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A Call to Read Problematic Classic Novels

By Vivienne N. Germain, Crimson Staff Writer

“Men Writing Women” has over 76 million posts on TikTok.

“I read a book like this before,” a user called @ladyofthenyle comments under a video on the topic. “I needed an ibuprofen after paragraph three.”

“What’s the issue?” a person by the username @patrickkabak comments under a similar video.

“Men Writing Women” refers to the pattern of defining female characters by insulting stereotypes and physical appearances, prevalent in many — perhaps most — male-authored books. This problem, pervasive in fiction, extends beyond the portrayal of women. Novelists’ cultural biases often permeate their work.

Obviously, authors should be more thoughtful and conscientious when writing outside their personal experience, but this solution only addresses future work. What about cherished classics from the past? What should we do with them now?

We should keep them. We should continue reading classic novels, including those penned in problematic ways.

To understand the issue, consider “Men Writing Women.” Imagine a woman in her twenties with brown hair who sits alone in a coffee shop while wearing eccentric jewelry, paging through “Lolita,” and sipping a chai latte.

One novelist might describe her as a young adult with thrifted accessories, an overrated novel, and a latte made with oat milk, probably trying to look cool and mysterious. Another novelist might describe her as a fresh-faced yet sultry brunette with glowy skin, soft lips, and enchanting eyes that match the color of her latte.

The second example does not indicate a worthwhile leisure read, nor a wise selection for an academic course — but it mirrors descriptions found in many male-authored novels. In addition to mass-market fiction, it also mimics the work of celebrated writers like William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, J.D. Salinger, Leo Tolstoy, and John Updike.

“She was a slender, small-breasted girl, with an erect carriage which she accentuated by throwing her body backward like a young cadet,” F. Scott Fitzgerald writes in “The Great Gatsby.”

“Her breasts stuck out straight and true; her little flanks looked delicious,” Jack Kerouac writes in “On The Road.”

“One could see the outline of her firm little breasts, and her sun-tanned face was like a velvety brown flower,” Albert Camus writes in “The Stranger.”

These authors, who display a concerning fascination with breasts, struggle to develop substantive female characters. Not only do they subject women to objectifying descriptions, but they also limit women to misogynistic roles in their narratives. But should we toss their books from our shelves and erase them from our syllabi? Their work still has high literary merit. Readers can — and should — enjoy their prose and appreciate their craft, despite the infused prejudice.

Applied elsewhere, this opinion becomes more controversial. Some readers may be willing to gloss over misogyny in classic novels, but many of them may be hesitant to read through racism and antisemitism. These harmful biases pervade many novels of literary excellence, such as “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Heart of Darkness,” and almost anything by Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf.

“It snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane,” Charlotte Brontë writes in “Jane Eyre” to describe a supposedly insane woman from Jamaica.

“She was a diminutive, withered up old woman of sixty, with sharp malignant eyes and a sharp little nose,” Fyodor Doestoevsky writes in “Crime and Punishment,” echoing antisemitic tropes to describe a woman loaning money.

“The negro kept grinning and chuckling in a silly way,” Sylvia Plath writes in “The Bell Jar” to describe a nurse with “big, rolling eyes” and a face like “a molasses-coloured moon.”

Still, these classic novels should remain on our shelves and in our minds — without revision — not only because they chronicle history, but also because they hold literary value. Classic fiction provides entertainment, such as the misogynist “Live and Let Die” and the racist “Dracula.” It also allows students and writers to learn about narrative techniques and improve their work, which they would not gain in the same way from revised writing.

These advantages do not excuse or justify writers’ problematic ideas, but they illustrate that their books hold a crucial role in the present day. Readers shouldn’t deprive themselves of beloved, well-written work, and they shouldn’t have to read rewritten versions. Discarding classic novels would be a disservice to bookworms, writers, and students, and preserving them doesn’t impact deceased authors.

No one should consume these novels in isolation. Books by women and culturally marginalized writers must be included, even favored, in the literary canon and personal “To Be Read” lists. Concurrently, readers can preserve problematic fiction ethically and morally by committing to three imperative responsibilities.

First, they must approach books intentionally by identifying reasons for reading them and focusing on the intended gains. Second, they must read actively and critically by remaining aware of writers’ prejudices and recognizing damaging ideas to avoid absorbing them. Finally, they must proceed deliberately and tactfully after completing texts by holding onto the benefits and using any offensive elements to better inform their own engagement with cultural diversity.

Notably, readers should avoid books that prioritize fueling hate or oppression above offering anything productive, prejudiced books targeted at children who are too young to read discerningly, and prejudiced books created by writers who still benefit from audience consumption. However, most classic novels — even those imbued with negative bias — contribute to personal and societal betterment without affecting unavoidable harm. Fans of these books should continue reading them.

All being said, keep your copy of “To The Lighthouse.” You shouldn’t deny yourself cherished classic fiction — not even classic fiction marked by prejudice.

—Staff writer Vivienne N. Germain can be reached at vivienne.germain@thecrimson.com.

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