Why Is Literature So Bad?

It’s terrible! You can’t argue that it’s good.

Now it’s well written, thoughtful, insightful, and jam packed with meaning.

But it’s terrible!

I think you’ll agree. Hear me out.

What did you read in high school? I’m guessing some or all of the following (my nota benes in parentheses):

  1. Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare. (Death of title characters and sword wielding testosterony young men)
  2. Macbeth by Shakespeare. (Death of title character…and, nearly everyone else.)
  3. Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. (Slavery, hypocrisy, hucksterism, family feuds)
  4. Julius Caesar by Shakespeare. (Death of title character and assorted Romans)
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. (Prejudice, Jim Crow, hypocrisy, death of Jim…and Bob Ewell thank goodness.)
  6. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (Adultery, puritanism, and all that jazz)
  7. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. (Death of Crooks’ dog, rabbit, Curly’s wife, and Lenny)
  8. Hamlet by Shakespeare. (Death of Hamlet, his girlfriend, his family, Rosencrantz and Gildenstern, and much of Scandinavia.)
  9. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Death of Jay Gatz[by])
  10. Lord of the Flies by William Golding. (Death of pilot, Piggy, and a bunch of public school lads)

This is the list of the top ten books taught in American high schools, according to the Center for Learning and Teaching of Literature.

Terrible!  Tragedy death suicide cruelty slavery Jim Crow prejudice regicide suicide demagoguery adultery. Well these books aren’t all bad. Huck stands up for Jim; Malcolm and Fortinbras set the states back in order. And of course there’s Atticus Finch.

Okay, I’ll admit, I love all these books…well maybe not The Scarlet Letter. I’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird at least ten times, having taught it to 7th graders for more than a decade. 

I think one reason we live in a time of unprecedented democracy, human rights, peace, health, and prosperity is because of the novel. Before novels were written and printed for home consumption, readers didn’t go deeply into the lives and heads of people unlike themselves. This is a very good thing, an idea shared by many scholars, including Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature.

I’m all for enjoying and studying literature. I love Fitzgerald’s writing in The Great Gatsby. I love Shakespeare. At my last teaching gig I had my fifth graders perform a shortened version of Macbeth every year. They loved it. Especially all the murder parts (i.e., the whole play). And To Kill a Mockingbird ends in sweet uplift as the gentle oddball saves Jem and Scout.

On the other hand, none of these books take place in a world you’d like to live in. My favorite characters from these works-Jim, Tom, Lenny, Boo, Piggy–are misfits in an unfeeling world mown down by the powerful. It’s good literature. It’s important to learn about this stuff. But I don’t think this is what happens to the vast majority of us; it does seem to happen in most of the great books we read.

If these are the books our children, read, read, read, and are taught to revere, what will they learn from the themes and (mostly) tragic outcomes? Weirdos are mistreated by society…always have, always will?

What I suggest is unreasonable, but I’ll propose it anyway: balance.

The website Goodreads posts 250 works of “uplifting fiction.” Like most aggregated web lists, it is spotty in parts but pretty helpful. The authors of the top nine books listed are women (interesting!). This fact may reflect who posts on Goodreads rather than any truism that “men write depressing books; women write uplifting books,” but it’s food for thought. Pride and Prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Jane Eyre, indisputable classics, were near the top of the list. There were some other nuggets sprinkled further down the list, including A Room with a View, The Princess Bride, and many of Shakespeare’s comedies, which got me thinking. Shakespeare’s tragedies are favored in high school book lists. I was assigned none of the Bard’s comedies in high school and college, but I read Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Romeo and Juliet. Is the literature of comedy underrepresented? We all use humor to draw closer to friends and make light of hardships. How many of us have been marooned with schoolboys on a desert island? Ever float down the Mississippi on a raft?

I’m not worried that we’ll suddenly chuck all the great, dark works of literature. Shakespeare will always have his place, and every kid (and adult) should read and reread To Kill a Mockingbird. But I think we should read more books that reflect our humanity, not just our inhumanity.

2 thoughts on “Why Is Literature So Bad?

  1. Yes, I did indeed read almost all of those in high school. I remember enjoying some of them, but not all. Certainly they are considered classics, and I would agree that they are mostly good study tools. But I have to wonder why we don’t explore more recent works in school. Certainly kids do outside of school. I know I did. There are GREAT books being written all the time. Why isn’t some of that literature studied?

    This is just my opinion…but I do think sometimes “great” literature is considered great because it is old and/or dark and “deep”. I’ve read some recent novels that I thought were terrific, only to find out that they were labeled “fluff” or “great beach reads” (i.e. something you don’t need to use your brain for). This really bothers me. I believe a great book is one that you don’t want to put down, that saddens you when it’s over because you don’t want the experience to end. If an author writes a story line that pulls you in, with characters that fascinate you–whose to say we can’t learn from that?

    I read Julius Caesar. I don’t remember being pulled into that, and I’m pretty sure I was glad when it was done. (For the record, though, I do like most Shakespeare!).

    How about a balance? Some older, “classic” literature, and some newer novels? Some dark, some uplifting? Some books you have to truly dissect to get to the deeper meaning, and some you can simply read and enjoy? I’m no high school English teacher, for sure…but I do believe good writing is good writing, plain and simple.

    Class dismissed.


  2. Thanks for this great post. Read it a while back but was trying to organize my thoughts before replying.
    While I agree the list is plagued with conflict and death, I would have to question how you define good or bad. If only based on the stories themselves, yes the topics are dreadful.
    But I think they should be judged by the effect on the reader, more than the story itself.
    And I feel the “bad” ones can have a strong positive effect.
    1) They are leveraging our negativity bias. We will pay more attention and remember more when bad stuff happens. This pulls us more; we are drawn to them. Just the way we are wired. You know all about that.

    2) These dreadful stories foster social bonding. In general, seems we would bond more if we spend 30 minutes discussing what a horrible instigator Lady Macbeth is. Than if we spend 30 minutes discussing what a fine job Neighbor Rosicky (Willa Cather, female!) is doing raising his kids. In fact, don’t even know if we could spend whole 30 minutes on Rosicky parenting style. But gossiping on Lady M? Oh my, that would be hours of intrigue and fun. We would probably be sarcastic, use humor and creativity, make fun of her, and we would feel closer through our shared hate for Lady M.

    3) Finally, these stories are a way to share values. The horrors we see in Macbeth affirms our desire to control our own ambition. We project ourselves in the stories and often feel morally superior. I would not have trusted those witches, I would not have killed the king but just waited my turn, etc.

    So, is literature bad? Seems like an effective tool that plays on what we pay most attention to, they bring about social bonding, and they strengthen our characters strengths. Even the horrible ones. Maybe they work like vaccines; they inject you with a small dosage of the bad stuff so you can build resilience.


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