When I was in the midst of receiving my doctorate in American literature from the City University of New York Graduate Center, I made my obligatory pilgrimages to the annual convention of the Modern Language Association. My first was a doozy. I vividly remember a panel I attended on canonical and non-canonical works, where such well-regarded scholars as the incendiary Houston Baker and the all-too-conservative James Tuttleton duked it out over the Western canon and the validity of the "classic." Both trotted out their respective arguments and in the many years since I have come to take stock in the merits of the two sides. There is definitely room in the canon—whatever that is—for new work that need not labor in the shadow of Melville and Emerson or even the critical sensibility that placed them at the top. On the other hand, there is absolutely no way to regard all published works of literary fiction on par with one another in terms of quality or even critical interest. Charles Dickens is better than Stephen King, just like Stephen King is better than John Saul, who is really not much better than anyone. Now we can argue about what we mean by better, but if we take as one aspect of it my second criterion of "critical interest"—worthiness and worthwhile-ness for critical examination—then, yeah, Dickens is better than King. There is more to say about Dickens' work than there is to say about King's, and on multiple fronts, too: historical, economic, linguistic, sociopolitical.
So, in my mind, there are such things as classics, although I don't much love the term and the baggage it carries. Classics presumably point to works of quality that support that much more critical interest than other works. And this raises, in turn, an issue I have become quite fascinated by: classics I hate.
The hated classic finds its antithesis in the guilty pleasure, which in today's world is hardly a source of shame. Hell, my wife is more than happy to talk about her preferences for American Idol—even though she was less vested in this year's selection of Kris Allen—and I can freely admit my penchant for old Kung Fu movies and Firefall's "You Are the Woman" (please don't hit me). There are many who happily boast a passion for various species of bad art. I have friends who love Z-movie vampire flicks. My sister thinks Dumb and Dumber is one of the greatest comedies ever made. I had a boss who watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer religiously. There is even circulating a much-talked-about documentary on the "best worst movie" ever. Need I go on?
However, we tend to be more circumspect about how much we dislike great art. True, it is easy enough to confide among friends our gut feeling that Giacometti's sculptures seem childish or Verdi is a bore. But put us in a room of intellectual peers or, even worse, acknowledged superiors, and suddenly it becomes a more vexing matter. We still may not like Giacometti or Verdi, but try justifying your response without sounding entirely solipsistic ("What can I say? It doesn't do a thing for me"), all of which seems to raise important questions about our response—and those of our peers. What do they know that I don't? Is it a question of unacknowledged personal immaturity? Or is this classic just another example of mass hysterical bad judgment? (It's been known to happen.) Or perhaps questions of taste really are relative and Stephen King can be as good as Charles Dicken—Heaven forfend!
With bad art, I suspect we're allowed to indulge our innate solipsism. Why am I willing to overlook how crappy old Kung Fu movies are? The escapism, formulaic storytelling, acrobatic choreography are all psychological creature comforts of the circus and childish wish fulfillment. But why do I hate The Scarlet Letter? It's dull, dull, dull, and I'll take the The Blithedate Romance over it in a heartbeat. So what the hell am I missing?
This is not an insignificant question. As a former college teacher, I was constantly placed in the position of rebutting student charges of dullness, an eternal source of frustration that seemed little more than the response of the lazy mind. In my struggle to teach students how to appreciate works by Conrad, Austen, Poe, Blake, and innumerable others, this response surfaced again and again as an ever-elusive combatant whom I could never quite grasp and pin down.
So why do I hate The Scarlet Letter? Why is my memory of it hardly a pleasurable one? Why has this novel never moved me in any way whatsoever? These are all questions that deserve a better answer than "I'm sorry but it's just a dull read." After all, I am more than willing to tolerate the lengthy mood settings in Joseph Conrad or the fine needlepoint psychological excursions of Henry James. I know The Scarlet Letter is a classic; I can even sense it! But there is radical disconnect, one that flummoxes any attempt at quick explication.
So for now, I am without answers; someday I hope to offer better ones. Until then, let me turn it over to you: Which classics have you found to be an utter failure in your experience as a reader?