One of my Facebook friends sparked a discussion about teaching really, really terrible texts: how do you frame them for the students? What can you do with them? Do you offer your own opinion, or wait for the students to say "bleeaarrgggh"? As my long-standing (and -suffering) readers know, much of my time is spent reading books that are, shall we say, of problematic aesthetic value. But do I teach them?
I'm not a fan of over-arching generalizations (who is?), so let's just say that "it depends." More specifically: it depends on the level and subject matter of the course. My usual mantra is that students in introductory courses should be exposed to major works in the relevant literary tradition; that students in upper-division courses should have the opportunity to explore less familiar works (the "canon-busting," if you like); and that graduate students should be offered a cross-section of all the works necessary to understand the topic at hand, no matter how aesthetically pleasing or displeasing they are. Thus, British Literature II tends to be about the Romantic Big Six, the major Victorian poets, and so on, whereas more advanced Gothic courses will inflict feature Eliza Parsons or James Malcolm Rymer in addition to the more palatable Mary Shelley or J. S. Le Fanu.
In this semester's Judaism & the 19th c. British Novel graduate seminar, I taught two pretty awful works, Osborn W. Trenery Heighway's Leila Ada and Mrs. E. A. Germains' Left to Starve, and No One Wants the Blame--the former as an example of the conversion narrative, the latter as a Jewish reworking of Daniel Deronda (alongside Amy Levy's more sophisticated, but also more ambivalent, Reuben Sachs). I did warn students that some folks still take Leila Ada seriously, despite Heighway's unfortunate track record (his Royal Literary Fund application reveals that he was sued by a former publisher--successfully--for faking a different, Christian "life"), and the ones who Googled were left...agog...by the results. In any event, with Leila Ada, once I got the "ack, this is bad" out of the way--and I'm usually upfront about the "ack, this is bad" factor--I had them itemize all the genres and modes at work in the narrative. One (of many...) of the bizarre things about the narrative is just how many different genres/modes it cycles through, from the Gothic to travelogue to (obviously) conversion narrative to sentimentalism to...you name it. Once we had something productive to say about how the book worked, we could have a serious discussion about how it used different strategies to narrate the conversion experience. Similarly, with Left to Starve, the students and I charted all the Daniel Deronda parallels and ripostes, which opened up a route, again, for us to think about what the book was doing (positive) as opposed to how bad it was (negative). In general, I try to get students to turn "this is bad/this is boring" responses around--OK, what is the book doing that doesn't work for me? Is it trying and failing to engage with a problem, either content- or form-wise? Do I and the author have radically different priorities, and if so, what?