10 More Scathing Early Reviews of Classic Novels


Well, we can never get enough of poking fun at the unduly critical, can we? Last week, we shared fifteen scathing early reviews of classic novels, and some of you pitched in with some of your own favorites. We took a few of your suggestions, both here and at Metafilter, added a few more of our own, and put together a second list of a few more critics who got it wrong, this time hating on Hemingway, Tolkien, Steinbeck and more. Now don’t get us wrong — everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to judge the past from the future. Click through to read ten more scathing early reviews of books we now consider to be classics, and chuckle over how you know better (or admit that you secretly agree) in the comments.

“Instead of being the epic of the sun also rising on a lost generation, [ The Sun Also Rises is] a cock-and-bull story about a whole lot of tourists getting drunk.” — John Dos Passos in the New Masses, 1926

“One is puzzled to know why the author should have supposed he was writing for adults. There are, to be sure, some details that are a little unpleasant for a children’s book, but except when he is being pedantic and also boring the adult reader, there is little in The Lord of the Rings over the head of a seven-year-old child. It is essentially a children’s book – a children’s book which has somehow got out of hand… Now, how is it that these long-winded volumes of what looks to this reviewer like balderdash have elicited such tributes as those above? The answer is, I believe, that certain people – especially, perhaps, in Britain – have a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash. They would not accept adult trash, but, confronted with the pre-teen-age article, they revert to the mental phase which delighted in Elsie Dinsmore and Little Lord Fauntleroy and which seems to have made of Billy Bunter, in England, almost a national figure.” — Edmund Wilson in The Nation, 1956

“The author of The Golden Age and of Dream Days, the historian of the immortal Harold, has disappointed us. There is no getting away from that melancholy fact. He has written in The Wind in the Willows , a book with hardly a smile in it, through which we wander in a haze of perplexity, uninterested by the story itself and at a loss to understand its deeper purpose. The chief character is a mole whom the reader plumps upon on the first page whitewashing his house. Here is an initial nut to crack. A mole whitewashing. No doubt, Moles like their abodes to be clean; but whitewashing? Are we very stupid? Or is this joke really inferior? However, let it pass. Then enters a water-rat on his way to a river picnic, in a skiff, with a hamper of provisions, including cold tongue, cold ham, French rolls, and soda water. Nut number two; for obviously a water rat is of all animals the one that would never use a boat with which to navigate a stream. Again, are we very stupid, or is this nonsense of poor quality? Later we meet a wealthy toad, who, after a tour of England in a caravan, drawn by a horse, becomes a rabid motorist. He is also an inveterate public speaker. We meet also a variety of animals whoso foibles doubtless are borrowed from mankind, and so the book goes on until the end. Beneath the allegory ordinary life is depicted more or less closely, but certainly not very amusingly or searchingly. While as a contribution to natural history the work is negligible. There are neat and fanciful passages; but they do not convince. The puzzle is, for whom is the book intended? Grown up readers will find it monotonous and elusive; children will hope in vain for more fun.” — Edward Verrall Lucas in The Times (London). [Suggested by howfar at Metafilter]

“[ The Grapes of Wrath is] a mess of silly propaganda, superficial observation, careless infidelity to the proper use of idiom, tasteless pornographical and scatagorical talk.” — Newsweek, 1939

[Of Their Eyes Were Watching God ] “Miss Hurston seems to have no desire whatsoever to move in the direction of serious fiction. … Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theater, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears. … The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought.” — Richard Wright in New Masses, 1937

[Of The Recognitions ] “An evil book, a scurrilous book, a profane book, a scatological book and an exasperating book… What this sprawling, squalling, overwritten book needs above all is to have its mouth washed out with lye soap. It reeks of decay and filth and perversion and half-digested learning … nowhere in this disgusting book is there a trace of kindness or sincerity or simple decency.” — Sterling North in the New York World-Telegram, 1955. [Suggested by ReadEvalPost at Metafilter]

“The most frightening thing about [ Finnegans Wake ] is the feeling, which steadily grows in the reader, that Joyce himself does not know what he is doing; and how, in spite of all his efforts, he is giving himself away… Joyce’s delight in reducing man’s learning, passion, and religion to a hash is also disturbing. — Louise Bogan in The Nation, 1939

“The main idea on which the story of Frankenstein rests, undoubtedly affords scope for the display of imagination and fancy, as well as knowledge of the human heart; and the anonymous author has not wholly neglected the opportunities which it presented to him: but the work seems to have been written in great haste, and on a very crude and ill-digested plan; and the detail is, in consequence, frequently filled with the most gross and obvious inconsistencies…. We have heard that this work is written by Mr. Shelley; but should be disposed to attribute it to even a less experienced writer than he is. In fact we have some idea that it is the production of a daughter of a celebrated living novelist.” — The Literary Panorama and National Register , 1818. [Suggested by Hactar at Metafilter]

“Whenever the characters of a story suffer, they do so at the behest of their author — the author is responsible for their suffering and must justify his cruelty by the seriousness of his moral intention. The author of Ethan Frome , it seemed to me as I read the book again to test my memory of it, could not lay claim to any such justification. Her intention in writing the story was not adequate to the dreadful fate she contrived for her characters. She indulges herself by what she contrives – she is, as the phrase goes, ‘merely literary.’ This is not to say that merely literary intention does not make its very considerable effects. There is in Ethan Frome an image of life-in-death, of hell-on-earth, which is not easily forgotten: the crippled Ethan, and Zeena, his dreadful wife, and Mattie, the once charming girl he had loved, now bedridden and querulous with pain, all living out their death in the kitchen of the desolate Frome farm — a perpetuity of suffering memorializes a moment of passion. It is terrible to contemplate, it is unforgettable, but the mind can do nothing with it, can only endure it.” — Lionel Trilling in “The Morality of Inertia,” A Gathering of Fugitives, 1956. [Not exactly a contemporary review, but early and against the grain enough that we thought we’d include it.]

“Miss Mitchell writes from no particular point of view, although now and then there glitters a dull rage at the upset that ended much a beautiful civilization and allowed Negroes for a time to ‘live in leisure while their former masters struggled and starved.’ (Herself a Georgian, born and raised in Atlanta, Miss Mitchell could hardly react otherwise.) The writing Is always lively, and never distinguished. There are a good many questionable touches to the dialogue — the word ‘sissy’ (implying an effeminate man) is put into the mouths of characters a whole generation too early, and such expressions as ‘on the make,’ ‘like a bat out of hell,’ ‘Götterdämmerung,’ and ‘survival of the fittest,’ sound very strange upon the tongues of Civil War Southerners.

… But any kind of first novel of over 1,000 pages is an achievement, and for the research that was involved, and for the writing Itself, the author of Gone With the Wind deserves due recognition. I happen to feel that the book would have been infinitely better had it been edited down to, say, 500 pages — but there speaks the harassed daily reviewer an well as the would-be judicious critic. Very nearly every reader will agree, no doubt, that a more disciplined and less prodigal piece of work would have more nearly done justice to the subject-matter.” — Ralph Thompson in The New York Times , 1936