Before recently, I had never read any Jane Austen—you could even say, and be totally truthful about the business, that I had been deliberately avoiding her work. And it occurred to me that the reason I had been doing this was out of, ironically enough, pride (to think I should be seen with such a book in my hands! Oh, the potential embarrassment!) and prejudice (Austen’s books are all just florid frilly stories about snobs in crinolines and cravats dancing around each other trying to get married, right?). To my enormous surprise, I finished Pride and Prejudice and bloody loved it. Why didn’t anyone tell me it was this good? Well, the short answer is they did, but the culture surrounding classic literature—on both sides—is such that I wanted to avoid the conversation altogether.
Austen and her ilk (romances and heroine-driven novels from the 19th century, let’s say) are often a love-or-hate-it affair. People are reluctant to pick up classics, perhaps because they’re considered passé or dull compared to modern fiction, perhaps because the language is different and difficult to get your head around sometimes and the writing style and story structure is no longer in vogue or what our 21st century brains and hearts are used to processing. This is fair enough. It is not, however, a worthy reason for classic literature being snubbed entirely because it’s classic. Old things can be good things, and our 21st century brains and hearts should get a taste of the words of the past now and then to broaden our horizons.
That being said, classics should also not be put upon pedestals just because they’re classics. Yes, we know that they are considered ‘classic’ because they shine with a certain light and did something revolutionary or important in their day that contributed to the way literature has evolved. However, to continue to evolve we also need to embrace new writing and not cling to things written 200 years ago as a model of perfection that no heathen work of modern fiction can possibly live up to. It’s this attitude that makes so many people have the opinion in the previous paragraph, mostly, unfortunately, bred by the books being shoved at them in high school with demand for appreciation. The only thing that kills the love of a book faster than analysing it to death is being expected, by some bizarre pretence that someone else decided, to enjoy it, simply because it is old. Half the time, I’d be tempted to go out of my way to not enjoy it, simply out of spite. Continue reading