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J. K. Rowling is Better than Shakespeare

Tell me if you’ve ever read these stories before:

Where the Red Fern Grows (cover)– 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.

The Great Gatsby (cover)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?

The Fellowship of the Ring (cover)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.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (cover)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.

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11 Comments

  1. Corvus says:

    Try Macbeth if you want character development – both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have it in spades.

  2. Justin says:

    You did read Hamlet, right? And Othello? I didn’t enjoy Hamlet, but Othello did go through some major character development. And Hamlet? From the start to the end of the play, he is a completely different person. Maybe you just didn’t have the right English teacher.

  3. Lady Ty says:

    How about reading classics and fantasy and getting the best out of both? Why does one need to be better than the other? I cannot agree that there is no depth or growth of characterisation in Dickens or Shakespeare, the strength of both writers lies in their carefully constructed characters, but I do understand that both are badly taught, which is sad because it has so often stopped people ever enjoying them as plays or books as they deserve.

    One reason classics endure is because we can recognise and relate to character traits, or life situations which will repeat through history or changing circumstance. Gatsby is a shrewd and witty social commentary of a certain section of society at a certain time, as was much of Dickens’ and Shakespeare’s writing in their own eras. You can still find a Hamlet or a Macbeth in today’s world reflected in dysfunctional families or leaders of nations betraying friends and family to gain power. Sadly we can recognise some infamous Dotheboys Hall style schools in recent years.

    Shakespeare is packed out with comment on what was happening at the time he wrote, but often disguised in his plots set elsewhere. So many clever allusions that his audience would have understood, but now we need to research. Discworld does exactly the same, but in a few hundred years a great deal of that humour will need explanation. What on earth was the significance of calling a continent XXXX, funny maybe, but is that all? But typical characters will still exist, even Cut-me-own-throat Gidler and definitely entrepreneurial Moist von Lipwig. I hope it will become a classic and still be appreciated and enjoyed then as clever satire of the twentieth century.

  4. Mantyf says:

    I really believe that it should be given more space to fantasy, sci-fi and modern litterature in classes, however knowing classics it’s necessary to understand both the evolution of litterature and how every author it’s influenced by its times: Orwell it’s not timeless, but the thing to be considered it’s what led him to write distopic novels in the first place, and why instead Asimov has a more scientific and rational approach even to politics, what kind of society and culture lead Dickens to write that way, and the difference between publishing in his times and nowadays, just to mentions some, you should expand rather than replace (I mean, if you don’t understand british romanticism you wont understand Mary Shelley and what lead to the birth of sci-fi AND post-apocaliptic novels, and if you want witty fantasy with political aspects why not starting with Ariosto, and consider non-english-speaking authors?)

  5. I agree with Lady Ty and Mantyf—peppering the traditional classics with newer and more entertaining stories would be a great idea. Unfortunately, school systems have very strict regulations for what students are supposed to “learn” in terms of literature, so it would be a disservice to not require any of the “usual” books because they’ll need that information for standard testing.

    However, adding in a couple more modern books? Absolutely. This would also have the added benefit of encouraging students to like reading instead of passing it off as boring—which most do based on the required reading list from school. In my 7th grade English class, we read some of the usual books, but we also got to read a little gem: The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. Historical fiction, great writing, good characters, and most important, it was fun and we loved it.

  6. […] recently read a blog post over at Fantasy Faction in which Max Freeman argues that the classic literature students have to read in school is […]

    • Lady Ty says:

      Good article, Victoria, enjoyed your idea for classic/fantasy pairings and the examples you chose. The possibilities are endless and students could suggest their own. Are you in teaching profession in any way?Well worth encouraging. Although comparison with endless GRRM saga might be asking too much of time available. 🙂

  7. A212 says:

    Did my comment get lost in translation? I don’t think I wrote anything offensive in it…

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