‘Children should read more classics?’ Nonsense!

I was pointed towards this recent article (ok… It’s from October but it’s recent enough) about Joanna Trollope who has launched an almost unprovoked attacked on modern literature, mostly sci fi and fantasy, and claims that children should go back to reading ‘the classics’ like Jane Austen and George Elliot and be taught those books in schools. In particular she states that modern books like the Hunger Games ‘fail to provide a moral compass or guidance’ and leave children ’empty’ and ‘with nothing’ whereas the likes of Jane Austen are more relevant and relatable material. Well for a start I think this is certainly the biggest load of nonsense I have ever heard…

These ‘classics’ Trollope talks about are nearly two hundred years old (Pride and Prejudice is two hundred years old) and they’re hardly as relatable or relevant as Trollope claims they are. Since Jane Austen we’ve been through four complete historical eras (Victorian, Edwardian, the two World Wars and the ‘Cold War’) and two partial eras (Georgian and the Modern Era) and society has changed radically. Jane Austen wouldn’t recognize the world we live in today. Society has changed and altered and today people aren’t so bound by convention or class or etiquette or ‘doing what is expected. Yes, Austen is a good example of Late Georgian society and there may be a few select similarities with our own but it is not our own world and using Austen for moral guidance wouldn’t fully work because they aren’t about our society. They’re about a more restrictive, more class bound society that’s long since gone the way of the dodo. Today our expectations and our morals and our manners and our beliefs are totally different to what they were in Austen’s day. In Georgian society it would be completely unthinkable, for example, to go down to the market in your night gown and yet that is exactly what happens today; People go wandering around Tesco, in the middle of the night, in their pyjamas. And in Georgian England children had their entire future mapped out. Girls were supposed to marry whomsoever their families approved of and they had little say in the matter. Today a girl can fall in love with a heavilly tattooed marxist biker dude if she wants to, even if her father is disgusted by her choice. A girl being forced to marry someone she dislikes is not an issue that a majority of girls are going to face in these times. Most will marry who they choose to marry (though there is still a small section of society where arranged marriages are still practiced.) And as for boys… In classic literature the boy will almost always get the girl he chooses for himself with only the occasional dismissal or rejection. It’s usually a case of ‘I choose you and you shall be my wife…’ and he never has to work very hard to get the girl. Today it is totally different. A boy can’t just go up to a girl and whisk her off her feet and marry her in an instant… No. It just doesn’t work like that anymore. It’s more complicated and involves a lot more heartache and pain and dancing around. And kids have many more important issues to deal with today, issues that won’t come up in ‘classic’ literature,  issues likes drugs and divorce and peer pressure and exams and working out what the hell they want to do with their lives. It stands to reason that modern literature, the kind that Trollope is saying children should read less of, is going to be much more valuable in helping them deal with today’s society than something like Jane Austen or George Elliot is. And that’s without adding in all the different cultures and backgrounds and groups that we now have living in Britain and who have their own issues and struggles to deal with.

An illustration from Pride and Prejudice, the sort of book Trollope suggests is more relevent to today’s society than the Hunger Games. (Image is Public Domain)


And it’s obvious that children do relate more to modern literature because they are reading in their droves. Look at how successful Harry Potter became and still is. Doesn’t every kid now dream of a letter from Hogwarts coming through the door? Every boy wishes they could be like Harry Potter and millions of little girls look up to Twilight’s Bella Swan as a heroine. They see more of themselves in Bella than they do in Elizabeth Bennet, mostly because Bella starts out as a normal girl like they do. Ok, so Twilight isn’t the best written book series in the world and in a few years nobody will remember it but the fact remains that all those little girls have been inspired by Bella Swan and they have taken the books to their hearts. It’s the same with Harry Potter and the Hunger Games and whatever books kids will grab hold of and love during the next thousand years. They obviously get something out of those books if they’re holding them close and loving them and obsessing over them, no doubt the same something Trollope claims modern literature fails to give them whilst classic literature provides in droves. I remember seeing a news clip when the first Harry Potter film came out and it was of this girl stating that she wasn’t going to watch the film because it would ruin the books for her. Now if she didn’t love the books and get something out of them why would she not want them ruined by some awful film that would likely rip her beloved book to shreds? She must have got something out of them to feel that way. (As a sidenote, do you reckon she ever did see the films? It’d be quite something if she hasn’t seen them!) Children are not fools. They know what they like and they know what they love and obviously, they do get something out of it in the end. If it could be calculated it would probably work out that they benefit more from a modern book like the Hunger Games than George Elliot’s Middlemarch, mostly because it’s more socially relevant.

The whole ‘moral guidance’ thing is rubbish as well. Look at Roald Dahl, a reasonably modern author and I’d say his books (which are a kind of fantasy when you think about it) have a great moral core to them. The wicked and wicked deeds get punished whilst the good are often rewarded. In James and The Giant Peach Spiker and Sponge are punished for their wickedness by being crushed to death and in the BFG the titular BFG lived happily ever after whilst the rest of the giants ended up in a big pit eating snozcumbers. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is also quite good for morals as well now I think about it. There’s that whole good vs evil battle thing going on as well as all the stuff about dust and growing up to be wicked. In fact I would say it’s actually very hard to write a book without any sense of morality to it. Most books, when you look at them, will have a sense of morals somewhere about them. Morality, after all, underlines a huge section of our society. It governs our behaviours and our social practices and our actions. It’s very hard not to include that and in children’s and teenagers books where the protagonists are inherently good then the morals and lesson of those books are likely to be of a great benefit to them.

Trollope also stated that ‘fantasy doesn’t relate to the real world.’ Again, that is absolute nonsense. Fantasy and Sci Fi, more than any other genre, has the power to hold a mirror up to our society and our culture fears and our dreams, and it frequently does. Take C.S Lewis for instance (ok, not quite that modern but in this case what I’m talking about is still relevent to the modern world). The Narnia books are heavily built around Christian symbolism and Christianity is still a major driving force around the globe. A lot of children grow up in Christian households and something like the Narnia books could be a great way of helping children to understand more about Christianity. And besides this they’re fairly decent books. And what about Asimov, Arthur C Clarke and Philip K Dick? They did some socially relatable stuff.  And aren’t the Hunger Games all a big, gruesome satire on reality TV anyway? What could be more socially relevant than that when reality TV is everywhere and invading our very lives and taking our beloved Victorian East End-Western cop shows away because they suck up all the viewers? By it’s very nature Science Fiction and Fantasy are bi-products of the society they were forged in. To go back to ‘classics’ take Frankenstein (which, ironically, is science fiction, Trollope,) A big piece of the book is about meddling in science and electricity and getting things horribly wrong, something the readers of the time would have very much related to and feared. And The Lord of the Rings, on one level, is about Industrialisation (represented by Mordor) destroying the beauty of the world and the idylls of the countryside (represented by The Shire.). When LOTR came out environmentalism and protecting the countryside and stopping the spread of industrialisation was very much in its infancy but it was still socially relevant and people could identify with that. The same goes for H.G Wells and Jules Verne. Their books are products of their times. Their likes couldn’t be written today because our issues and our scientific progress are at a different level. Sci Fi and Fantasy always reflect modern society and the times in which they are written. Trollope is absolutely wrong when she says they don’t relate to the real world. More than any other genre they do.

And the thing is teenagers and children do have to study at least one piece of ‘classic’ literature for GCSE  and looking at the set texts for examinations that’s still the case. Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, The Hound of The Baskervilles and Great Expectations are all included as well as some more modern ‘classics’ like To Kill a Mockingbird, Animal Farm and The Woman In Black. And all that put together is a nice healthy selection. It’s enough to give kids a decent enough appreciation for older literature at any rate and besides which there probably isn’t any room or time to teach them more than one piece of classic literature. You’ve got to consider poetry and advanced spelling and grammar and non fiction and writing. And where, if children are supposed to read the classics, are they to get any appreciation for modern literature or modern english? The classics won’t ever give them that appreciation. And besides which not all children are going to like the ‘classics.’ For some of they will be incomprehensible and unreadable and some just aren’t going to like them. I mean… When Pride and Prejudice is taught in schools how many boys wish they were studying something more exciting? Most of them I’m willing to bet. It’s certainly a good idea to give children a good idea of literary classics but they get that already and after that those who want to read more of the ‘classics’ will do.

And frequently children do read the classics… Treasure Island is still popular, as is Alice In Wonderland and The Wind In the Willows and The Secret Garden and all that jazz. They’re all considered classics and they’re books children still love. And it’s not like people aren’t turning to the likes of Dickens or Austen. They’re still very popular authors and they aren’t going to go out of fashion sometime soon. A child currently studying for their GCSEs ten years from now could suddenly decide to read Pride and Prejudice and fall in love with it, having only ever read one classic for GCSE (and maybe they hated it.) Admittedly some will never pick up a piece of classic literature again in their lives and that’s absolutely fine. Nobody ever said you have to read them. It isn’t a criteria for being included in society. You can be perfectly happy reading only modern literature for the rest of your life and many often are. It’s no crime and we shouldn’t be pushing people, in particular children, towards a series of old fashioned books they might not want to read.

So in conclusion what Joanna Trollope is saying is absolutely ridiculous. No children shouldn’t read more of the classics and less modern they shouldn’t be forced to either, especially not for the reasons she claims. For a start modern books are far more relatable and why would they not be when they are either about or reflect our society in some way. And clearly Trollope is wrong when she says that kids don’t get anything out of modern literature because clearly they do as they have fallen in love with the likes of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games and Twilight… Heck, as long as kids are reading what is the problem? There isn’t one… And who cares if what they’re reading isn’t Jane Austen or George Elliot. If they want the likes Austen or Elliot then they’ll come to them in time. They shouldn’t be forced and we should just let kids read what they want to read. And besides, if we don’t let them read what they want to read and allow them to stoke the furnaces of their imaginations what kind of a state will literature be in twenty years from now? Not good i’m willing to bet!


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