you found to be really off-putting (for whatever reason but could be due to objectification, racism, etc?).

A friend was telling me about The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and how she could not finish it due to the sexist main character, but most of the gentlemen I know who have read it RAVE about it.

Lisa: I’m kind of a snob in that I read a lot of classics. I love Jane Austen- I know some feminists give her a bad rap because her plot lines are all about marriage, but her characters are strong feminist women and for the 1850s, what else did she have to write about, really. If you’ve never read Emma, I suggest it.  

Catch-22 is one of my favourite books, but it is infuriatingly male-centric. All the women in the book are prostitutes, which doesn’t help, and they are described in a really objectifying way. REALLY bad. But the writing is so, so awesome, and the author has such a sly way with words and narratives and ugh, I love it. But I hate it. I have such a touch time resolving that confliction.

Bex: Personally, not a fan of Salman Rushdie. A bunch of people raved about his work and recommended him to me, but I read Midnight’s Children and The Enchantress of Florence and was not impressed. They drag on aout 600 pages too long, really masculinist writing and it seems like the women all have some horrible characteristic to make them unworthy.

Val:I was always heavy on the classics (Brontes, Austin, etc), but lately I am mostly reading non-fiction. But yes, Rushdie smacks of contemporary Hemingway. Boo.

Chelsea:  I actually really loved Oscar Wao. I read it before I really thought about gender issues, so maybe if I re-read it I would feel differently. If you are looking for a book that deals with something similar you HAVE TO HAVE TO read In the Time of the Butterflies. It’s an amazing book and totally feminist.

Mary: I question Huck Finn & Tom Sawyer as American Classics. I always felt uncomfortable with the word nigger in literature, and still do which is what fueled my doubt in the institutionalized “classics.” I don’t know how to deal with the term “nigger” in literature because we are supposed to read literature and say “within that society, writing a sympathetic minstrel character into his book deserves a pat on the back because it was progressive at the time.” I disagree that this gets to be classic American cannon and worshiped in high schools. If we are really trying to analyze American History of the 19th century and acknowledge how wrong the subjugation of blacks has been, why not teach Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois instead? I feel similarly about To Kill A Mockingbird. It is an acclaimed American classic written by a white author sympathizing with blacks. It was a well written book, I enjoyed reading it, but when are we going to value black authors’ writings about justice, childhood, slavery or American life and see that as just as relevant to the conversation?

photo by Carl van Vechten

We should not be patting Harper Lee on the back still in 2010. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a moving book that I read on my own time in high school, a work about a black WOMAN, by a black woman! I suggest that book become valued as a classic in American Literature.  I am not out to oust all white authors from American Literature, but there is a serious imbalance here that is perpetuated year after year unquestioned.


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