Discussion: “Real Literature”

Hi everyone! For today’s post, I wanted to talk a little bit more about my feelings on a recent entry into my Have I Read series here on my blog. The post in particular that I am talking about is Have I Read: BBC’s Top 100 Books You Need To Read Before You Die.

A little bit of background on this series first – I wanted to react to these lists that make these claims to be the “top X” in things like fantasy, books to read before you die, etc. Mainly, I wanted to see how many books on these lists I’ve actually read! My first list (NPR’s Top 100 Fantasy & Sci Fi) went fairly well, I read 10/100 but also had 32/100 that were either on my TBR list or ones that I have started but need to finish, so a total of 42/100.

white ceramic mug on white textile

When I chose the BBC list, I didn’t review any of the books that were on there before I started marking which books I’ve read and which ones I want to read. What very quickly became clear to me was that out of the 100 books on this list, the majority of these were classics. In fact, 89 of these books were first published before 2000, with 53 of them being published before 1950! Oh, and this list mentions THE BIBLE as being a book that you should read before you die. In fact, I was so bothered by this list containing mostly classics or modern classics that I made a chart showing the first year each of these books were published. Not a single book was published after 2005 on this list (the most recent was Cloud Atlas published in 2004).

year published

So angry I made my own scatter plot

Now, I don’t know when this list was created as I couldn’t find an official list from the BBC, and the list that I used (click here for that website) only says it was published 5 years ago (so around 2015), so you would think that there would’ve been something published between 2004 and 2015 that are worth reading before you die!

This list is quite honestly very lazy. Whoever decided on these books clearly tried to think of every classic they could think of, then realized they were just shy of 100 and so decided to throw in more modern books to reach 100. I mean, I realize that books such as Charlotte’s Web, Winnie the Pooh, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory have had an impact on children’s books today, but are they really books you need to read before you die?

brown book page

This then brought me to the thought that to be a “real reader” you need to have a certain number of classics under your belt, which is 100% NOT true. I feel like this is a debate that pops up every now and then when someone tries to invalidate you when you tell them your favorite book and it’s not a classic. This can be especially true if your favorite genre is fantasy, because quite often people look down their noses because “fantasy isn’t real literature”. (And yes, this does happen).

And this thinking doesn’t just stop with fantasy. How many times have you seen someone who loves romance get told that those aren’t real books? Sometimes it’s other book lovers who are just being pretentious jerks, but (in my experience) I’ve found that it’s non-readers or people who don’t read very often who are the ones who look down on you for what you choose to read and what is considered “real literature”. I mean, the amount of times that’s happened to me alone is pretty ridiculous.

Not only does this happen with readers, but another example of this is with movies! I’m sure we’ve all seen the news articles about Martin Scorsese’s opinion that “Marvel movies aren’t cinema”, even though they can also discuss real world issues and create dialogue between people. Martin then went on to “clear the air” by saying that cinema is an art form:

“For me, for the filmmakers I came to love and respect, for my friends who started making movies around the same time that I did, cinema was about revelation โ€” aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters โ€” the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.”

close up photography of old books

It’s so easy to replace cinema and the Marvel franchise with classic literature and any other genre (fantasy, romance, science fiction, you name it) and see the issue that I have with this thinking. It’s very elitist and condescending to people who see these other genres – be it movies or books – as being just as emotional or spiritual. You can still get the same life lessons and feelings from a book set in a magical world as you can with one written in the 1800s. In fact, they probably handle more modern day issues than something written in the time where women were still the property of their husbands.

So basically this discussion post is to rant about how I don’t like when people consider classics to be the only books worth reading in your life, because there are so many other great books out there! What are your thoughts on this?

18 Comments on “Discussion: “Real Literature”

  1. A very thought-provoking post! My view is that I agree with you…partially, maybe.
    I think what some people want to say when they say that “romance” and “fantasy” are not real books is that they are not “literary” in a strict sense of the word and concern themselves with action rather than inside transformation of people (as you also point out), like detective stories too. It is often difficult to produce a truly literary book when you produce fantasy because there is a lot of outside world building. That does not mean that such books cannot be real literature or do not impart on a reader spiritual fulfilment, as you say. I consider Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell THE real literature and one of the absolutely classics of our times and it is pure fantasy. If some romance or fantasy comes across as emotional or spiritual for a person that is only the merit to the book.
    I also have to say that there are tons of books that are simply badly written nowadays and, unfortunately, most of them DO fall into romance and fantasy genres. It is not snobbish to say so or elitist – it is simply stating facts, actually. I do agree with you that fantasy and romance suffer unjustly from this label and stigmatisation that they are “bad” literature and not real literature – but I also have to say that it is much more difficult that one first assumes to BOTH write a very enjoyable, entertaining, action packed story that SELLS AND write it so beautifully with depth of characters and character transformation that the reader is taken to another level spiritually.
    With regards to the Bible…well, every story that has ever been told relies more or less on either one of the sayings in that book or reworks one of the episodes or stories in there. So I see completely why it should be an essential reading. We are humans and that is one book where you can see how the “Western man” mentality was shaped (that good vs. evil battle) and how that reflects all of the Western literature now – actually – including a hero’s journey in literature.

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    • I definitely see where your coming from, and they’re good points to think about! I just don’t think (in the context of the list that made me think of this discussion post) that “books you need to read before you die” should be limited to classics. They’re definitely worth reading for their impact on all literature, but it doesn’t make you less of a reader if you choose not to read them. The sad fact is that there are definitely people out there that shame others for what they choose to read, and I’ve found that quite a few non-readers (that I’ve talked to in my life about books) have a fairly narrow view of what books can really be.

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  2. Great discussion!
    I totally agree with that it is often (not always) non readers who judge the kind of books you read.. I mean at elast I’m reading?! Often when i say that I like to read in my free time people ask ‘oh what kind of books’ and I’m like ‘eeh fantasy/science-fiction’ and then they give you this weird look..

    (www.evelynreads.com)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly! And the people giving those looks don’t often realize that those genres are just as valid and can touch on “real life” problems too, just in a different format. Of course, not ALL book are going to be these great works that make you think about your own life, but sometimes you don’t want (or need) a book to make you stop and think. Sometimes it’s just purely for enjoyment!

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      • Exactly! My main reason for reading is enjoyment, and learning from it is a very good side effect haha!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I love this discussion! It is something that has bothered me as well, I have been judged many times for reading stuff that wasn’t literature (which mostly meant classics or books brought out by famous/important writers) or that I was reading what wasn’t right to my age group. It is why I was hesitant for a long time to read whatever I liked. I had quite a period in my life where I was just trying to read what people thought would be good and what fitting was with the age I was those times, but I often wasn’t enjoying myself. I was longing to read other books that called much louder to me. Eventually I just had a /care moment for what others thought, they should be happy I am at least reading. These days I read anything I want, from Ya to Childrens from Adult to Non-fiction. And I love it. And isn’t reading also about enjoyment and taking a moment away from real life? Or learning something new that may not be fancy or needed for a job but just because you want to know more about something?
    It is just a shame that people are so harsh in judging, given that less and less people read, they should be cheering for people reading. So what if that is a comic or Twilight (which I love btw) or endless rereads of Harry Potter.
    Sorry for the long comment, I am already holding myself in. ๐Ÿ˜› It is just a topic that comes close to me given how much I have been judged and how I have seen others being judged and having them turn away from reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I totally get the long comment, I also had to hold myself back when writing the post because I could’ve gone off in so many different directions ๐Ÿ˜‚ and I 100% agree with reading for enjoyment, in most cases people read because they enjoy it! If a book teaches you something or makes you look at the world differently, great! If a book is purely for enjoyment and you don’t “learn” anything, great! As long as your reading, your getting something out of it and it’s real to you.

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  4. “In fact, they probably handle more modern day issues than something written in the time where women were still the property of their husbands.” is the take I am willing to die for.

    Honestly, even if we forget about validating Marvel movies and vampire romance (which I’m not trying to degrade but for the sake of the argument), there are still so many deep, profound & literary acclaimed books that were published recently? And a big part of classics are only classics because they were either first at something or resonated with a bunch of old white men and not nearly as ‘universal’ and ‘transcending the generations’ as they are made out to be.

    Wonderful discussion, Katie ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  5. โ€œSo angry I made my own scatter plotโ€ is a level of anger that resonates with me. This is such an important post! As a reformed classics snob, it baffles me why we as a society revere old shit as literature and hate on genre fiction. Those classics? They are more often than not genre fiction! Only their genre is deemphasized when deemed a classic. Frankenstein. Slaughterhouse five. Handmaids tale. Yet my reading Priory is scoff worthy? Eff off.

    Liked by 1 person

    • ๐Ÿ˜‚๐Ÿ˜‚ I forgot I wrote that part! But yeah, it’s ridiculous. I have a coworker who looks down on my blog and the books I read because I don’t read and discuss classics.

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  6. I love this post so much!
    I used to be ‘that’ kid who would only read classics, and it was honestly mortifying when I look back at it. YA and NA and Adult books all deserve to be read too! I would say some of them more than Classics, tbh because they have an easier or more relevant message to today and with the evolution of literature it is easier for younger adults to understand literally.
    – Emma ๐Ÿ™‚

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  7. Pingback: Have I Read…25 of the Top Fantasy Books on Goodreads – Melting Pages

  8. This is such a brilliant post! I agree with you 100% about how judging someone based on how many “classics” they have or haven’t read is highly problematic. The whole idea of literary canons with a few texts being declared classics and therefore superior doesn’t sit well with me. Of course some books are enjoyed by a larger number of people than others but all literature is beautiful and has so much potential. Just because something doesn’t have the approval of the people with the power to decide what is a classic or not doesn’t diminish the impact that a book can have on people. The same argument stands for people who think that popular literature isn’t “real” literature when really popular literature is such an integral part of literature (let’s not forget that even Shakespeare wrote for an audience). Basically I really liked your post and agree with you so much!

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