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Articles > Student Life November, 03, 2015

English Literature – Why Are We Reading This Pretentious Rubbish?

Josh Davies
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Many a time, whilst sitting in GCSE or A-level classes, students have been forced into reading and listening to various tales of mice and men and learning why the salesman died. These ‘classics’ and so called ‘great literary masterpieces’ have been burned into the tired minds of students for decades.

Read Adam Young’s response to this article HERE.
Of mice and men - good literature or pretentious rubbish?

Love or loathe English literature?

Essay after grueling essay was produced, explaining how the curtains were blue because the house was sad and that ‘Curley’s wife’ wore a red dress to show that she was dangerous. But what if she didn’t? What if she simply wore the red dress because she liked it? Is it so unfeasible that a woman walked down the street, saw a red dress and decided ‘you know what, I like that’?

I’m not sure what everyone else thinks, but I personally don’t cross the road when I see a woman in a red dress approaching, nor do I watch the ‘Special K’ advert and think that the actress is about to beat someone to death with her breakfast spoon!

The simple fact of the matter is that if we don’t judge people like this in real life, then why should we judge them this way in books? I mean, the whole point of a fictional novel is to create an imitation of reality is it not? However, despite all of this we are told that John Steinbeck dressed Curley’s wife in a red dress to show that she was dangerous and seeing as we can hardly ask him ourselves whether or not that was his intention, we may as well stop complaining about it.

After all, passing the exam is what is important nowadays, so let’s all just accept the fact that Steinbeck must have had some traumatic, near-death experience involving a red dress in his earlier life.

But my rant isn’t over yet. I am personally studying English Literature at A Level and I am currently reading post 1980’s texts on ‘the struggle for identity.’ I know right? Yawn… but as if that wasn’t bad enough, when being told I could choose any wider reading I wanted for my exam I thought ‘Great! The Hunger Games and Skulduggery Pleasant it is then!’ However, after a long and rather heated discussion with my teacher I was told that these books are what is known as ‘pop fiction’ and generally speaking aren’t considered great literature or taken very seriously in the writing world and so couldn’t be used in the exam.

That got me thinking, who decides what makes ‘great literature’ and what doesn’t? Personally speaking I’d much rather read the works of J.K. Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’ and Michael Grant’s ‘Gone’ series over ‘Educating Rita’ and Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ any day of the week. And maybe that puts me in the minority, but judging by the sales figures I imagine that I’m probably not.

For those of you who disagree, let me spin it to you this way.Whilst I concede that ‘Educating Rita’ contains some great pieces writing and if I’m honest, I enjoyed ‘Of Mice and Men’, the fact is neither have been able to compete with the sales numbers and enjoyment factor of the likes of ‘The Hunger Games’, ‘Harry Potter’ and to a certain extent even the ‘Twilight’ series.

And to me, I personally find these sort of so called ‘pop fiction’ books far more enjoyable than novels such as ‘The Colour Purple’ and ‘Beloved’, both of which include some rather graphic and distasteful scenes and one even contains a mother who saws off her own child’s head within the first ten pages! And who wants to read about that?

But I digress; my personal opinion is that what makes good literature is a matter of opinion. If a piece of writing gives some enjoyment to the reader, it is good literature, no matter how ‘pop’ like it is. I mean at the end of the day if people enjoy it, then that’s what good writing is all about… isn’t it?

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  1. Adam J Young

    Don’t worry folks. I’ve wrote a rebuttal.

  2. Asfandyar Solang

    I think the reason why we are forced to read these books is because if we had harry potter or some other popular piece of fiction, we’d just watch the movies and not even bother with reading.

  3. Lemor Cruiel

    As far as truly good “classics” go, Arthur C Clarke has written some excellent science fiction, I would suggest that some of them would be a much worthier texts to read. Especially because in many of his novels if you understand the science of the situation you can predict what’s coming next from little clues he leaves (like the higher back wall on the lake in his first “rama” novel). It’s the sort of fiction which inspires, and what’s more inspires people towards scientific interests, which is what people would benefit from reading. People in schools need to be inspired towards scientific study in their later educational career, the choice of materials being read should be designed to do this.

  4. Rob

    Frankly the title of this novel (of mice and men)is wasted on what it is, it would have made SUCH a great title for a thriller about genetic engineering. I had to read it at school and hated every word of it, wish that title had been put to better use, such potental in the title, such a rubbish novel between the covers.

  5. Darrian Quigg

    If you didn’t like English Lit then why keep it on for A-level? I find that silly. Though I wasn’t good at explaining or going into detail about the symbolisms in the book, I personally loved reading the books. If I saw the book in a library I wouldn’t bother picking it up. However, now that I’ve read them in class, I personally enjoy them.
    I understand that the picking at everything and explaining it in great detail is incredibly tedious and destroys the joy you have for the book or maybe the book isn’t your thing.
    Maybe not every single thing has symbolism. Maybe the curtains are blue because it is the author’s favourite colour. However the books listed above do have deeper meanings about society at the time or maybe the author is disagreeing with how things are done now a days and this is their way to express that.
    I find some courses don’t read things like Harry Potter because it’s a pretty thick book and you do have less than a year to read it in class, look into it and do all the other work for it and other topics so it doesn’t leave you much time to read it all and understand it properly.
    To sum up I both agree and disagree with this.

  6. John Halkett

    I think…that the writer makes a lot of good valid points that I agree with. Good writing is subjective and if you are connecting then that is all. I recall having an opinion and saying things like…well if you ask me what I think, problem was no one asked ….so I gave it anyway…good stuff…

  7. KIRA JARVIS

    I think…we do need to do English but when will we PEE again, only if you do English at a higher level.

  8. Angus Buck

    I have to disagree with the entire first half of this article. Fiction is not supposed to “create an imitation of reality” – Harry Potter takes place in a world of magic, Hunger Games is a little closer to some place’s reality than anyone would like to admit but systematic murder of children is still nothing like our day-to-day life, and I can’t say I’ve ever met a vampire or werewolf. But more significantly, fiction is often for adventures and stories we can’t live in real life – if we wrote reality, no-one would read it, when you could live your own.

    And as to red dresses and blue curtains, this also differs from reality. (I’m a Maths guy, but I did very well in English, so I think the bulk of my argument should be correct.) Authors and creators use symbolism all the time, it’s part of the storytelling process. Think of the purple and green light, or shadows, surrounding Disney’s baddies – even kids can instantly tell they’re the evil ones, that’s entirely the point. Can you imagine if they were doing their evil deeds in bright yellow aura – it feels wrong, doesn’t it? Or imagine a wedding scene beginning with crows cawing and flying off – it screams out to you that something’s going to go wrong. It’s more subtle, but just because it’s subtle and subconscious doesn’t mean it doesn’t add to the effect. I watched Memento for English, and the blue everywhere did mimic Leonard’s sadness – a yellow car and pink hotel just wouldn’t have fitted in. I didn’t notice until my teacher pointed it out, but it added to the atmosphere all the same.

    I haven’t read many (any?) classics before, but I don’t doubt they lack the gripping power of Harry Potter or The Hunger Games to most people. But, English isn’t about how gripping something is plot-wise (no high school would force ‘authorship classes’ on everyone up to fifth year), but it’s about those creative techniques which impress people and let you communicate better – metaphors, symbolism, persuasive language all contribute to that, whether the recipient notices or not.

    It works everywhere – even in the Special K adverts you mentioned. As well as danger, red also symbolises sexuality, and everyone knows how much advertising uses attractive (at least) people to advertise products. You feel happy that you’re looking at a pretty person, the red amplifies their prettiness/hotness, and when you see the Special K in the shops, you remember the pleasure you got from watching the advert and hence buy the cereal.

    I think Adam J Young’s article covers most of the other more practical points, but I wanted to give a defense of English itself. Perhaps we should say the HP/THG are great stories, but it’s these things which make a text great literature.

  9. Cara Jackson

    I have recently just finished my A level and studied ‘the struggle for an identity’ however we were studying this from modern literature. Although I agree that there is not right or wrong answer as to what makes great literature and that it should be up to each reader to enjoy literature as they please I have to agree that there are certain books which aren’t as suitable as others for studying in school. In a modern society the meaning and loved behind literature that was shared by Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Thomas Hardy and those alike has been lost. Sadly now a lot of writers motivations behind writing is money orientated and therefore these people focus more so on creating a plot with lots of twists rather than creating an informing or emotionally engaging novel. I do believe that there are writers out there who are perfectly capable of works as engaging and artful as that of Sylvia Plath etc. however unfortunately these aren’t always the authors who sell the most as great literature isn’t seen as the art form it once was. Society lacks the patience and care to read in depth and discover the meaning behind why novelists write in such ways or their messages behind this instead they would rather a one off easy go interesting page turner; than something which may stay with them forever and be considered art. Henceforth this is why I believe students shouldn’t be allowed to study just any piece of literature after all this would be the likes of ‘fifty shades of grey’ would be eligible. Despite the fact that this not only discredits the study of literature but it also puts the student at a disadvantage. Writing an essay on a piece of fiction which is solely nothing other than a story-line won’t provide the opportunity to earn as many marks as a piece with more meaning behind it.

  10. Sarah Jones

    As an A-Level student myself, I find myself agreeing with you about having to read dated ‘classics’ with their hard-to-understand language, strange spelling and having to comsider context and attitudes constantly. It’s difficult, time consuming and most of the time its very, very boring when you don’t know what the author’s on about! However, I still believe that books like ‘Inspector Calls’ and ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley are absolutely essential for a budding english student to study. ‘Pop fiction’ is for extra-curricular reading. Period-century literature is for the classroom and I think it’s important to make us understand it; it’s a crucial part of history and those books have shaped how authors write today.

  11. James Murray

    I actually really enjoy most of the classics recommended to students. Reading literature from the era is great if you want to know more about the author’s time, so it’s win-win for students doing English and history. Plus some of the books are really, really good, when you abandon the tired student mindset and just read them for fun. The Great Gatsby became the most famous American novel for a reason you know, they didn’t just decide “oh yeah, this will confuse an English class in eighty years, make it a classic.”

  12. extremereading

    While literature may inspire, it often does other things too – it is informative, insightful and gives the writer’s angle on something of interest to him/her. I good book may move the reader and arouse many different emotions and I’m sure there is even more which I’ve not mentioned. However, the purpose of a book of fiction [modern, old, classical or pop] is not to inspire children to take up science [or anything else for that matter] no matter how desirable that may seem. Literature studied in schools and universities is not designed to manipulate the readers; in that context it has other purposes.

  13. Maihvish Iqbal

    Yepp ‘Pop’ fiction is perhaps the most enjoyable out of the two, yet Literature is the one that equips you with extra knowledge and is the one that is most valued. You learn to think more logically and critically and you become much better at detailed analysis of such work. If you think about it, you might need these skills at university and so trying to improve this at A-level is beneficial. In short, “Literature offers students the opportunity to discover, think, evaluate, and analyze the world around them in broader, more universal terms”.