Shit Lit: The Five Worst Texts You Studied in High School (and our superior suggestions)

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Words || Cameron Colwell, Emma Harvey, and Nikita Jones

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Don’t get me wrong: The Great Gatsby is one of my literary guilty pleasures, but if I’d been forced to read it at seventeen I might’ve had a grudge on old Fitzy forever.  Why educators think reading about the unattainability of the American dream and the horrors of fading youth would appeal to Australian teenagers is anyone’s guess: Fitzgerald’s achingly lyrical prose and layered metaphors lose their glamour when you have to force yourself to appreciate them, and with a gossamer-thin plot, there’s not much left of this classic except that good old 1920s misogyny and racism. It’s notoriously not a relevant book for teenagers: one of the more memorable moments of the book is when its protagonist realises he’s thirty and still single – the prospect of dying alone is a bit far off for high school students, I’d imagine.

While there’s the sense of the kind of eternally haunting heartbreak permeating the book that will, eventually, consume us all, maybe we can wait for kids to be disillusioned by the multitudinous disappointments of adult life in their own time.

Replacement: I don’t know – something less depressing. Like The Bell Jar.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Look, nobody’s saying Atticus Finch isn’t the original woke dad-crush. And even less people are saying that Harper Lee isn’t a fucking queen. But, and hear me out, wouldn’t it be great if the book about racism that gets shoved down every sixteen-year-old’s throat was actually written by a person of colour? I get that it’s a lot easier to teach race relations to high-schoolers when you can boil it all down to ‘oh my, old timey people sure were racist!’ but the teenagers of 2017 deserve more than this. The teens who watched #BlackLivesMatter protests and Trump’s rise to power on the news are in desperate need of the right literary tools to help them understand the issues they are living through. Unfortunately, Finchy’s whole white-saviour act isn’t gonna cut it in the 21st Century.

Replacement: Literally anything written this century by a person of colour. Ta-Nehisi Coats’ Between The World And Me or Geronimo Johnson’s Welcome to Braggsville come to mind.

Immigrant Chronicle by Peter Skrzynecki

Whose cruel joke was it to make Peter Skrzynecki’s Immigrant Chronicle a prescribed text for the HSC? There are some really worthwhile stories here, but given most students aren’t poetry fanatics in the first place, it’s unlikely that watered-down metaphors and lyrical descriptions of garden beds are going to enthuse. The anthology has made its way off the HSC syllabus in recent years but still remains a “shadow that hangs over you in a dream”, worming its way into prelim courses (that’s right, I memorised the fuck out of my quotes).

Replacements: Hans Arp, Mira Kuś (I’ve never read their poems but look – three letters!)

Blade Runner by Ridley Scott

I’ve been holding a grudge against Ridley Scott for four years now. I didn’t even watch The Martian and yes, I do hate Alien To me, Scott represents the peak example of white male mediocrity being inexplicably rewarded at every turn. The man has made some absolute turds, Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) was a racist trainwreck, but I still think The Counsellor (2013) is one of the worst films ever made. And yet, Blade Runner is supposed to be the height of creative genius? High School teachers wheel out the TV unit every year to shove this crawling, metaphorical nonsense movie down students’ throats with assurances that ‘the director’s cut is the superior version because Ridley Scott is a master auteur’ or what-the-fuck-ever. The only good thing that man has ever done in his entire life is make Thelma & Louise a thing. That’s it.

Replacement: Ghost in the Shell(no, not the white ScarJo version, the 1995 anime) does similar themes of ‘authentic vs artificial’ identity but better. Also, Ex Machina (2015)

1984 by George Orwell

In response to, just like, 2016 in general, this motherfucker found its way back up the bestseller list. I get it, connections can certainly be drawn between the Cheeto-in-Chief and Big Brother, and not just reality-tv connections. Thing is though, while this book is hella critical of oppressive regimes, Orwell gives a lot of toxic shit a free pass. The man himself had been burned by communism in his past, and so his critique of the soviet regime (however deserved), and endorsement of Western capitalism, is pretty cut and dry. He also deals out some straight-up uncriticised misogyny, which is really just Not Helpful. An author who is not critical enough of his own society to dress down the social inequalities which surround him is not an author I think qualified to lead any sort of literary resistance in 2017.

Replacement: The Handmaid’s Tale, obviously. It’s so much better. And now there’s a pretty good TV adaptation that students can use to pretend they read the book.