The Not-So-Great Gatsby: A Literary Abomination

In a brilliant blog post yesterday, film critic Roger Ebert lays into Macmillan Reader Editions for putting out a “dumbed down” version of The Great Gatsby. This series, apparently, is designed to relieve high school students of that nasty responsibility of parsing complex sentences and ideas by spoon-feeding the text to them with fewer (and shorter) words and none of those pesky metaphors, similes, or allusions.

Which, according to Ebert, defeats the purpose of reading great literature. Or, as he puts it,

“There is no purpose in ‘reading’ The Great Gatsby unless you actually read it. Fitzgerald’s novel is not about a story. It is about how the story is told. Its poetry, its message, its evocation of Gatsby’s lost American dream, is expressed in Fitzgerald’s style–in the precise words he choose to write what some consider the great American novel. Unless you have read them, you have not read the book at all. You have been imprisoned in an educational system that cheats and insults you by inflicting a barbaric dumbing-down process. You are left with the impression of having read a book, and may never feel you need return for a closer look.”

Along with doing our children a great disservice by stripping from them the opportunity to learn and to stretch their minds, I fear that this edition of Gatsby (and, God help me, other “retellings”) could set up a lifetime aversion to challenging reading. This is bad for the individual and does not bode well for our culture. Breaking down classic literature into “manageable” plot lines is as wrong-headed as censorship. Both crimes prevent readers from experiencing an author’s vision of the world and its inhabitants as he or she intended.

But, you may be saying, isn’t it better to offer students a book they can easily read and regurgitate for good test scores rather than giving them one that’s too challenging?

No. No, no, no, no, no.

Sure, I wasn’t wild about Shakespeare in high school. Mainly because I hated the idea of someone telling me what I should be reading. I hated the personal agendas of certain English teachers. But I’m grateful for the gift of great literature. I learned how to read critically. I learned about different cultures. In my little corner of nearly all-white exurbia, I learned about the world.

Through reading I also learned how to write, because reading the masters is how we get better. Reading amazing books like The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye, and A Visit from the Goon Squad, for a modern example, make me want to be a better writer.

Greatness begets greatness, in my opinion. Part of the teaching of great authors involves a study of their artistic influences. Or, as Isaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen further than others, it was only by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” How can a new generation see further if they’re standing on the bare, osteoporotic bones of plot summation?

8 thoughts on “The Not-So-Great Gatsby: A Literary Abomination

  1. JenD says:

    Continuing from my comment elsewhere, I really wish I knew which version of Gatsby I speed-read in high school. I went to an alternative school that let the students decide which courses they wanted to take, so I’d already voluntarily taken Shakespeare 1 and 2 by the time The Great Gatsby debacle went down. I do plan to read the real version at some point to shed the bad juju that experience left in my soul.

    I detest any and all attempts to bastardize great works of literature, whether it be to dumb them down for lamebrains or, even more so, to make them politically correct. The message, as I see it, is that people, young or old, are incapable of critical thinking or of learning and understanding certain truths about humanity. Should we not know our whole selves and how we relate to the collective conscious? How can we do that when our minds are narrowed by crappy ‘retellings’ of important literature? Am I making any sense? (I didn’t sleep much, which makes me weirdly contemplative and often inarticulate)

  2. laurieboris says:

    You’re making complete sense, at least to me. Here’s what made me even angrier: delving further, I discovered that Macmillan intends these books to be for people who are seeking to improve their command of the English language. So, what, we give them crap? We give them the Cliff Notes? (And kudos to my speech recognition program for not understanding Cliff Notes.) When I read “The Little Prince” and “Candide” in French class, we didn’t get a dumbed-down version. That text was pretty complex. I’ve heard that English is tough to learn if you are not a native speaker, but why not practice on the best we have to offer?

    • JenD says:

      I agree. Even children’s books were more complex decades ago. I have two that my grandmother used to read to me from, both published in the 1920’s, and they were my favorite stories. When my brother had kids, I offered the books to his family and was met with turned-up wrinkled noses. Also, I remember thumbing through some old textbooks in Grandma’s house when I was a teenager. I asked her if they were hers from college and she said, “No, from high school.” I couldn’t believe the vast intellectual difference between her school books and mine! We are getting progressively dumber as a society. Truly not far off from the movie Idiocracy. Is there any hope for us when extreme politicians speak out AGAINST education, referring to the educated as “the elite”? Since when is being smart and questioning everything for the sake of learning and growing a bad thing? Oy, too many questions. I could go on all day and night!

  3. Annie says:

    If we need a new version of The Great Gatsby for students, then shouldn’t we consider a new version of the bible for parishioners who might struggle with the pesky interpretation of God’s word? In my humble opinion, we have no right to tamper with literature that so nearly reaches perfection. I just heard the Indiana school district has proposed that they will no longer teach longhand. What will be next? Are we going to dumb society down to the point when the 2020 commencement speech will be delivered in a series of guttural grunts and groans?

  4. knowitallwriter says:

    There’s been a “simplified” version of the King James bible for many decades.

    I used to teach ESL, and never used dumbed-down anything. There are plenty of simpler texts for readers who can’t yet grasp the nuances of simile, etc., and the only way they’ll ever get there is by reading the great stuff. Too many books nowadays focus/depend almost entirely on plot; too many people have never read great poetry, so wouldn’t know an extended metaphor if it kicked them in the face. Like Ebert says, the art of writing–the brushstrokes, allusion, cadence, foreshadowing, motif, and all of the beauty of the telling are as important as the story. People have been trained through TV and crap books to take everything in two dimensions: one for each glassy eye.

  5. SarahK says:

    As if to highlight your point, the first of the Google-supported ads at the bottom of this entry was for a paper-writing service. Apparently I could get a 200-page PhD dissertation within 48 hours, provided I had approximately $7000 to waste. (And after you’ve apparently wasted $100,000 or so on your education, what’s another $7k?)

    This particular case of literary mangling breaks my heart, because the last lines of The Great Gatsby are some of my favorite in all of literature. Sometimes I wonder if literature lovers are the real “boats against the current” now.

  6. Lee Isbell says:

    Do they still make those Reader’s Digest books with five titles under one cover? I think ads for those were the first junk mail I ever received as a young married person. I remember being insulted … if I wanted to read a book, why wouldn’t I read THE book? Dumbing down is not really new, since that was over 50 years ago.

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