When Critics Are Assholes: 8 Great Books That Got Slammed
As those brave, astute writers who have taken my LitReactor class “Everyone’s a Critic” know, I think smart criticism is as essential as good food. But like truly great cooking, not everyone can produce it consistently. Sometimes we get it wrong. Very wrong. There are times when, I’m forced to admit, we critics are just plain garden-variety assholes.
I’ve written hundreds of book and film reviews over the years, and I stand by most of them. But I’ve gotten it wrong wrong wrong sometimes. The review I’d most like to rewrite is the pan I gave Nestor Almendros’ documentary about anti-gay harassment in Fidel Castro's Cuba, Improper Conduct (1984). I got caught in the trap of responding more to other critics’ reviews than to the film itself, and I blew it. Big time.
But that, as I always say, is blood under the bridge.
Here’s a selection of notoriously bad reviews of demonstrably great books – books that have stood the tests of time and taste but weren’t exactly greeted with universal kindness when they were first published.
'Lolita' by Vladimir Nabokov
Let’s start with my favorite book of all time, a novel so exquisitely written that it continues to blow me away after at least five readings. It’s hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure. Part One is extremely funny, but then you hit the last lines: “At the hotel we had separate rooms, but in the middle of the night she came sobbing into mine, and we made it up very gently. You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go.” After that it’s just horribly, horribly sad. But beautiful.
That beauty utterly escaped one Orville Prescott, who reviewed the book in the New York Times: “Lolita then, is undeniably news in the world of books. Unfortunately, it is bad news. 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.... Past the artistic danger line of madness is another even more fatal. It is where the particular mania is a perversion like Humbert's. To describe such a perversion with the pervert's enthusiasm without being disgusting is impossible. If Mr. Nabokov tried to do so he failed.”
Predictably, the ever-egregious Kirkus Reviews missed Lolita’s point entirely: “That a book like this could be written—published here—sold, presumably over the counters, leaves one questioning the ethical and moral standards.... There is a place for the exploration of abnormalities that does not lie in the public domain. Any librarian surely will question this for anything but the closed shelves. Any bookseller should be very sure that he knows in advance that he is selling very literate pornography.” Oh, please! Only a pervert could find Lolita to be pornographic.
'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I’m one of those certain, opinionated souls who think F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tale of love and loss is actually the Great American Novel everyone’s always waiting for. But it didn’t start off as a success. Fitzgerald died thinking he’d already been forgotten, his books all failures. Only when Gatsby was selected as one of the books sent to GIs during WWII did it reach a wide audience, and now, of course, it’s an American classic. Or the American classic, as the case may be.
The acerbic journalist H.L. Mencken panned it in the Chicago Tribune: “Scott Fitzgerald's new novel, The Great Gatsby is in form no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that.... This story is obviously unimportant and, though, as I shall show, it has its place in the Fitzgerald canon, it is certainly not to be put on the same shelf with, say, This Side of Paradise. What ails it, fundamentally, is the plain fact that it is simply a story—that Fitzgerald seems to be far more interested in maintaining its suspense than in getting under the skins of its people…. The principal personage is a bounder typical of those parts—a fellow who seems to know every one and yet remains unknown to all — a young man with a great deal of mysterious money, the tastes of a movie actor and, under it all, the simple sentimentality of a somewhat sclerotic fat woman.” Ouch. And I say that as a sclerotic fat woman.
'The Catcher in the Rye' by J. D. Salinger
As any literate teenage boy at any stage of life will tell you, J.D. Salinger’s terrific novel is one of the best explorations of male adolescence ever written. But it failed to impress the New Republic’s grumpy Anne L. Goodman, who evidently had never been a teenage boy: “The book as a whole is disappointing, and not merely because it is a reworking of a theme that one begins to suspect must obsess the author. Holden Caulfield, the main character who tells his own story, is an extraordinary portrait, but there is too much of him…. In the course of 277 pages, the reader wearies of [his] explicitness, repetition and adolescence, exactly as one would weary of Holden himself. And this reader at least suffered from an irritated feeling that Holden was not quite so sensitive and perceptive as he, and his creator, thought he was.” Critic, heal thyself!
'Madame Bovary' by Gustave Flaubert
This tale of a grasping and unhappy wife virtually defines the word classic; it’s surely one of the world’s finest works of literature. But the critic from Le Figaro wasn’t impressed. “Monsieur Flaubert is not a writer,” the reviewer scoffed. News to me. One can only wonder what this critic would have made of Salammbô, with its first chapter’s colorful descriptions of flaming monkey meat dropping off of trees.
'For Whom the Bell Tolls' by Ernest Hemingway
I’ve never been a particularly devoted Hemingway fan—his style is too self-consciously butch for my taste (he confused having a dick with being one)—but I still acknowledge his position as one of the greatest and most influential American writers of the 20th century. For Whom the Bell Tolls is one of Hemingway’s best, but the critic for Commonweal just didn’t get it. “At a conservative estimate, one million dollars will be spent by American readers for this book. They will get for their money 34 pages of permanent value. These 34 pages tell of a massacre happening in a little Spanish town in the early days of the Civil War.... Mr. Hemingway: please publish the massacre scene separately, and then forget For Whom the Bell Tolls; please leave stories of the Spanish Civil War to Malraux.” (For the record, Malraux only wrote one story of the Spanish Civil War – L’Espoir.)
'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' by Mark Twain
Here’s what the Springfield Republican (it figures) had to say about Mark Twain’s renowned novel: “The Concord public library committee deserve well of the public by their action in banishing Mark Twain’s new book, Huckleberry Finn, on the ground that it is trashy and vicious. It is time that this influential pseudonym should cease to carry into homes and libraries unworthy productions…. The advertising samples of this book, which have disfigured the Century magazine, are enough to tell any reader how offensive the whole thing must be. They are no better in tone than the dime novels which flood the blood-and-thunder reading population…. [Twain’s] literary skill is, of course, superior, but their moral level is low, and their perusal cannot be anything less than harmful.” Doesn’t the slippery “must be” imply that the reviewer didn’t read the whole novel before panning it, but rather just the excerpts in Century? Rule Number One of criticism: You have to read the whole book or see the whole movie before writing your review. (Hear that, Janet Maslin? Maslin infamously walked out of George Romero’s fantastic Dawn of the Dead soon after it started and went ahead and reviewed it anyway. She didn't like it.)
'Leaves of Grass' by Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman redefined American poetry with Leaves of Grass, but Thomas Wentworth Higginson, writing in The Atlantic in 1867, wasn’t much impressed. “It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards.” Ho ho how droll. What can one say, other than “Nyah, nyah, Whitman has a spectacular Delaware River bridge named after him, whereas Higginson…. Higginson…. Higginson only turns out to have led a heroic life as an abolitionist, Unitarian minister, colonel in the Civil War’s first black regiment, and all-around Great Guy. He just missed the boat completely with Leaves of Grass. Oh well.
'Wuthering Heights' by Emily Bronte
Poor Emily Bronte didn’t live nearly long enough to reap the lucrative benefits of a movie deal with Samuel Goldwyn (1939, with William Wyler directing Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon). What she got instead was this nasty piece of crappola from Graham’s Lady’s Magazine: “How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he (sic) had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.” And this, from the North British Review: “Here all the faults of Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Brontë) are magnified a thousand fold, and the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read.” It strikes me as especially mean to attack a writer by taking a slap at her sister.
A word to the wise (and the wiseass): never predict the success or failure of the book you’re reviewing. Unless you are the late Jeanne Dixon you’ll probably get it wrong.
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