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Wuthering Heights and the joy of divisive books

Few books divide readers the way that Wuthering Heights does. I had no idea of the passionate love, and equally passionate dislike, that readers felt towards this book before reading it and posting my thoughts on the book on the Facebook Book Club.

Of the many readers who responded, few were ambivalent.

“LOVED IT, yeah definitely not your typical love story but such a great plot,”  wrote one.

“I studied this book for literature O level and have read it many times since. My all-time favourite,” wrote another.

And

“I loved it ❤️, read it for my a level in English literature many years ago, and it blew me away ❤️❤️ still my favourite book.”

But it wasn’t long before some less favourable opinions were put forward.

“Very depressing… did not like the characters,” was one.

And

“Truly hated it. Didn’t like a single character.”

Some couldn’t abide a book in which there were no characters they liked, while others balked at its dark theme.

Even personally, I felt a bit torn. I couldn’t put the book down, but I was disturbed by the grimness of the story. Having said that, I’ve never shied away from a harrowing read.

And perhaps that is why readers’ opinions of the book vary so much – some appreciate a dark novel in which the characters are irredeemably unlikable, while others prefer to read a book that gives them a sense of joy, and in which they can relate to or admire the characters.

One novel I adored – The Choke – was one of the most harrowing I have read, and I rarely hear it mentioned as a favourite among other readers even though it won the Best Novel category of the 2018 Indie Book Award for Fiction.

Sometimes it is the age or era in which a book is read that divides opinions.

I’ve also been surprised to hear how divided readers are about Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Before reading it, I’d been warned that it was not nearly as good as the television series. However, I found the book to be extraordinarily good.

Many readers who didn’t enjoy the book reported that they had read the book years ago in school, and had found it unrealistic. Perhaps political and social changes that reinforced the messages of the book had made it more relevant for modern readers than it had been decades ago.

Politics also plays a part in the response to Ayn Rand’s books. Rand used her fiction to promote her political views, which could be described as free-market fundamentalism. I hated Atlas Shrugged, and I tell myself that it was because it was laboured and boring (it is 1,184 pages long), not because I disagree with Rand’s politics. However, I don’t think that’s entirely true. What I really disagreed with was having a certain viewpoint shoved down my throat, which is what I believed Rand was trying to do with her writing.

And those who support Rand’s politics idolise her. According to an article in The Guardian, US President Donald Trump has only ever spoken about liking three works of fiction, and one of them was Rand’s The Fountainhead.

“It relates to business, beauty, life and inner emotions. That book relates to … everything,” he said in 2016.

The reason why other books are so divisive is much less obvious. Some books that readers seem to love or hate include the bestselling The Tattooist of Auschwitz, and the equally popular Where the Crawdads Sing.

Classic novel and one of the most-read books of all-time, The Alchemist, also divides readers who either say they either found it inspiring or ridiculous.

When it comes to writers, opinions on Tim Winton seem to be particularly divided; he is either a national treasure or a national embarrassment, inspiring a humorous Twitter account that mocks his earnest obsessions with boyhood and the natural world.

I’m always pleased to hear when books divide readers, as it is a sign of the personal nature of reading. There are so many reasons to love or hate a book, and it is very difficult to predict which it will be for any book or reader.

And I’m glad that I’ve finally read Emily Bronte’s most divisive work, so that I can join in the debate.

Books mentioned are available at Booktopia (Australia) and The Book Depository (US and UK).

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