Good Books — Bad Reviews

Paul Thek (1933–1988), The Personal Effects of the Pied Piper

Paul Thek (1933–1988), The Personal Effects of the Pied Piper

Writers Hate Writers is more amusing a subject than this one, still it’s a enlightening to remember that books that nowadays are considered classics haven’t been recognized as literary gems immediately upon publishing.

“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.” The New Republic

“But the most conspicuous lack, in comparison with the classics of the fearsome-future genre, is the inability to imagine a language to match the changed face of common life. No newspeak. And nothing like the linguistic tour de force of A Clockwork Orange – the brutal melting-down of current English and Slavic words that in itself tells the story of the dread new breed.

The writing of The Handmaid’s Tale is undistinguished in a double sense, ordinary if not glaringly so, but also indistinguishable from what one supposes would be Margaret Atwood’s normal way of expressing herself in the circumstances. 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.” The New York Times

“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.” The New Republic

“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

“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 [sic] 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.” The New York Times

“It is not so much a novel as a long affectionate lark inspired by the so-called “beat” generation, and an example of the degree to which some of the most original work being done in this country has come to depend upon the bizarre and the offbeat for its creative stimulus.” The New York Times

“Mr. Huxley has the jitters. Looking back over his career one can see that he has always had them, in varying degrees… [he] rushes headlong into the great pamphleteering movement. [Brave New World] is a lugubrious and heavy-handed piece of propaganda.” NYHTBR

“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.” The Saturday Review

“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 Chicago Tribune

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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.” The New York Times

One doesn’t have to agree or disagree with the expressed opinions of venerable literary critics — or anyone’s opinion for that matter… That is to say, I hold my own about all of the books above and, I confess, I’m not 100% disdainful of some of the criticism… of some of the critics… of some of the books above.

Matter of note: several of the book weren’t merely negatively received by literary critics — for a period of time shortly after their publication the following books were altogether or nearly banned : Lolita (in France, Argentina and New Zealand),  The Catcher in the Rye (in Australia, USA), Brave New World (in some states of the USA, in Ireland and a number of other European countries),  Slaughterhouse-Five (many people in the US were in favor of banning the book, accusing its author in vulgarity, violence, profanity, immorality and lack of patriotism. In some European countries, the book was banned for its anti-militaristic sentiment. More on this in Kurt Vonnegut, Extraordinarily Insulted.)

Bad books — good reviews… well, that should be a different story altogether.