Last Friday on Salon.com, Jeanette Domain shared her experience sifting through the amateur reviewer comments (I’m hesitant to call them “reviews” as most don’t follow any professionally accepted format) on Amazon.com for various classic works of literature. To Kill a Mockingbird was considered a blatant stereotype, Jane Eyre was boring readers to death with description, 1984 was summarily dismissed as soon as Winston began having a relationship, Where the Wild Things Are was too violent and promoted bad behavior in children, and even the Bible was lampooned by one reader (though I’m comfortable believing that review was intended to be read as a joke, regardless of how I feel about the work). Each was subject to harsh, one star ratings and reviews by everyday readers.
This brought to mind an incident I wrote about a few years ago (”What if Poe were in your Creative Writing Class?” 4/9/07), where Joshua Bell stood in plain clothes, a DC metro station playing on a Stradivarius for 43 minutes, only to be routinely ignored.
The question still stands. What constitutes a masterpiece, or classic work of art, be it musical, visual, or written? Is it the consensus of the masses? If so, then how was it that Bell only made a whopping $32 and change? Shouldn’t everyone listening to one of the world’s greatest violinist play classical music stop and be awe struck? If the masses didn’t recognize it, then how can it be a genius work, or how can the violinist be a virtuoso? Who decides what’s worthy?
My question is the same for literature. I’m not going to pretend that Shakespeare is the be-all-end-all of literary masters, but I appreciate his work. I could make an argument for you that his popularity is a direct result of the machinations of the crown and custom. Even today using knowledge of his works as an intellectual status symbol is a direct result of those initial pushes of his work.
How many of you read Romeo and Juliet at some point through your Pre-college schooling? The Scarlet Letter? How about Antigone, or A Tale of Two Cities? Why should you have been forced to read those particular works? You were told they were all classics and masterpieces, and that they had heavy impact on society or literature. Does that mean if you don’t like them, you’re a philistine?
I can admit, I hate Lord of the Flies. I think the writing is atrocious, the story is bland, and I can’t be bothered to even reread it a second time. When I mention this in public I get a very strange response. For the most part, outside of academia or a group of literary enthusiasts, I receive an expression of shock and horror. Inside the walls of academia, I get nods of agreement, or a lively debate to illustrate my point.
So I’m curious. What classic work do you dislike that has been thrust in your face as a masterpiece (Consider music, literature, art, or dance — I hate modern dance too, for the most part. Sorry.). And are you embarrassed to admit it in social circles?