What Fiction Do English Professors Assign?

The influential website Campusbooks displays a roster of “Popular Classics Textbooks” in fiction. The list offers an aperture into the minds of University English departments:

  1. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
  2. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  3. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  4. The Rum Diary by Hunter S.Thompson
  5. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  6. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  7. The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
  8. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  9. A Separate Peace by John Knowles
  10.  Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
  11.  Maus by Art Spiegelman
  12.  One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  13.  The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J. R.R.Tolkien
  14. The Stranger by Albert Camus

Of these, a third can be considered true classics, morally challenging works that stimulate the mind: 1, 2, 3, 12 and 14. The Rum Diary is the customary alcoholic spillage from a gonzo journalist who recently left the stage; Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Outsiders, A Separate Peace, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are either coming-of-age tales or mythic adventures for the wide-eyed. All are highly appropriate for the bright high-school sophomore, but hardly the stuff of stimulating college courses. Neither, for that matter, are those favorites of the 1960’s, Kurt Vonnegut’s easily understood novels and the pot-scented work of Herman Hesse.    

Whatever happened to the Grand Inquisitor chapter of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov ? The stories of Chekhov? Or for that matter the stories of Twain? Or Hemingway? Or Faulkner? Or John Cheever? What about The Great Gatsby?

The subject of the Holocaust is worthy of study, but Maus, after all, is a picture book. What about Elie Wiesel’s eyewitness Night or William Styron’s painful Sophie’s Choice?

The answer is all too clear. If this list reflects class assignments, then it means Professors, or more likely their department heads, don’t want to challenge the adolescent mind. They want to make things CliffsNotes-simple for their students. That way the A’s and B-pluses pile up, the sheepskins are given out, the alumni have the feeling that they have been truly educated, and no one loses—except perhaps those who know the value of literature. Mark Twain once defined a classic as a book that people praise and don’t read. Little did he know it would happen to Huckleberry Finn.

Stefan Kanfer is a contributing editor for City Journal and author of Somebody, a biography of Marlon Brando.


  • Stefan Kanfer

    Stefan Kanfer, former book review editor and senior editor for Time magazine, writes widely for City Journal on political, social, and cultural topics. He is the author of more than a dozen books, among them The Last Empire, the story of the De Beers diamond company; Stardust Lost, about the Yiddish Theater in America; biographies of Groucho Marx, Marlon Brando, Lucille Ball and Humphrey Bogart; plus novels and thrillers.

5 thoughts on “What Fiction Do English Professors Assign?

  1. I think most of the classics you find missing have been moved down to the high school level. From what’s been said in comments, maybe they switched the curricula around? That would be strange at least. I definitely read most the classics you note in later high school classes (Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, Faulkner, and Hemingway).
    I would also disagree with the assertion that since Maus is not a novel in the traditional sense it isn’t challenging. I personally found it more intellectually stimulating and certainly more philosophically rich than Night. Not to say that Wiesel’s account is not powerful or meaningful, it certainly is. However, in terms of challenging material, it makes sense to move towards “new classics” as they have new ideas, which students are less likely to have considered than those presented in more “mainstream” classics.
    I agree however about the Rum Diary and Vonnegut. And also that more people should read Dostoevsky. In college as well as high school and life…

  2. For that matter, I had to read “To Kill a Mockingbird” a couple of times after high school and it gets less impressive each time. I think it was Flannery O’Connor who said that except for the rape scene it’s really a Young Adult-type book.
    It doesn’t stretch your mind the way great literature should? What are Atticus’ faults? Why are the Ewells the way they are? If I were a resident of Maycomb where would my loyalties lie? I don’t think the book helps us do more than congratulate ourselves.
    And yes, “A Separate Peace” is a fine book for high schoolers but that and the whole list call into question “higher” education.

  3. S.E. Hinton, The Outsiders. Umm, isn’t that what is now called “Young Adult” fiction, and usually assigned to middle school age children? I applaud the Orwell and Huxley choices. Tolkien has probably already been read by them, as well as To Kill a Mockingbird. All in all this looks like a repeat of high school.

  4. This certainly doesn’t speak well for contemporary college English departments. Several of these books were popular personal, fun reading outside of class when I was in high school. None of these were assigned in college, but a number were assigned reading in junior high or lower level high school courses. So, is college the new high school or the new junior high?

  5. Your point is well-taken, but the title of the course makes a difference. Were all of the choices from classes whose focus is literature, or were some from composition or “how to read fiction” type classes?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *