Whenever I need a good laugh, if I don’t have a funny book close at hand, I tend to go take a look at one-star reviews of classics on Amazon. And boy, are they funny. The most humorous are the dogmatic ones that apparently have discovered the true quality of any given classic, contrary to the majority of thought on the subject. But whenever I look at these I’m always left slightly sad, at the same time as being amused. The attitude taken by many reviewers, and sadly, on occasion, myself, is that the quality of a book is up to the reviewer.
They are the ultimate arbiters of all that is good in the world of fiction. They are the ones who have the experience and taste to discern the good from the bad. It makes me wonder why we don’t accept that, in all likelihood, classics probably have something that makes them worth reading.
I think it might be appropriate, here, to point out several of the most enjoyable examples of this dogmatism.
The Old Man and the Sea Amazon Reviews:
“I will admit that Ernest Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea has some compelling thoughts, but the only way I could accurately describe this book is “SnoozeFest 1952” or “That Awkward Moment When you are Holding a Book to Make it Appear Like you are Awake.” After reading this novel, I finally understand Pulitzer Prize criteria: not falling asleep during the most boring novel read within a certain year.”
“The only exciting thing in the whole book was when the sharks appeared. I cared so little for all the characters especially the old man I hoped they were going to eat the old man. But nope they ate his stupid marlin instead. When the reader is hoping for the “hero” to die your book sucks.”
“The book has no point except that humans keep fighting no matter what. The old man is catching a fish for about 80 of the 127 pages. It’s a very bad book that shouldn’t have ever been published.”
Beowulf Amazon Reviews:
“We spend the entire early years of education helping children love reading. They get to high school and we undo all the good with books like this.”
“Yes I suppose some would argue that this novel carries much culture and tradition with it, but give me a break! Jazz up the translation a bit and use language that REAL people can understand!!!!! Or don’t waste your time!!!! Unless you suffer from an extreme case of insomnia, suicidal depression, or sheer boredom, don’t come anywhere near this book!”
My Favorites are these, reviews of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories:
“An endless parade of moronic, seemingly sub-human characters. Four hours of torture, then I tossed it.”
“I read a couple of the short stories and found them to be a bit disturbing. Not at all what I expected. I do not need to have a “happy ever after” ending to stories but I read as an escape into anothter world. [sic] I did not enjoy visiting the world through Flannery O’Connor’s eyes. Sorry.”
There’s just a small sampling (and if you want more, this post provides a very nice collection of negative reviews of Fahrenheit 451) here, but enough to give you the picture. I find them amusing, but as I’ve already mentioned, also extremely sad. So again I ask, why do people refuse to accept that a classic may contain something that they just haven’t seen?
I should pause here, and point out that I am by no means completely excused from this fault. I have to remind myself constantly that the value and quality of a classic is not up to me. These types of posts are a way I remind myself, and hopefully get the thought out there.
I’ve written about this before, on why you should give a book a chance, but I want to elaborate on that. See, what I wrote about there had more to do with the approach one takes to a book, rather than what happens after one has finished that book. While I still do hold to what I wrote there–that it’s important to approach a story humbly–I want to say something else regarding our thinking about classics after we’ve read them.
And to write about this, I need the help of W.H. Auden.
Auden divided books up into five categories that my English teacher introduced me to, and I find incredibly helpful. Auden suggested that when we review books we divide them up into five categories: good books we don’t like, good books we like, books we neither like nor dislike, bad books we like, and bad books we don’t like.
The reason I’ve found this scale to be a helpful way to view books is because it allows for several things. First, it allows the reader to recognize that a book is good, but they simply did not enjoy it. This takes the humble approach to literature, and extends it to when we are reflecting on literature. Instead of judging our own personal tastes as the ultimate arbiter of everything good, it ensures that we view classics in what is probably a better light.
Sure, no one is demanding that you love every book ever considered a classic. I’m not a huge fan of Pride and Prejudice, and probably wouldn’t willingly choose to read it again. But that doesn’t mean that Pride and Prejudice isn’t a classic, or that it’s “less good,” if you will, than other classics.
All it means is that I don’t care for it.
The second thing Auden’s scale allows for is us to like bad stories. Sometimes, while we recognize that a book isn’t necessarily quality literature, we still enjoy it. And in and of itself, I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with that. But instead of having to defend everything we like as a quality book, Auden’s scale allows us to say, “you know what, I know what I’m reading isn’t good, but it is enjoyable.”
And perhaps this is what the one-star reviewers are missing. Because what Auden does, fundamentally, is separate the objective quality of a book with someone’s subjective experience of that book. Our experience of a book doesn’t determine it’s quality, and neither does the quality of a book necessarily determine our experience (though it often does). Ultimately, what Auden’s scale seems to do is allow a better conversation occur surrounding any given book. Instead of a battle over the quality of a classic, it might be more beneficial to have a discussion about a certain person’s taste, or why they didn’t enjoy the book.
And perhaps, along the way, someone will discover that they actually did really enjoy a classic. That’s happened to me several times, where I walked into a class either disliking or apathetic about a classic we had just read, and after the class, after discussing the book and what it means, I saw what the book had to offer and truly began to enjoy it.
But note, the book did not become a good book when I started to enjoy it. Classics don’t need my affirmation. Maybe that’s what it boils down to, then. Classics stand by themselves, it is our enjoyment of them that can change. So, to all the one-star Amazon reviewers, I’d like to request that next time you sit down to write a scathing review of a classic that contradicts the majority of thought on said subject, and provides fodder for posts like these, do one thing.
Take a step back. And give the book a chance.