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17 September 2013

These days, everyone’s a critic. Any amateur satirist with an internet connection can throw mud at a best-seller.

Just take a look at how many 1 star reviews there are for The Bible on Amazon – it gets crucified! (Though, in fairness, that’s one book that really does take a while to get going. And the ending! Christ.)

But what about in olden times, when the serious literary review carried serious clout? When considered literary opinion still mattered? Surely those guys were never flippant or wide of the mark with their critical analyses?

You’d be surprised. Here’s a round-up of the best bad reviews of literary classics…


The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Mr. Scott Fitzgerald deserves a good shaking.”

L.P. Hartley, The Saturday Review, 1925.

Catcher In The Rye, by J.D. Salinger

“This Salinger, he’s a short story guy. This book though, it’s too long. Gets kind of monotonous.”

The New York Times, 1951.

Catch-22, by Joseph Heller

“It doesn’t even seem to be written. Instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted on to paper.”

The New Yorker, 1961.

Ulysses, by James Joyce

Under the headline “THE SCANDAL OF ULYSSES”…

“…appears written by a perverted lunatic who has made a speciality of the literature of the latrine… Two-thirds of it is incoherent, and the passages that are plainly written are devoid of wit…”

The columnist “Aramis”, writing in The Sporting Times, 1922.

Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

“The short, flat sentences of which the novel is composed convey shock and despair better than an array of facts or effusive mourning. Still, deliberate simplicity is as hazardous as the grand style, and Vonnegut occasionally skids into fatuousness...”

The New Yorker, 1969

Of Mice And Men, by John Steinbeck

“An oxymoronic combination of the tough and tender, Of Mice And Men will appeal to sentimental cynics, cynical sentimentalists…Readers less easily thrown off their trolley will still prefer Hans Andersen.”

Time, 1937.

American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis

“…throughout numbingly boring, and for much of the time deeply and extremely disgusting. Not interesting-disgusting, but disgusting-disgusting:  sickening, cheaply sensationalist, pointless except as a way of earning its author some money and notoriety.”

Sir Andrew Motion (later poet laureate, no less), for The Observer, 1991.

Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville

“This sea novel is a singular medley of naval observation, magazine article writing, satiric reflection upon the conventionalisms of civilized life and rhapsody run mad… …it repels the reader…”

The Spectator, 1851.

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

“Mr. Huxley has the jitters… …a lugubrious and heavy-handed piece of propaganda.”

Margaret Cheney Dawson, writing in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, 1932.

Lolita, by Vladmir Nabokov

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...”

Orville Prescott writing in The New York Times, 1958

Where The Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak

“The plan and technique of the illustrations are superb… …but they may well prove frightening, accompanied as they are by a pointless and confusing story.”

Publisher’s Weekly, 1963

To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

“Miss Lee’s problem has been to tell the story she wants to tell and yet to stay within the consciousness of a child, and she hasn't consistently solved it.”

Granville Hicks, writing in The Saturday Review, 1960

Tess Of The D’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy

“An unpleasant novel told in a very unpleasant way.”

The Saturday Review, 1891.

For Whom The Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway

“A master of the concentrated short story, Hemingway is less sure in his grasp of the form of the elaborated novel. The shape of For Whom The Bell Tolls is sometimes slack and sometimes bulging. It is certainly quite a little too long.”

Edmund Wilson, writing in The New Republic, 1940.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

[criticising the lack of a futuristic language akin to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange] “The writing of The Handmaid's Tale is undistinguished... This is a serious defect, unpardonable maybe for the genre: a future that has no language invented for it lacks a personality. That must be why, collectively, it is powerless to scare.”

Mary McCarthy, writing in The New York Times, 1986.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence

SPOILER: Contains satire.

“This fictional account of the day-to-day life of an English gamekeeper is still of considerable interest to outdoor-minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper. Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savour these sidelights on the management of a Midlands shooting estate, and in this reviewer's opinion, this book cannot take the place of JR Miller's Practical Gamekeeping.”

Ed Zern, writing in the American hunting magazine Field And Stream, 1959.

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

“Sentimental rubbish. . . . Show me one page that contains an idea.”

The Odessa Courier, 1877.

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë

“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.”

James Lorimer, writing in the North British Review, 1847.

Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert

“Monsieur Flaubert is not a writer.”

La Figaro, 1857.

Bleak House, by Charles Dickens

“More than any of its predecessors it is chargeable with not simply faults, but absolute want of construction... meagre and melodramatic.”

George Brimley, writing in The Spectator, 1853.