Literary classics panned by critics
Kipling - `Worthless' Orwell - `Tosh' Hardy - `Infernal Bore'
Monday 18 January 1999
The high street book retailer Waterstone's, which conducted the survey on what makes a classic, receives some pretty poor notices for some of the books on its shelves.
D H Lawrence's Sons And Lovers is described by Julie Burchill as "perspiring pervert gets it wrong again" although Roy Hattersley considers it "the best thing written about the tortured relationship only sons often have with demanding mothers".
J G Ballard says the American novelists Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth and Norman Mailer seem "over-blown and self-immersed". Roy Hattersley will upset much of Scotland by calling Walter Scott's lvanhoe "a farrago of historical nonsense combined with maudlin romance". The historian Alison Weir, author of The Six Wives of Henry VIII, pleads: "Could somebody please assure me that Virginia Woolf's mind-numbing To The Lighthouse, which I was forced to read at school, will never again be called a classic!" And The Independent's literary editor, Boyd Tonkin, accuses Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim of "setting the tone for 40 years of boorishness".
The children's author Shirley Hughes lays into C S Lewis's Narnia books. She says: "As religion will undoubtedly be a great force in the next century, people may be increasingly repelled by Lewis's hijacking of the Crucifixion and Resurrection ... the underlying elements of lugubrious guilt may also be unacceptable to adults. But these books are so readable that to most children all this is simply water off a duck's back."
The books the respondents choose as classics cover most of the usual suspects, with James Joyce's Ulysses top of the list and described by the author Andre Brink as "that inimitable fanfare for the common man in which centuries of accumulated storytelling erupt in the miraculous and exuberant celebration of a single day".
There is also distaste for calling a novel a "classic". The biographer Michael Holroyd says: "Most often, in recent years, it has been used by desperate marketing men and women in publishing houses who seldom have time to read the books they are promoting and who trust that the `classic label' will somehow signal a prestige purchase. So it has become a lazy word, taken out and reused when- ever precise descriptive words are unforthcoming."
Ms Burchill, while not neglecting to place her own novel Ambition among "the 10 essential classic novels for the next 100 years," declares that "calling a book a classic is the quickest way to put children off them at school, as I know from bitter experience".
Many of those questioned feel schools cause damage by force-feeding classics to the young at an early age. The author Harry Ritchie says: "If it was written by somebody who was long since dead, and if you had to study it at school or university and/or it bored you, then a book was definitely a classic."
TV presenter Vanessa Feltz remembers a classic at school being "like a cabbage. Deeply dreary but somehow extra good for you." Keen to move from the written to the visual, she dismisses Watership Down by Richard Adams with the words: "I prefer Walt Disney."
One voice of disagreement comes from Chris Woodhead, HM's chief inspector of schools. He says: "I did not feel that I was forced to read classic texts at school. As a young child, I progressed from fairy tales to Biggles with a great deal of pleasure. There were times at secondary school when the detailed textual analysis of novels which struck me as irrelevant and overvalued left me cold.
"But then, in my O-level year, I read, initially with some reluctance, Wuthering Heights and I realised the impact great literature could have."
Perhaps the neatest definition of a classic comes from the journalist Cosmo Landesman who describes such a work as "a timeless read that I never have time to read".
Roy Hattersley dislikes
Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott: "A farrago of historical nonsense."
The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling: "Worthless advice to children of the Empire."
The Thirty-nine Steps by John Buchan: "Any half-witted German agent would have shot him by page 5."
Rassels by Samuel Johnson: "Unreadable."
Julie Burchill dislikes
Animal Farm by George Orwell: "Simplistic tosh."
Sons and Lovers by D H Lawrence: "Perspiring pervert gets it wrong again."
On the Road by Jack Kerouac: "Stoned fag too doped to get out of the closet."
1984 by George Orwell: "Commie-baiting at a level The Sun would find unacceptable."
Shirley Hughes dislikes
The Narnia Books by C S Lewis: "Hijacking of the Crucifixion and Resurrection."
Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J M Barrie: "Neurotic sentimentality about the state of infancy."
The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy: "Most female readers long for Irene's knicker elastic to give way."
Vanessa Feltz dislikes
The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy: "Infernal bore."
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen: "Anaemic heroine afflicted by headaches."
Watership Down by Richard Adams: "I prefer Walt Disney."
The Golden Bowl by Henry James: "Were ever sentences so laboriously entangled?"
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