(How’s this for the perfect Valentine’s Day topic? LOL)
What do you do when you read a book that everyone says is a classic, but you didn’t like it at all? People whose opinion you respect rave about the book, but you don’t see it. Here’s my advice for the situation.
Go ahead and hate it.
Are you afraid people will think less of you? It might happen. Hang on and I’ll give you a way to deal with that. But first, let’s get serious about our right to hate the classics.
I’ll go first.
“Humboldt’s Gift” is a Pulitzer prize-winning novel by one of the great writers of the 20th Century, Saul Bellow. About ten years ago I started a process of expanding my reading pool. I was looking for books I didn’t automatically reach for when I needed a new read. Bellow’s book showed up on several “great book” lists, so I gave it a try. My rule of thumb is that I give any book 100 pages to win me over. Author’s should get the chance to develop their style, their storytelling techniques and develop their world. 100 pages is an arbitrary number, but it has been a useful standard for me. The inspiration for the standard is Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles”. I started the book three, four, five times? I never got past page 32. This was before I fell in love with Bradbury’s writing (it’s possible this was the first of his works I read). For whatever reason, the book didn’t draw me in. One day I decided I would finish it, one way or the other. The rest is history. I vowed to always give an author room to work before I walked away. “The Martian Chronicles” is a short book, probably not a lot longer than 100 pages. For a novel length story, I chose the century mark for pages.
At 100 pages Bellow’s writing intrigued me but the storytelling frustrated me. It hadn’t grabbed me, and by my own standards I should have closed the covers and moved on. But it was a CLASSIC. It was a GREAT BOOK by a GREAT ATUHOR. I was sure I just hadn’t made the adjustment needed to appreciate the story and it would get better.
Let me cut to the end. It didn’t. The main character was annoying, we didn’t find out what the gift in the title was until three quarters of the way through the book, and it was a stupid gift. Utterly not worth the wait or the investment of my reading time. I was so aggravated during the last quarter of the book that my wife all but begged me to drop it. After repeated outbursts of “I HATE this <bleeping> book” she was right. I should have walked away. Instead, I can say I’ve read the book, and it’s become a watchword for endurance without reward.
So, I promised a way to deal with folks who can’t believe you didn’t love the book (or movie, or TV show or whatever. This works for all of them). It comes in two steps.
Don’t make your opinion more than it is. Don’t declare the work as “awful” if you haven’t seen it the whole way to the end. It’s pretentious and egotistical. “It didn’t grab me, couldn’t finish it” is more than enough. Rejecting the work completely when you haven’t experienced that way makes you look like a fraud when the fact is discovered. Be honest about your experience and then go to-
Know the “why” of your opinion. I will never say that Bellow is a bad writer. I will say in this book I found his storytelling technique unappealing, his main character a weak and unattractive person, and the object of the story (the “gift”) to be something I didn’t care about. Other people can disagree, but I can feel secure that I’ve gone beyond the “It sucks” level.
You are certain to run into some people who will inform you that your opinion is wrong, or that you didn’t understand the book. These people are pompous asses and you are free to ignore them. Is it possible you missed the point? Sure. As a general rule, I consider that a failing of the author. If I have given the work my attention, and given the author the room to do what they want to do, and I still didn’t “get” the work, that’s their fault. If reader told me the same thing about my writing, it would be my fault.
So read “Great Books”. Give them the chance to tell you their story. And if it comes to it, go ahead and hate them.