On Writing: Anti-Intellectualism

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Today, I clicked on this article: 'Bad Classics: Classic Books We Think Are Overrated'. I was appalled. I don't usually like to attack other people's articles, especially ones that are based on opinion. But whoever wrote this article obviously assumes he/she is speaking for us all. Also, this article bothers me so much, I don't think I can hold my tongue.

Firstly, I'd like to know what the point of this article is. Is it just a glib attempt at provocation in order to get comments and traffic? Is this really what journalism is about these days? I remember watching an interview with George Clooney in which he spoke about his dismay regarding the state of modern journalism. He's absolutely right. Journalism used to be a highly respected profession, and it still should be. It stood for integrity and curiosity. Now, we are becoming increasingly infatuated with quick, short, and glib articles that construct a world that is easily understood and consumed. How about creating articles with some semblance of intelligence, depth and relevance? I really don't see the point in writing an article that attacks books and dismisses them as not worth our time. Seriously, how arrogant is this? When I think of the time, energy and creativity that goes into writing books, I'm just appalled that anyone would go out of their way to discourage reading them.

And this leads me to my next point: this article is just a small example of the rising tide of anti-intellectualism in our culture. When was it decided that expanding your knowledge and undertaking difficult tasks was a bad thing? Most of the difficult and time-consuming things I've done in my life so far have been the most worthwhile, they've made me who I am, and I hope they will continue to shape me. Not everyone has to read classic literature if they don't want to, but do we really need to wholeheartedly discourage people from attempting to read more 'difficult' books?

I am aware that when other people have expressed the same sentiments I'm writing here, they have been called snobs. Some of them may very well be snobs, but I know I'm not. What I am is a thinking, feeling and curious human being. I want to explore the world and the things we create, I don't want it handed to me in small bites of 5-minute journalism, by journalists who don't really bother to engage properly with the things they are analysing. This is what frustrates me, and I also think it's irresponsible. People are perfectly welcome to their own opinions about the books listed in this article. No two people like the same books. My problem is not with the choice of books, but with the entire tone of the article. So I'll repeat my initial question: what's the point, really?

P.S. I suggest reading some of the comments for this post, which are actually more interesting than the article itself.

31 comments:

Rebeccak said...

Ick - yes I feel like this type of thing pops up more often now in order to get reactions. Such silliness (altohugh I am enjoying reading the comments!)

Siubhan said...

I think you're right actually - it does seem to be solely for the purpose of hitting on a sensitive topic and generating comments, which, I guess, it has done. It is pretty appalling though - there are no positives to be taken from the article as it's all so negative, and I sincerely hope that it doesn't discourage anyone from picking one of those classics up.

Gwyneth said...

What a stupid article. Ironic, really, to see a journalist discouraging people from reading.

Luckily there are lots of smart people on the internet who know bollocks when they hear it.

cinta / sepi / sayu said...

I like the comment about the "royal 'we'". So true- no one wants to take the blame, probably because they know it just doesn't feel right to dismiss classics as a whole.

Lyndall said...

The thing that I don't understand with this article is that the main complaints they had about all of those books were the central point, and in many cases, the appeal of the narrative. 'Waiting for Godot' is repetitive because it is an absurdist play indented to provoke a certain response from the audience, not because Samuel Beckett is a lazy author. And to dismiss 'Ulysess' as a 'bad' book because it is too confusing... Sigh. I think I have a headache.

From a librarian's point of view, when it comes to encouraging literacy and fostering a reader relationship, any reading is good reading. It's better for people to read something rather than nothing, even if that something is magazines, comics, Mills & Boon paperbacks, or 'bad', 'overrated', classics.

Danielle P. said...

Hila, thank you for bringing this pointless article to our attention, and for denouncing anti-intellectualism and "journalism".

I am deeply saddened every time I hear someone make denigrating remarks about books and reading. They have been valued life-long friends to me, and I'll not have them insulted!

I have the misfortune of living in a profoundly anti-intellectual society (Quebec) where reading and — gasp! — even proper pronounciation are widely viewed as snobbery. There is a pervasive vulgarity that I do my best to escape from, but whenever I come into contact with others, I find my eyes and ears continually assaulted by coarseness of one kind or another. Profanity and incoherence seem to have become the norm.

(How interesting that, although the article mentions that "some classics deserve their esteemed place in literary history," it fails to recommend (or even name) a single one...)

pdl said...

The irresponsibility of dismissing books like Moby Dick is a great point-- it's careless, close-minded, and conservative. And the tone of the article is what surprises me-- if it had come from a different angle, such as encouraging people to dismantle the canon (those books are mainly written by white men, after all), I would be intrigued (although the books dismissed are some of my faves and shouldn't be cast aside at all). Instead, the message seems to discourage reading those books or *any* books. As for the suggestion that your reaction is snobbish-- I think you completely avoid that by not rejecting any particular cultural creations outright (that is, you don't dismiss a title or genre in the way that the Huff Post article does)-- you don't go on to lambast reality tv or whatever, an argument which can smack of elitism. It frustrates me when a fondness of reading is equated with snobbishness, as books can be SO accessible (physically and intellectually).

Basically, I enjoy your blog and I think that you're raising important points that are worth lingering over.

anabela / fieldguided said...

All I have to say is thank goodness for boring old books because I would much rather read the exceptionally "boring" Beowulf or Illiad than any of the Eat, Pray, Love derivatives that are so popular in the publishing world these days.

That article was a hack job, period.

Sally said...

One issue I have with journalism is not just the sensational stories, but the quality of research and writing alongside them. If you're going to break a possibly hurtful article, could you at least check your facts and consistency? For instance, the captions beneath each book on that Huff Post article were vague at best. Half of them acknowledge that the book is in fact good, but has an annoying flaw or two (what book doesn't?).

As far as intellectualism goes - I've actually felt quite the opposite pressure, as most of my friends are much more well-read than me when it comes to the classics, even though I've been reading whatever I could get my hands on my whole life (although I realize this probably just reflects my own circle of friends). I have to agree with Lyndall above - any reading is better than no reading at all, which is why pop series can be commended for at least introducing people to the wonderful world of books! :)

Amelia said...

GAH! This is so beautifully written and spot on. I watch the news sometimes and i wonder what happened. Sometimes, it's just embarrassing listening/reading to some pieces. I read the caption underneath Moby Dick and I scoffed. Seriously, the issue is the fact that Melville wrote an 800 page book? REALLY? To me that's not journalism, it's travesty. Honestly the article seems something you find at thought catalog (where I have recently found out I'm a pretentious goober because I like Kurt Vonnegut).

On the point of reading books I have to say as a child my parents and grandparents read to me everyday. And when I started reading on my own I devoured everything I could put my hands on. I remember when I read Catcher in the rye in one sitting and I was itching to finish Metamorphosis that I read it in Physics . While I do agree some books may be out of the league of some people, that doesn't make them bad/overrated. Just because a book is difficult it doesn't make it bad or overrated. I think most people are getting too used to easily consumed information and whenever they find something they need to sink their teeth in it and mull over it they get scared and say it's pretentious, difficult, overrated and/or bad.

And I wrote a little novel here.

cantaloupe said...

I found it ironic that your site is devoid of capital letters since this is my first time here and this happened to be the entry that I read. Not that I necessarily have a problem with lower case letters, but in theory it could be considered "anti-intellectual." (Caveat: that is not meant as a criticism, seriously, just an observation. I've had non-proper aliases for years and wouldn't dream of capitalizing them.)

But yes, I totally agree that the article is absolutely ridiculous and pointless. They don't even really deride the books fully, every single one includes something like "he had a way with words, but..." or "he's a great storyteller, but..." And if there is a perk to these books, then why on earth would you pick them out to deride? Because they're not absolutely perfect? What the hell book is absolutely perfect? I'm sure it's possible to find fault with anything if you look hard enough!

I also have a problem with people who deride books like Twilight though. What is the point of that? People need something to hook them into reading, and usually that is idealism and fairy tales, which is how most of us started our reading careers. (The Little Princess springs to mind as my most favorite fairy tale hook into reading.)

Basically any time someone judges someone else for what they are reading in a truly negative, DO NOT READ sort of way, I want to cry.

sarah said...

the article's criticism of moby dick was that melville dedicates "entire chapters to such topics as the color white, a whale's tail and endless descriptions of the sea" which makes me want to go right out and re-read it!

Sasha said...

I can understand certain people not caring for classic literature (or certain classics). Writing varies by author and I've had much distaste for certain books considered classics. However, I would NEVER try to convince someone to not read a book.

This article seems purely for quick, easy journalistic output (though I loathe to call it journalism). They're reasons for not reading these classics are proof of a lazy society that would rather have quick, action-packed stories. By saying books that are too "long" or too "complicated" are not worth reading, they're saying that literature should adhere to modern standards.

I hardly consider this journalism or a proper review of the books discussed. The comments are interesting to read though!

E. said...

A great post you've written there! Just a few hours ago a friend and I were moaning about this trend of anti-intellectualism (both of us are lecturers and have seen such a decline in critical, well-founded opinions among our students over the past decade). I may be running the risk of coming across as a pretentious old fart, but I fear the kind of effect this will have on society at large in years to come. If you are interested in this topic, you may want to pick up a copy of Frank Furedi's book 'Where have all the intellectuals gone?'

E.

SJ said...

very interesting!

I always get so depressed by a lot of the articles I read online, especially on news sites. A lot of them don't even seem to have been proof read, they're just quickly submitted and added to the website.

It's like facebook journalism, where there needs to be new and quick content that people don't actually have to read, they can get most of it from the first paragraph.

Ella said...

jeez! i can't believe this. unless it's a novel written by lauren conrad or kim kardashian, or another asinine "writer," most books are of some literary value! it's ridiculous that someone would advocate that these books aren't worth anyone's time! the reader should decide for themselves whether or not they like/dislike or should/shouldn't read the book, not by people who make the decision for them.

and how can catcher in the rye be on that list?!! it's one of my favorites! how devastating...

lola is beauty said...

I actually enjoy reading Catcher in the Rye far more now than I did when I was 15.

Hey ho.

I think that article was just deliberately provocative to get a lot of comments. They could have just called it "Books r boring and real long - moar comments pleez" and been done with it.

Nancy Baric *negfilm said...

sadly..i understand this sentiment all too well...like danielle p...:(
anti-intellectualism is so boring.

bronwyn said...

Hila, I saw this article a few days ago. It was the tone that bothered me as well. As many of this article's commenters asked, who is this person to completely write off works by some of the greatest writers we've known? If the article was called "Classics That Weren't My Cup of Tea" and written as an opinion/discussion piece, I wouldn't have been bothered by it. Personally, I don’t care for Catcher in the Rye. I dislike it because I dislike Holden Caulfield and he is the book. But I recognize it as a well written and important work. I do not wish that I had "just skipped it" and I do not think that others would not greatly benefit from reading it. How arrogant! And to suggest that no one should read Moby Dick or Ulysses because they are difficult? Really? I thought Moby Dick was absolutely beautiful and the writer complains of “endless descriptions of the sea”. Should all novels be confined to 300 pages of formulaic plot? That’s fine if that is the writer’s preference, but he/she has no place imposing that preference on the rest of us. And I completely agree that discouraging reading of any sort is never a good thing.

Olga said...

I don't know whether to laugh or cry after reading this article and the accompanying comments. I guess there have always been people to whom reading classical literature is similar to climbing Mount Everest.

Liza said...

This is such a well-timed post. To dismiss classics so easily is an enormous mistake in my view. Classic novels are a part of the foundation of literacy and education because they give students an equal footing: most everyone has had to read them (or at least a portion of them) at some time during their education, which means that we all can reference a similar literary canon. We can understand symbolism, metaphor, narrative structure and irony and discuss those ideas on an even playing field because we've all read the same source material. We can build up those novels as the pinnacle of literature or tear them to shreds. The point is, you need to have read them to do any of that. The point is the conversation, the discussion! To dismiss classics, to go so far as to encourage people not to read them, is a huge disservice and, frankly, rather cowardly. "I didn't get this novel, so it's not worth your time either." Why put limits on cultural exploration?

Acacia said...

I'm an art historian and get the same attitude about modern art. When something is a classic read in school or a work of art in a gallery or museum, and the viewer/reader doesn't understand or appreciate it, they feel stupid. This makes them defensive so the book becomes "overrated" or stupid and the people who like it are elitist. There is a depressing increase in this type of parochialism in our culture.

I wanted to kick the sexist commenter and his "sorry ladies" before dismissing Jane Austen.

odessa said...

this article reminds me of the feeling that i had when i learned that snookie (of the jersey shores fame) has landed yet another book deal. yep. i haven't read her book but from what i've seen on a single episode of jersey shores, its enough to make me want to throw up at the thought that a)people are getting paid A LOT to get drunk and trashed and b)they actually get book deals out of it. *sigh*

and yes, this article was clearly meant to be provocative. reading it gave me a headache. but thank you for this post though, it reminded me about something that i've wanted to write about since last month.

Mandy said...

Very well-written and great points! Happy I stumbled upon your blog.

hila said...

rebeccak: I enjoyed reading some of the comments too (although some of them were about as idiotic as the article itself).

siubhan: I hope so too, that would be such a disservice to readers.

gwyneth: perhaps this particular 'journalist' should have discouraged people from reading his/her article too?

cinta/sepi/sayu: yes, how cowardly is it to claim that classic literature is 'overrated' while hiding behind anonymity. It reminds me of nasty anonymous comments on blogs.

lyndall: I have a headache from this article too! and I agree with you: there shouldn't be judgement placed upon books, whether they are classics or not.

danielle: I know! It was just so sweepingly negative and made so many unsupported generalisations. Also, there is a similar level of anti-intellectualism in Australia. I find it very frustrating.

pdl: yes, that's exactly it - if the article approached the topic from a perspective of dismantling or questioning the idea of a canon, than I would have understood it's point. As it is, it just reads as a rather immature attempt at provocation. And I don't make fun of tv shows and more 'popular' literature, because I enjoy some of them :)

anabela/fieldguided: ekk, yes! I really hated eat pray love - not because it was popular, but because it was so condescending.

sally: yes, this is half-arsed journalism, at best ;) and I definitely feel the pressure of anti-intellectualism where I live. It's like if you dare to be too 'smart' or educated, particularly as a woman, people assume there's something wrong with you.

amelia: yes, I'm noticing that too: anything that's 'too long', 'too difficult', or generally requires some active participation on the reader's part is considered 'pretentious' these days. Sigh.

hila said...

cantaloupe: that's really interesting, it never occurred to me that my use of lower case on this blog would be interpreted in this way. That's definitely not the case, I have other, particular reasons for it :) Anyway, yes, I agree with your point about people making fun of other books they consider to be 'lowbrow' - it can be just as bad as people calling classics 'overrated'. I don't see the point of either. I personally don't like Twilight for its gender politics, not because it's popular - that's a whole different case.

sarah: yeah! that's the best bit of the book.

sasha: I really just want to see more interesting books reviews. I'm so sick of these lists being used in place of proper engagement with a book.

e.: thanks, I'll look for a copy of it. It doesn't make you sound pretentious, just honest. I feel that way too sometimes.

sj: yes, and it's becoming a bit pathetic really. It kind of reminds me of an email I got from someone who said they loved the images on my blog, but my posts were too long. Um, ok then. Way to miss the point of my blog!

ella: exactly, I'd like to know who this person is to decide for us what is 'overrated'! How silly.

lola is beauty/claire: ha, that would have been a more accurate title for the article :)

nancy: it's boring, but it's growing :(

bronwyn: that's the feeling I got from the article and its overwhelming tone of arrogance: that whoever wrote this was just imposing their rather limited taste upon us. Why give such stupidity a voice?

olga: I just got angry reading it. So angry - it still bothers me.

liza: yes, exactly why put limits? why not discuss rather than dismiss? That's what an adult would do.

acacia: I wanted to kick that sexist commenter too! Obviously he can also write better than Jane Austen? And I agree, I am getting sick of the 'pretentious' and 'elitist' tags associated with classic literature and those who read it. A bit of a history lesson is in order here as most of the literature we consider to be 'classic' was the popular and radical literature of its time. Seems so silly to call it elitist now.

odessa: you're kidding right? Oh, that makes me feel so sick - if I had known that all it took to get a book contract was get drunk (and get implants), than I could have saved myself yaers of hard work. Just kidding :)

Mandy: thank you!

Carolina said...

Thank you so much for sharing this. I heartily agree with your opinion regarding even the existence of such an article.

I'm frustrated by many of the comments on the article as well. There is so much pretentiousness towards art going on it seems. It's as if people have forgot the journey that comes with exploring any art form and appreciating the work the creator put into exploring the medium. A work doesn't have to be a favorite to be appreciated for what it is.

I've read books that didn't secure a location on my favorites list. That doesn't mean reading them was a waste of time.

naomemandeflores said...

So sad and stupid! I was shocked to see that the article generated a lot of sympathetic comments. Devastating.

Bozena Wojtaszek said...

Great post! Personally I guess, that the articel from HP was a provocation, but even if it was a bad idea. It would be good some 30-40 years ago because then it would be clear it's not serious. Now things look differently and we (I mean modern society) desperately need speaking out loudly things like those brought in your post. Yes, intelect is good, thinking is even better and reading is a must.
BTW - great blog!!!!

CloudyKim said...

Woah, I totally agree! I feel like this dumbing down is happening everywhere, but for some reason, some people find it so easy to attack books. Books are doing pretty well, but I think that, in the years to come, reading will become a popular habit to have. It's a feeling I have :) But then again, I'd also like to believe that writers will end up looking like rock stars in some respects, but we'll have to wait on that one, haha.

hila said...

carolina: I couldn't have put it better myself. Some of the comments are really good, but there are also too many naff ones.

camila: I know me too! I also saw this article posted on various book club and publishers websites with a lot of sympathetic comments. I'm just frustrated with the whole thing.

bozena: thank you! and yes, it seems that today whoever screams the loudest and is the most popular is considered a 'journalist'.

cloudykim: ha, authors used to be rock stars, back in the day :) I ultimately think the article was also coming from a rather arrogant position: I mean, the author just appoints him/herself as a supreme judge of literature and presumes to tell us what is 'overrated'. And we don't even know who he/she actually is. Seems a bit ridiculous.