Criticizing the Critics and Poking at Reading Lists

This morning, I read an interesting article in Vanity Fair that brings up the question of why are literary critics so dismayed by Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Goldfinch. I must admit that I’ve not read any of the author’s work and when The Goldfinch was released, I was not only put off by its size (775 pages), but also by a child narrator (I’m completely biased against juvenile narrators; I generally dislike them). In the aforementioned article, the writer cites many prominent critics’ dislike of the book, usually noting its hackneyed prose and ridiculous plot. They all seemed to be in agreement with the premise that no matter how trite the writing is, plot can overshadow even the worst offenders. One of those writers is Francine Prose, who was appalled by the clichéd writing.

reading list banner

This brought me to Prose’s controversial 1999 article, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read: How American high school students learn to loathe literature,” which appeared in Harper’s. It’s an excellent article. Even if you don’t completely agree with all of her points, she does an excellent job outlining reasons for young students’ lack of passion for literature and the dull teaching strategies dictated to teachers from various pedagogical manuals.

Her gripe is with both the high school reading lists and the approach of teaching them. She cites many canonical texts (To Kill a Mockingbird, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Catcher in the Rye, etc.) and is usually dismayed by the syrupy plots and what she perceives as bad writing. Prose also points out the failings of many teachers to examine the writing and focus more on the plots and how students are meant to personally relate to them. Instead, works are chosen for the high school readings lists based on their ease to identify what is right/wrong, good/bad. If there is too much moral complication, the book is not normally considered.

reading list clip

Direct clip from Harper’s article.

I’m particularly on Prose’s side when thinking back to The Color Purple and Lord of the Flies, two high school selections I had trouble “getting on board” about. I don’t know how my adult-self would read these works today, but my sixteen-year-old self was not swayed by the melodramatic plot of The Color Purple, nor, was I taken with the dog-eat-dog plight of the lost boys of Lord of the Flies (why would Piggy tell them all that was his disliked moniker?). In 2012, I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird, a book I liked in school and still like after my re-read, but I can understand Prose’s qualms with the depiction of characters that are either clearly good or clearly not. Around the same time, I re-read Catcher in the Rye and my conclusion was that it is a book that adults will not like or appreciate. Leave it to the kids. If you haven’t read it as a teenager, don’t bother. It will be meaningless and annoying to your adult-self.

Another frightful point Prose brings up is about teachers manuals. She directly quotes examples that pedagogues can use to assure extinguishing any delight in reading and literature or critical thought, for that matter. After reading them, I found myself lucky that my teachers mostly never went in for such methods. Of course, there were assignments I despised (like underlining every mention of money or the color green in the The Great Gatsby), but nothing as so insulting to intellect as these examples–I will leave those up to the Harper’s article to navigate (take special note of one manual’s appalling advice about dealing with The Diary of Anne Frank).

Instead of investigating why a book is written so well or its lasting effects on our culture and reading canon, texts like Huckleberry Finn are boiled down to the discussion of whether Mark Twain was a racist or not, totally eviscerating the humor and craft put into his writing. Also, this idea that everything must be neatly tied up, leaving no moral ambiguity to examine is an insult to the students. Of course, there are students who have no interest whatsoever in knowledge, but you would be surprised by the many who do. They don’t often need someone holding their hand as they navigate the uncomfortable tale of Lolita or the brutal violence in A Clockwork Orange. My teachers certainly didn’t and respected us enough to assign these books without novel projects designed by tedious teaching manuals.


Of course, there were dull books and assignments (good grief, do I still get a little twinge due to my dissenting opinion anytime The Color Purple is an answer on Jeopardy), but I must agree with Francine Prose on the fact that the approach to teaching literature in high schools is less than desirable and that reading curriculum should be re-examined. It is often disheartening to read when a book is banned at school and even more so when it’s a book that a teacher has chosen that is not considered part of the dusty old cannon, but instead, chosen as a fresh and invigorating offering to high school students.

I’m not sure if I will venture into the pages of The Goldfinch any time soon. There are so many more books on my to-be-read list that I just don’t see this one making the cut in the next months. Although, I am a big fan of a good plot, well-crafted writing and fresh sentences are a top priority for me. Purple prose and shoddy metaphors are things I do not take kindly to.



  1. Great remarks, I mostly agree. I don’t think that authors like Steinbeck or Lee should disappear but some variety and including also books with “grey”, ambiguous characters could help.
    Oh, and “The Catcher in the Rye”… I actually read it three times, first time as a teenager. Next two were futile attempts to understand WHY it is so much loved, why so much hype. Either I was a very old teenager according to your diagnosis 😉 or I just couldn’t and can’t stand Holden Caulfield.

    1. I definitely think some of the oldies should stay on the list. The Sun Also Rises to name one, but time agreed upon masterpieces like Moby-Dick will be totally lost on teenagers. I think I like that book so much is because I read it as an adult. But I must agree with Prose in the pedagogical ways that high school literature is approached in the States. I think Catcher in the Rye definitely has a place and should be read…another tedious high school assignment was to circle any time Holden said “phony.” I think adults see through Holden unlike teenagers, who might see him as a fellow marginalized comrade.

      Yes to more ambiguous characters and morals! I’m tired that whenever someone is trying to ban a book in schools, the cite that the characters engage in bad behavior or the outlook is bleak in comparison to a rosy conclusion.

    1. I try not read reviews before I read the book, so my knowledge about the outpouring of love about The Goldfinch is very superficial (I know it was a big, big success). But the dissenting voices that wrote about the poor writing, really put me off to attempting it. I also just couldn’t get motivated by the plot synopsis (I have no tolerance for plots in movies, tv, books that take a melodramatic approach to terrorism attacks in NYC; to me, it’s lazy).

      1. I know what you mean about melodramatic takes on terrorist attacks, etc. I usually stay away from those too. And actually I didn’t know The Goldfinch was partly about that, though I did know it was about a boy. I don’t mind young narrators, in fact it kinda helped me decide to actually read the book. I didn’t want to read it ap first because it was by Donna Tartt, and I hated her other book, The Secret History. I’m a bit ashamed to say that the biggest reason I decided to read The Goldfinch was because it won a Pulitzer. Otherwise I would never have read it. Also I thought it was going to be about art and undergound secret societies, etc. Boy, was I wrong!

      2. Awards can be a difficult thing, because they often award great books or books that are more hyped than actually distinct pieces of literature. Hmm. yes, I was under the impression that it was more about art (the title IS The Goldfinch). Maybe, in ten years when her next book comes out to jubilation, I will finally read this one.

  2. It may be apparent that I adore reading and love most of what I read, but the only books I have really hated in my life were the ones I did for school (Dickens, Shakespeare and some short stories I can’t really recall). I felt I was too young to appreciate them and that the tedious teaching killed any joy I might have found in them. It’s a problem when you try to teach classics to 15-year-olds. They don’t have the emotional and mental maturity for moral ambiguity, and only a few will be ready to appreciate literary language. I do think choice of books in schools is very, very important.

    The only problem is that I have a rather low opinion of Francine Prose’s novel writing. I read The Blue Angel a few years back, a novel about academia that I was looking forward to, and felt it read like all the books on the college experience had been put into a blender and this was the result. Probably not so many language cliches, but every situational cliche you could imagine. Mind you, I like her non-fiction very much, and it’s always a good idea to keep people thinking about the way literature is taught. I’ll probably give The Goldfinch a whirl at some point – I’m curious to see for myself what it’s like.

    1. Yes, I think some of the classics can be a huge trudge for young students. I remember when we were assigned Wuthering Heights. I ultimately ended up finishing it and liking it, but many of my peers had loads of trouble (as did I) getting through that beginning portion with its meandering threads and multiple characters. Also, once we were assigned Bonfire of the Vanities, which just didn’t do it for me. But I was not given any proper context for it.

      In regards to Francine Prose, I tried reading her newest novel–Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932–and just wasn’t taken with the opening chapters. The prose didn’t stick out to me in any way. I also have a huge stack of TBR, so if I’m not digging it right away, I have a hard time staying committed. But with that said, even if I don’t necessarily agree completely with her, her criticism is by far more compelling.

  3. What a thought-provoking piece! In Australia, I believe we have the opposite problem, of high-school lit texts being way beyond the emotional maturity of the students and alienating them utterly.

    Despite being one of the top lit students, I hated many of our assigned texts which included The Great Gatsby (2 years later I read and loved it) and especially Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves. Patrick White is considered one of Australia’s best novelists but I was so scarred by drudging through that book that I didn’t read another of his for 20 years!

    As you say, the quality of teaching is also a huge factor. A great teacher can get something interesting out of an average book; a poor teacher can ruin even a wonderful book. My mum is an English teacher and has been known to complain frequently that someone who was a C student can end up teaching English.

    I think a mixture of titles is important for kids – some classics, some contemporary. If they’re all going to read The Hunger Games anyway, let them analyse it, and see if they still think it’s a great work!

    1. It definitely doesn’t seem like an easy fix. There are so many factors–cut budgets, overworked teachers, uninterested students. But I do think a mixture is a good step. It definitely seems like drudge is an apt description. There were definitely slogs in my school days, but we did have some decent reads like Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, and Catch-22. I really don’t think students should read Moby-Dick, a book I personally really like and am happy to have read it as an adult. Students should deal with difficult books and subject matter, but the guidance of a teacher to help is very important. This is anecdotal, but I once heard that a lower level English class at my high school was reading Harry Potter (this was before there was a super hoopla/fanfare surrounding the book). I thought this was strange, at first, but then I was told that the students were actually paying attention and reading it.

      About 5-6 years ago, I worked in a research center that studied school children’s reading abilities and engagement is so important. Encouragement from an adult can go a long way.

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