I wonder why so much of “literature” is so boring. Once I read Moby Dick. This is considered to be one the greatest novels ever written. Yet halfway through the novel I had to put it down due to the strain of perpetual boredom. About six months later I took it up again and finally finished, although I was left wondering why so many academics and critics experience squirting ejaculations while reading this work. Melville takes so many digressions from his story to give us a National Geographic like, detailed account of whaling that I nearly impaled myself on whatever instrument resembling a harpoon I came across, which fortunately was none. Still, I found little pleasure in reading this book, except for a few passages here and there.
I once read Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs and found it utterly enthralling, entertaining and delightful. It was a complete contrast to the dull and ponderous Melville. So this made me wonder why so many of the “great works of literature” are so completely dull and difficult to read, while those of the more popular sort are so much more delightful to read.
I really do not know, and admit this is a completely subjective view. There are plenty of others who enjoy reading these things. However, when it comes to reading fiction, there is one small fact that needs to be addressed, and it is this:
Most statistics show that about 80% of all readers of novels are women. This is true for today, and was most likely similar in the past, although there are no statistics to back this up. We often hear of the criticism in the Nineteenth century about women being corrupted by their Victorian novels. So it is true that women have always made up a large if not great majority of the reading public.
But also in the past, as I have written before, there was a large industry of pulp magazines that appealed directly to male readers. Vigorous and flourishing throughout the first half of the twentieth century, this industry no longer exists. It always fascinates me today that there was once this real and tangible phenomenon, the pulp magazine geared towards men, and that a substantial readership of men existed at one time for fiction, and which has now for the most part faded away. It reveals how men once read for entertainment. Today, with televised sports, video games, and porn, and other avenues for entertainment, this no longer seems to be the case. Sure, there will always be some sort of male readership for fiction, but I would place bets on its small and dwindling numbers. As a matter of fact, if you browse the fiction section of any bookstore, of those that are left, you will see the vast majority of the novels are geared towards women. And I think different desires motivate men and women when it comes to reading fiction.
Men want action. Men want adventure. Men want to be transplanted to strange, heroic, dangerous places where a character can test his limits. Men enjoy reading about unsavory, filthy and amoral characters. Men like violence. Men like sex. Men like beautiful women. These used to be the staple of the old pulp magazines. The girly themes that dominant most modern literature will naturally be devoid of theses qualities.
But I ask myself, why is it that so many of the so called great works of literature in past are often so dull and boring and tedious to read? I think one of the reasons is the academic class that has arisen in the past fifty years or so which dictates to the rest of us what is good and what is not good literature. As Mickey Spillane says, in response to the critics hating his best selling, hard hitting detective novels, “If people like you, your good.” I myself find Spillane a thousand times more enjoyable to read than Melville. The academic class of critics, buttressed by the prestige and aura of Universities, adorned with different degrees, titles and awards, see themselves as the gatekeepers to what is true and honorable in literature. They define for us what is literature. They tell us what we should be reading. They are in the fact that ones who turned reading fiction and stories as a simple source of enjoyment into the more ponderous and obtuse thing called “literature”.
How many young people in high school or colleges have been forever turned away from reading fiction because they had to endure the endless drudgery of reading works that are utterly boring and tedious. There are fewer things more painful than having to read something you find dull and boring. And then, to be told that they are wrong because they find these things boring, and question their value, simply because the priestly class of critics have forever determined that certain works are valuable, while others are not. I simply cannot tell you how many novels I have read that I found utterly dull and boring, but which are considered great and important works of art, while at the same time I have read many novels that, while despised by the critics, I found to be absorbing, entertaining, and very well written, artistic in their own way.
I am not trying to make any sort of definitive statement on these matters, as I said above, each one has his own taste. There are many great and recognized works of literature that are pleasure to read, that are entertaining and engrossing, and plenty of entertaining works of popular fiction that are devoid of artistic merits. But once again my own tastes makes me realize that in reading, as in religion, in the end I need to go with my own instincts, and pursue the things that I enjoy, and not let others define for me what is good, proper and respectable. For me, too much of good, proper and respectable “literature”, the type you might read in a classroom, or promoted by high minded critics, is utterly devoid of excitement and entertainment.
I couldn’t finish Moby Dick and I never got through a single Jane Austen novel – it all just sent me to sleep. I was always more drawn to poetry and plays. Paradise Lost and Dr Faustus were a couple of favourites in my University days. I still like T.S. Eliot a lot, probably one of my all time favourite poets.
I ought to re-read some of that stuff, but most my books (with all my notes written in them) got lost years ago in the mail! Booooo! I so rarely read fiction anymore. I think it needs more quiet time to really get into it but as you say, some of it is just desperately dull. Hmm, perhaps you have inspired me to replace some books…
BTW, well done on your tenacity in finishing that tome! Oy!
Moby Dick is rough due to Melville’s infatuation with describing the science of cetology and the intricate process of whaling, which makes for tragically dull reading, a la Jules Verne.
The story woven into the dullness is actually really exciting and enthralling.
It’s an adventure about a mad sea captain with a vendetta chasing after a giant evil sea monster and dragging a crew of varied, interesting, doomed souls with him. Everyone dies in the end. It’s fantastic.
The reason so-called ‘literature’ is ‘great’ is that you have to work for the greatness. Some of it is just boring, overrated drivel, but much of it is anything but. It takes work to read and enjoy a ‘classic’ just like it takes work to write it. Pop fiction is like pop music: it’s easy to absorb, enjoyable, and ultimately forgettable. There’s nothing wrong with it, but there’s not much substance.
I couldn’t tell you what happened in the Steven King books I’ve read, or the few modern thriller or detective stories I’ve read, but I do remember how I FELT when Ahab was forging his harpoon, or how I laughed when he sailed off from a meet n greet with another ship after asking only his famous ‘Hast seen the White Whale?’.
That’s why literature is great.
Racer X said:
Yes, your point about poetry is a good one. I find poetry more appealing than most fiction, because I love the beauty of language and imagery found in much poetry. Great non fiction prose, such as Walter Pater, is pleasurable to read too. Great fiction can have beautiful language and imagery too.
Thanks for complimenting me on finishing Moby Dick! Yes, it was quite the journey.
Racer X said:
Good point, especially your distinction between great fiction and pop fiction. As far as Moby Dick, I agree that the story behind all the digressions is a great one. The book could have been written in two to three hundred pages.
I’m sure Moby Dick is great if you enjoy long digressions; I am just a bit of an impatient “get to the point” type and don’t enjoy long rambles much. I don’t doubt the fault, if it is one, is with me, and not these particular works of classic literature. I’m also rather lazy, admittedly.
Moby Dick is generally classified as ‘experimental’ fiction for the aforementioned reason. The divergent chapters can be interesting, but they really do go on for far too long. When the story is so great, it gets really frustrating because you just want to get back to it. I suppose it gives you something to look forward to.
If I read it again, I’d skip the sciencey stuff. X is right that the book could have been halved without it. It would have been much more popular, too. (It was a commercial failure when published).
The only time it really works well is when, as I mentioned before, Ahab blows off the meet-up after hearing the other ship doesn’t know anything about the Whale. Melville spends a chapter or so describing the process of how two whaling ships, having been on the sea for months without sighting another vessel, get all excited when they meet another, toss cables over to secure the ships together, and make all of these elaborate preparations for what amounts to a big party.
Racer X said:
Thanks, you add more good points. Yes, that meeting of Ahab with other whaling vessel is a great scene in the book.
Racer X said:
I can understand the impatient, get to the point type, especially when it comes to choosing what to read. I don’t like long digressions in book either.
I’ve always found it ironic that Shakespeare is considered great work by the academics though his plays were mostly entertainment for the proles. But I did hate analyzing it in tedious detail, especially as a person with an engineering and science bent.
Racer X said:
Great point. Shakespeare would be shocked today that his plays are so thoroughly analyzed. He considered his Sonnets and other poems, such as Venus and Adonis, his more high brow poetry, written for the more learned classes, and his play were mere entertainment for the proles and a means of making a living, seeing he was in the theater business. his plays are great, and I think they are great because he wrote them so freely, without worrying about their reception by later generation. IT allowed him to write in beautiful language on many scandalous topics. The Puritans hated him, as proven by the fact that after Cromwell they shut down the theaters for twenty years.
I’ve always considered Shakespeare overrated.
Pretty words, boring stories. I’d enjoy it acted, not read. Reading plays is silly for so many reasons. That’s like reading Mozart sheet music. You’re missing the most important part.
Analyzing literature is especially stupid. It’s completely arbitrary and tedious. That we all are made to do this nonsense in school is most of the reason literature is thought to be dull. People learn to see old books as scholarly texts and not stories, which is what they are.
Not to mention the fixation with Russian literature. Those kids were the most long-winded, tedious, surly bastards to ever have lived. Even Chekhov goes on.
Racer X said:
I agree with you about the tediousness of analyzing literature. Most people are turned off to good literature, or reading in general, because of the distaste they found in schools when being forced to do this.
As far as Shakespeare, he may or may not be overrated as far as the quality of his plays on the whole. As far as his poetic powers, I do think he is unmatched. His poetry is truly magical, and I could read it all day long without getting bored.
And as far as Russian literature, yeah, I never really cared for it. Books that are a thousand pages long…I don’t have the patience for that.
I’ve never read much of Shakespeare’s poetry. I’ve never enjoyed the sonnet.
Walt Whitman is the Poet, as far as I’m concerned. But his work is very different from Shakespeare’s.
Good books always end too soon. I’ve read Infinite Jest five times and I still wish it went on for another thousand. Same with Monte Cristo. I tossed War and Peace after four hundred…then bullshitted and A minus on the term paper. Surprisingly easy. Apparently my english teacher never made it past four hundred, either.
Racer X said:
I have always enjoyed his sonnets, but I particularly enjoy the poetry in many of his plays. His use of imagery and sounds is amazing. His feel for the language was unlike anyone else. There is a casual naturalness to his metered verse which is quite appealing to me.
However, appreciation of poetry is very subjective, so what one person enjoys, another may not like.
And yes, I agree good books end too soon. The mark of a good book is you are sad when it is over because you want to read more about the story or characters. Unfortunately too much of the canon of “great literature” lacks this aspect. Usually you cannot wait to put the book down, if you even get to that point. Again, I think of Moby Dick.