– A young male sociopath disapproves of everyone and everything around him, including any of his romantic interests. He changes nothing, learns nothing, and leaves.
– It’s the olden days, and terrible things are happening to good people. Terrible things continue to happen for 200 – 400 pages. Despite all this tragedy, there is little to no story, and no character development. Everyone is either 100% good or 100% bad, from start to finish. In the end, things either get marginally better, or they don’t.
– Wow, what a great dog! Whoops, he’s dead. (Or every character besides the dog is dead.)
– A metaphor commits a metaphor to another metaphor. Everyone is sad.
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar to you? If you went to high school in America, I bet the answer is a big yes. In fact, I bet these few plots encompass around 90% of everything you and I were both forced to read in English class while growing up.
I loved reading, but I merely tolerated the classics. What I really loved were fantasy and sci-fi stories. Not just the newer variety either. I remember reading Beowulf before I was in my teens, and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld completely took over my life during my early to mid-20s. I won’t lie, fantasy and sci-fi is definitely hit or miss, just like any genre. However, even in the worst cases, I almost always loved the characters. They grew, they learned, and they had…well, character.
This really matters to me, because I just re-read The Great Gatsby, which I remember slightly enjoying during my teens. Know what I found? Some admittedly good writing, coupled with ridiculously ham-fisted symbolism (really? the huge pair of eyes on the billboard represent God looking at us? are you sure that’s SUBTLE enough?!), and absolutely NO character depth or growth whatsoever. Not even from our main character, who remains morally indignant from start to finish.
“I constantly disapprove of everything you people stand for, but I’ll still hang out with you all, eat your food, drink your booze, generally mooch off you in every way, and date within the group!”
Just repeat the above until Gatsby’s dead.
Listen, I’m all for supporting good literature, but it’s not the wordiness or length of these “classics” that put people off. It’s their DULL, unlikeable characters. Wordiness and length didn’t keep kids from reading Harry Potter, did it?
We really need to expand our horizons and incorporate some more fantasy and sci-fi into our kids’ reading. Not only does it expand their imaginations, and introduce memorable characters and journeys, but so many of them are well written too. Here are some humble suggestions:
– Instead of The Great Gatsby or Of Mice and Men, why not The Lord of the Rings for your tale of corruption, greed, and pride?
– Instead of Charles Dickens, why not try Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett for your incredibly entertaining and well written English authors?
– Political satire that’s no longer relevant, because the government they’re making fun of no longer exists? How about Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series instead? I recently re-read it, and it still blows me away. Forget lampooning specific countries, this series suggests that ALL governments inevitably collapse (or completely transform) every hundred years or so. Top that, Orwell!
– A young person grows up during the 1800s-early 1900s? Unless they wind up in Oz, Narnia, or Wonderland, I really don’t care.
– Old Man in the Sea? Give that sailor a Nautilus!
– Lord of the Flies? Instead, why not read…actually, I liked that one. I remember reading it in high school and thinking: Yup, that’s how it’d go down. “Hello, my name is Max, and I have the Conch…” THUD! SPLAT!
And finally, yes, J. K. Rowling is better than Shakespeare. Sure, the bard had a hell of a way with words, but he had no idea how to develop characters. Unless they go insane or die prematurely, you can be sure every character in his plays are going to stay exactly the same from start to finish, with nothing all that unexpected in the middle.
The only Bard I want to read about, uses a bow and arrow to kill a dragon.
(See the article here, on Fantasy-Faction.com: article)