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“Mr. Scott Fitzgerald deserves a good shaking.”

Literature, like any form of art, is interpreted subjectively. That’s what makes it so fun to talk about, and that’s why blogs like this are a pleasure to write.

The problem comes, at least for this blogger, when you say you dislike a novel that everyone else likes. How dare you cross the literary gods and goddesses and express your unfavorable opinion of a classic novel? For shame.

When a novel first comes out, though, early reviewers don’t have that luxury—or that obstacle, depending on how you see it. If you’re the first reviewer of a book, you have zero bias and zero preconceived notions about it.

No one has told you whether it was amazing or whether it sucks. So, more than likely, you’re just honest. But if your honesty results in you writing the only critical review of a novel that is widely adored, well, then your review will stick out like a sore thumb.

Like these examples of early reviews of classic novels that Flavor Wire recently provided:

Lolita: “There are two equally serious reasons why it isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive.” — Orville Prescott, The New York Times, 1958

Lolita is a lot of things, but dull is not one of them.

Leaves of Grass: “It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards.” – Thomas Wentworth Higginson, The Atlantic, 1867

Man, that’s harsh.

Wuthering Heights: “How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.” — Graham’s Lady’s Magazine, 1848

Is this person actually suggesting Emily Bronte commit suicide? Oh dear.

Catch-22: “Its author, Joseph Heller, is like a brilliant painter who decides to throw all the ideas in his sketchbooks onto one canvas, relying on their charm and shock to compensate for the lack of design… The book is an emotional hodgepodge; no mood is sustained long enough to register for more than a chapter.” — Richard G. Stern, The New York Times Book Review, 1961

This is just heresy.

The Great Gatsby: “Mr. Scott Fitzgerald deserves a good shaking. Here is an unmistakable talent unashamed of making itself a motley to the view. The Great Gatsby is an absurd story, whether considered as romance, melodrama, or plain record of New York high life.” — L.P Hartley, The Saturday Review, 1925

Heresy again, although the “Fitzgerald deserves a good shaking” line is pretty funny.

Ulysses: “Ulysses appears to have been written by a perverted lunatic who has made a speciality of the literature of the latrine… I have no stomach for Ulysses… James Joyce is a writer of talent, but in Ulysses he has ruled out all the elementary decencies of life and dwells appreciatively on things that sniggering louts of schoolboys guffaw about.”  — The Sporting Times, 1922

Ulysses as bathroom reading is an interesting idea. I prefer sports magazines.

The Catcher in the Rye: “This Salinger, he’s a short story guy. And he knows how to write about kids. This book though, it’s too long. Gets kind of monotonous. And he should’ve cut out a lot about these jerks and all that crumby school. They depress me.” — James Stern, The New York Times, 1951

Well, now, how dare Salinger depress YOU of all people.

Madame Bovary: “Monsieur Flaubert is not a writer.” — Le Figaro, 1857.

Could there be a worse accusation of an author?

Whether you love or hate these books, how awesome are those reviews?

Disagree with them…or dare you agree with one of these scathing reviews?

Read others at Flavor Wire. 

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22 Comments Post a comment
  1. That review of Catch-22 needs to be burned

    Liked by 1 person

    October 25, 2012
  2. Really interesting!

    Like

    October 25, 2012
  3. very enlightening – I am afraid I cannot give The Old Man and the Sea a great rating, as I just find I cannot get intereted in this book–and the whole Jane Austin thing leaves me mystified.

    Liked by 1 person

    October 25, 2012
  4. Great post, thanks! Today I bought my very first F. Scott Fitzgerald Kindle-book. I am eager to see if he really deserves a good shaking!

    Liked by 1 person

    October 25, 2012
  5. @KathrynFrances1 #

    Suggestions that the author should commit suicide notwithstanding, the Wuthering Heights review is spot on. I hate that book! Can’t understand its devoted following. James Stern’s review is also apt.

    Liked by 1 person

    October 25, 2012
  6. I love this even if I disagree with some of the reviews! I love Brontë and Austen, but I’m a girl who likes well written girly books. (i.e. not the Twilight series and some others.) But I know that not everyone agrees about books. That’s one thing that makes them awesome.

    Like

    October 25, 2012
  7. Love Stern’s take on Catcher in the Rye, he speaks just like Holden.

    Like

    October 25, 2012
    • kirkykoo79 #

      I thought the same and wondered if it was actually a veiled tribute – imitation being the sincerest form of flattery etc?
      The rest are fantastic – I wonder how the reviewers felt years later.

      Like

      October 25, 2012
  8. dste #

    What I find really interesting is this idea that if a book is a classic, you almost have to say that it’s a good book. It’s like this obligation, and the way that it plays out in different people is really fascinating.

    In reading these reviews, for example, the impulse is to wonder how the people who wrote them could be so wrong. But I’ve only read one of these so far. How am I to know that Catch-22, for example, is undeserving of that criticism? Yet I have a tendency to jump to that conclusion simply because of the reputation it’s gained from the opinions of other people.

    I wrote about something related to this in one of my posts not long ago. Going off of the idea that people feel as though they have to accept the fact that classics are important because everyone else seems to think that they are, I mentioned this attitude of thinking that reading certain books would be good for you but not fun. So you get people who will freely accept that a book deserves to be called a classic when at the same time they believe that they would personally be bored to tears by it. I find the whole thing fascinating.

    Like

    October 25, 2012
  9. First, a book is a classic because it has engaged the imagination of readers for several generations. This does not mean every reader will enjoy or see the value of every classic, but it seems reasonable that the reader look within himself to analyze his response (or hers, naturally). I know many people that intensely dislike Lolita (if they even bothered to read it) but that is a personal response by the reader to the subject matter and has little to do with the quality of the text.

    I thought it was interesting that several of these authors could be viewed as one-hit-wonders: Fitzgerald, for instance, only really wrote one great novel and if you read the other attempts, they are pretty ghastly. The affects of drugs and booze might be a cause of this in the case of both Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

    For an author like Joyce who was far advanced both literarily and scholarly over his critics (except Ezra) it is understandable that there were many criticisms based on lack of understanding. The same is true for Flaubert. When any author writes in a manner that is not in lock-step with the prevailing literary styles, they are in danger of being panned. Here in the United States we have the example of Henry James who was generally dismissed for decades and only recently has been revived and is now in danger of becoming hackneyed.

    The other reviews seem spot-on and possibly display too much of the critics’ soft side.

    Liked by 1 person

    October 25, 2012
  10. Some of these are harsh, but I have to agree with others… I found Lolita incredibly boring (didn’t finish it… maybe I should have!), liked The Great Gatsby but think it’s overrated, and I absolutely loathed Madame Bovary (I had been looking forward to reading it so that made it particularly disappointing!).

    That’s not to say I hate classics (love so many of them) or am a harsh book critic… reading is just such a subjective thing!

    I think a well written piece of criticism is gold, thanks for sharing these!

    Like

    October 25, 2012
    • Oh – I meant to add – there’s a difference between an entertaining criticism of a book and a personal attack on the author, and I think that suicide comment was a step too far!

      Like

      October 25, 2012
  11. I disagree with the majority of these reviews, but I’m okay with that.

    Like

    October 25, 2012
  12. I’ll agree with the take on Joyce, man oh man. But really, were critics just more harsh back then or are the really mean-spirited comments like these diluted by enthusiasm today?

    Like

    October 26, 2012
  13. Reblogged this on Inkings and Inklings.

    Like

    October 27, 2012
  14. doctormimi #

    Reblogged this on My Glamorous Literary Life and commented:
    This is a total gift. Whenever I feel terrible about a bad review, I shall re-read this blog. thank you, Robert Bruce!!

    Like

    October 27, 2012
  15. I love this post and your blog. I have been trying to read some classics when I get a chance. Mostly when I get a break from my required reading. Almost all of my friends had read Lord of the Flies in school so it was the first one I choose and I absolutely loved it. A simple story about boys that illustrates so many deep truths of the human condition. Then I read Catcher in the Rye and I was really disappointed. Maybe it was all of the hype that led to such a major let down. It was again a simple story about a boy, but with none of the substance just scene to scene random encounters that added up to a big nothing at the end. So I agreed with the Sallinger critic.

    Like

    October 29, 2012
  16. As David Mitchell has observed “Art is not about the What but the How.”

    No author expects everyone to like a given book. For each individual, Art is is a personal preference because Art is primarily an emotional experience. The artist knows this. Some swoon over a Monet or a Van Gogh, while others are lost in rapture over a Vermeer or a Picasso. Each camp passes by the other’s objects of adoration quite indifferently. Similarly, Faulkner’s devotees might find Hemingway dry; those who love The Great Gatsby and reread it every few years might find The Satanic Verses or Midnight’s Children rather baroque and Gravity’s Rainbow nihilistic, dense and difficult (to say the least). BUT, remember, no one rereads The Great Gatsby to find out what happens. What happens in a story is NOT what the art of literature is all about. It is rather language, the modes of expression the author uses to tell his or her story: the HOW not the WHAT.

    A landscape painting by John Constable (1776-1837) is radically different from the style of JMW Turner (1775-1851), although the two were contemporaries – and BOTH artists are considered to be two of the greatest landscape painters who ever lived. The best advice I ever heard regarding Art appreciation was to be objective, which sounds counter-intuitive, but will at least allow one to approach any Art with fresh eyes.

    Like

    August 17, 2014

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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