A lot of you are probably going through midterms right now, and writing papers, and generally trying your best not to waste the several tens of thousands of dollars you've spent to be taught things you've suddenly realized you're not that interested in. And that's good and wise, and I won't fault you for trying, as wasting thousands of dollars at a time isn't something Cracked generally endorses, unless you're buying a really kickass trampoline or something. But you'll be happy to know that you're right for not being interested in what you're being made to study.
Specifically, many of the classic works and writers of English literature are absolutely rotten with flaws. Obviously this is a slightly subjective statement, and many will disagree with me. After all, I am just some guy, and even if I'm not the only one to have pointed out these flaws, there are just as many people who consider them not flaws at all.
They're wrong, though.
Most readers are generally tolerant of a single unlikely event or sequence to start a story off. "What if someone from the 21st century arrived in the future and met the characters from Star Trek and they all started fucking each other?" is a good example. But as the story progresses, coincidences are much less tolerated. They reek of artifice, of an author who can't resolve a plot any other way, and in general take the reader out of the story.
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"I can accept that this strange visitor from the past is a capable shuttlecraft pilot thanks to his years of video game experience, but that he's ALSO a skilled and generous lover is too much to ask."
Charles Dickens didn't believe in any of that shit and used coincidence the way other writers use verbs. His stories are littered with coincidence. A Tale of Two Cities has important plot points centered on the fact that two characters look the same. Oliver Twist features an orphan rescued from the world of street crime by a benevolent upper class family, only to discover that he's the long-lost nephew of that family (and the long-lost half-brother of a man who'd been pursuing him). In Great Expectations, characters overhear conversations that are incredibly unlikely to have taken place in their presence and accidentally bump into each other in places none of them would ever likely be.
"Wouldn't it be weird if we lost touch with each other and independently came back here for no reason at all 11 years from now and everything wrapped itself up happily?"
"Oh. Well, all right then."
I should point out that Dickens didn't do this lazily; his use of coincidence was a wholly deliberate writing choice. Dickens found his own life full of coincidences and felt that the world was much smaller than we perceived it, that people we felt were a great distance away were in fact much closer. So this is arguably a stylistic choice, rather than a flaw, and I encourage you to think just that as you wait for life to provide you the coincidental happy ending you so richly deserve.
George Orwell did not like the Soviet Union. That's a pretty reasonable position to take, but what differentiated Orwell from everyone else in the First World was that he was hating the Soviet Union during the depths of World War II, back when they were ostensibly our allies. Orwell was basically the hipster of hating the Soviet Union.
"Yeah, I'm kinda over hating Nazis. You heard of the Soviets? Didn't think so."
Although most famous for Nineteen Eighty-Four, which is itself not exactly a lipstick-stained love letter to totalitarianism, it's Orwell's other famous work, Animal Farm, that we'll talk about here. Animal Farm is an allegory about a bunch of animals who take over their farm and install a new form of government not dissimilar to Soviet communism. It's a satire, which is fine, but it's done in such an over-the-top manner that it feels obvious, even garish. It's like something you'd use to teach a baby about satire.
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"Now, as you can see, this is more of a Juvenalian satire rather than Horatian and ... hey. HEY. Pay attention."
There's nothing subtle here at all. Everything that happens in the novel is an obvious stand-in for a real-world event in the history of Soviet communism. Everything the ruling animals (pigs, naturally) do is transparently evil and sinister. It's like getting hit in the face with a sledgehammer that has "SATIRE" written on the handle, and it utterly dulls the effect Orwell intended. By the end of the novel, when the pigs are so indistinguishable from the evil humans they supplanted, the reader is practically screaming at the novel, "YES. I GET IT."
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I'LL NEVER EAT NOTHING BUT PORK AGAIN.
Moby-Dick is a classic story of whale madness, which is underselling it a bit, but serves for our purposes here. Even if you haven't read it, you're probably familiar with at least the basic outline of the story. It's about a mad whaling captain, a mischievous white whale, and a love that can never be.
"Just admit that you didn't read it, Mr. Bucholz."
The problem with Moby-Dick is that a summary of the plot contains about as much text as the actual plot itself gets in the book. The remainder of the 800-odd pages are devoted to incredibly detailed descriptions of whales, the sea, whalers, whalers on the sea, sealing whales, and a thousand other things. Also, just for fun, there are 3,600 words describing the color white.
This picture is not worth a thousand words, not to Melville.
Obviously a book can be about more than its plot, and passages devoted to setting, character, and theme are all perfectly worthwhile ways for an author to tell a story. Indeed, in Moby-Dick, an awful lot of subtext and commentary are included in these days-long passages on the sea, and it wouldn't be the same book without them.
It'd be a shorter book that everyone loved.