Over at The Millions, Guy Patrick Cunningham weighs in on the perpetual debate over the value of reading classics. Cunningham feels the burden of literary authority, and fears that he may be reading the classics merely for the sake of earning that much sought after title “well read”. As he writes, “Reading matters because of its relationship to thinking.” If one reads merely for completism, they run the risk of allowing the literary authorities to do their thinking for them.
Cunningham places David Shields and B.R. Meyers at opposite ends of the classics argument. Shields argues for considering the fragmentary world of online writing as the only relevant form for contemporary literature. The reality of online writing is relatable to contemporary readers, while the classics have little to offer us. Meyers worries that time spent with contemporary literature takes time away from reading the classics.
Cunningham reconciles these views, by explaining that both new and old literature can have value, if the potential to make the reader think is considered. The classics are classic not merely because some literary authority figure has decreed it. They are classic because many critics have decided that these works have enduring value. He concludes that classics induce anxiety not because they have been decreed important, but because they demand much from the reader to discover their genius.
Faulkner is the prime example of classics that are oft cited, but infrequently read. Many young readers pick up The Sound and the Fury (number six on the Modern Library’s Top 100 novels list) in an effort to quickly establish their literary bona fides. The unprepared reader will find the first section, which is narrated by a mentally challenged character, virtually indecipherable. “Why does Faulkner insist upon writing in such an obtuse style?” they cry. Faulkner, in fact, has good reason to write the way he does. The patient and studious (for you can hardly understand Faulkner without understanding Southern history) will be rewarded.
While considering Meyers’ approach to the classics, Cunningham states a fear of reading as a perpetual student merely checking titles off of a syllabus. A perpetual student, though, is what makes the best critic. One of the central straw man arguments of the anti-classics set is that writing and reading within a literary tradition leads to being a perpetual student. Cunningham quotes Sheilds, “To write only according to the rules laid down by masterpieces signifies that one is not a master but a pupil.” Master and pupil, of course, are hardly the only two options. Learning is a lifelong process, and no one will ever master their subject matter to such a degree that they can’t improve it.
I often joke that I like to read literary criticism before I start reading a new novel so that I will know what to think about the book. It would be more accurate to say that I read literary criticism so that I know how to think about a book. Pre-reading criticism forces a reader to consider how the critic has approached the book. It gives one a frame of reference, and you can carry out an argument with the critics as you read. This is what a student does.