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.