Classics Envy: Why No Book Is Better Than The Next

Photo by Michael Fritz.

Sam Beckett. Photo by Michael Fritz.

Thought they are facts, and highly intuitive ones at that, reading a novel doesn’t necessarily offer more mental benefits than watching a film, and reading a short story isn’t guaranteed to make you a better person than an episode of your favorite TV show. If the relationship between readers and literature was that simple and self-aggrandizing, book critics would be falling over left and right from persistent genital arousal disorder. I did not understand any of this until roughly halfway through university.

In university, I was the kind of English major that looked down on “trashy” fiction for being what it is: easy, popularly-themed reading that hopefully appeals to everyone and your grandma. Authors like Grisham, Patterson, and Coelho didn’t deserve to be called literature because their aesthetics lacked complexity, and their books too-much resembled the products of an assembly line. These authors were, in a sense, garbage.

Where did I first encounter these views? The likely answer is through my fascination with literary theory, the writers of which still hold the places in my psyche that many tend to reserve for rock stars and celebrities. Their personal lives aside, I took reading suggestions from Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon, I read Derrida like he was the Oracle of Delphi, and Barthes, well, his style and grace just couldn’t be matched. The logical consequence of believing in and defending a theorist’s teachings is thinking that whoever disagrees is wrong. Now, Derrida never said Danielle Steel’s novels were shit, and Barthes thought a lot of well-respected books were– Bloom, it’s worth remembering, reserves his wrath for Harry Potter and Stephen King; the connection between lit theory and looking down on grocery-store-rack fiction is the presence you keep: People that write about books write about the ones that offer the most mileage; your Austen, your Proust, your Beckett, and your Kafka require a considerable amount more unraveling than the latest Alex Cross thriller. Comparatively, does that mean The Metamorphosis will do you more good than bad? Clearly not. If the relationship between high-literature, an aptitude for learning, and the smooth development of the self was that straightforward, Jackie Collins wouldn’t be allowed near a television studio. And the issue is well beyond different books appealing to different people, because a love for the classics doesn’t preclude a love for what is perceived as kitsch.

‘Appeal’ may not be the right word. Mere interest isn’t what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about life-paths, and passing fancies are but small fragments of their multifoliate makeup. Whichever books you dare crack open, the only way to guarantee they affect you to their fullest degree is to read them without preconceptions; in this way, Twilight and Waiting for Godot are essentially the same. 

Roland Barthes. Photo by Aly.

Roland Barthes. Photo by Aly.