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50 Works of English Literature We Could Do Without

Some time ago, I was wandering the stacks at the Chicago Public Library's main branch (eight floors! escalators! shiny things!), and I happened upon a book called Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without, which I of course immediately checked out. I cannot recommend browsing library stacks enough -- this method also led me to the pamphlet Hunting the Highbrow by Leonard Woolf, which I now get to casually toss out that I've read. Ah, stacks.

Fifty Works was published in 1967 by three people about whom I've invented a backstory, most of which has since been proven false, but whatever.




The authors, in my mind, are three graduate students in England who are all so brilliant, bored and irritated by the undergraduates that they decided to start writing essays on why all the books the undergrads like are rubbishy ones. And then they said "Well, these are obviously excellent essays, so let's publish them." And of course someone published them. Because of the aforementioned excellence.

What seems to actually be the case is Brigid Brophy was a 38-year-old novelist/feminist/pacifist; Michael Levey was a 40-year-old art historian and married to Brigid; and Charles Osborne was a 40-year-old journalist and theatre/opera critic. None of them put their names to their essays, but it doesn't matter because they are all hilarious.

I can't say anything more except to fill the rest of this with quotes. You should read all the essays, though. Since it was published in 1967, we have by now learned to "do without" some of the works mentioned, but the majority still thrive in the canon -- something which I'm sure would dismay the above three.

Before you let fly with a scream at our iconoclasm, pause and play fair: do you *really* like, admire and (most important criterion of all) enjoy the works in question, or do you merely think you ought to?

Goldsmith had a great reputation for amusing children. If children are to be equated with uncritical innocence and merry stupidity, it is perhaps true to say that She Stoops to Conquer will amuse children.


What can be made of a writer who at the most poignant and harrowing climax of his novel describes events only with the desperate phrase that they 'surpass description'? It is immediately obvious that we are dealing not with an artist but with Sir Walter Scott.

It is possible that the entire literary career of Anthony Trollope is an act of expiation for the unseemliness of his surname.

Wuthering Heights will wash as a psychological-historical curio or as high old rumbustious nonsense, but not as a great novel.

Indeed, the whole of Moby Dick is a gigantic memorandum, to the effect 'What a story this would make, if told by someone who knew how to tell stories.'

On Gerard Manley Hopkins: "Hopkins's is the poetry of a mental cripple."

They also have an excellent essay on Peter Pan, which mainly discusses it in Oedipal terms, which would normally make me roll my eyes, but THEY MAKE SUCH GOOD POINTS:

What small boys in the throes of the Oedipus situation feel about fathers is epitomized in the casting of the same actor as Mr Darling and as the villain and danger of the piece. What small boys in that situation would like to do to fathers, the play's castration theme, is introduced with the crocodile, who has already actually snapped off one of Captain Hook's members.



It's not a readily available book, as most literary criticism falls out of print immediately, but it's a collection of essays about books you've probably read written by three hilarious friends. So. You should read it. Go do that. 

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