Bad Book Reviews of Classic Novels

Many books that today are considered to be masterpieces received brutal, scathing reviews filled with vitriolic comments when they were first published. The following books contain copious examples of these:
  • Bad Press: The Worst Critical Reviews Ever!, by Laura Ward, 2002, PRC Publishing Ltd.
  • Rotten Reviews & Rejections, edited by Bill Henderson and André Bernard, 1998, Pushcart Press
  • Rotten Reviews Redux: A Literary Companion, edited by Bill Henderson, 1986, 2012, Pushcart Press
A sampling of notable bad book reviews follows:

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
“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.”

—Graham’s Lady Magazine, 1848

“There is not in the entire dramatis persona, a single character which is not utterly hateful or thoroughly contemptible.”

—Atlas, 1848

“The only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read”

—J. Lorimer, 1847

“Here all the faults of Jane Eyre (by her sister Charlotte) are magnified a thousand fold, and the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is that is will never be generally read.”

—North British Review

Moby Dick by Herman Melville
“... the book is sad stuff, dull and dreary, or ridiculous. Mr. Melville’s Quakers are the wretchedest dolts and drivellers, and his Mad a monstrous bore.”

— Charleston Southern Quarterly Review, 1852

“This is an odd book, professing to be a novel; wantonly eccentric; outrageously bombastic; in places charmingly and vividly descriptive…The more careful, therefore, should he be to maintain the fame he so rapidly acquired, and not waste his strength on such purposeless and unequal doings as these rambling volumes about spermaceti whales.”

—London Literary Gazette, December 6, 1851

“Mr. Melville never writes naturally. His sentiment is forced, his wit is forced, and his enthusiasm is forced…if there are any of our readers who wish to find examples of bad rhetoric, involved syntax, stilted sentiment and incoherent English, we will take the liberty of recommending to them this precious volume of Mr. Melville’s.”

—New York United States Magazine and Democratic Review, January 1852

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
“... it is impossible to imagine how any man’s fancy could have conceived such a mass of stupid filth, unless he were possessed of the soul of a sentimental donkey that had died of disappointed love.”

—Rufus Wilmot Griswold, The Criterion, 1855

Madame Bovary by Flaubert
“Monsieur Flaubert is not a writer.”

— Le Figaro, 1857

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
“We fancy that any real child might be more puzzled than enchanted by this stiff, overwrought story.”

—Children’s Books, 1865

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
“It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards.”

—The Atlantic, 1867

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
“No better in tone than the dime novels which flood the blood-and-thunder reading population.”

—The Springfield Republican, 1885

The Awakening by Kate Chopin
“It was not necessary for a writer of so great refinement and poetic grace to enter the overworked field of sex fiction.”

—Chicago Times Herald, 1899

“The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, is a feeble reflection of Bourget, theme and manner of treatment both suggesting the French novelist. We very much doubt the possibility of a woman of ‘solid old Presbyterian Kentucky stock” being at all like Mrs. Edna Pontellier who has a long list of lesser loves, and one absorbing passion, but gives herself only to the man for whom she did not feel the least affection. If the author had secured our sympathy for this unpleasant person it would not have been a small victory, but we are well satisfied when Mrs. Pontellier deliberately swims out to her death in the waters of the gulf.”

—Public Opinion, 1899

Ulysses by James Joyce
“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. In addition to this stupid glorification of mere filth, the book suffers from being written in the manner of a demented George Meredith. There are whole chapters of it without any punctuation or other guide to what the writer is really getting at. Two-thirds of it is incoherent, and the passages that are plainly written are devoid of wit, displaying only a coarse salacrity [sic] intended for humour.”

— The Sporting Times, 1922

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
“No more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that... Only Gatsby himself genuinely lives and breathes. The rest are mere marionettes—often astonishingly lifelike, but nevertheless not quite alive.”

—H.L. Mencken, Baltimore Evening Sun, 1925

“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

“This is a book of the season only”

—NY Herald Tribune

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
“Mr. Huxley has been born too late. Seventy years ago, the great powers of his mind would have been anchored to some mighty certitude, or to some equally mighty scientific denial of a certitude. Today he searches heaven and earth for a Commandment, but searches in vain: and the lack of it reduces him, metaphorically speaking, to a man standing beside a midden, shuddering and holding his nose.”

— L.A.G. Strong, 1932

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
“Seriously, I do not know what to say of this book except that it seem to point to the final blowup of what was once a remarkable, if minor, talent… this is a penny dreadful tricked up in fancy language and given a specious depth by the expert manipulation of a series of eccentric technical tricks. The characters have no magnitude and no meaning because they have no more reality than a mince-pie nightmare.”

— Clifton Fadiman, The New Yorker, 1936

“As California wines are designated by the European type they most resemble, so much California novels be named for the established novelists they simulate. In which case this is Faulkner type. Many consider the California product less robust than the original—so will readers.”

—Guy E. Thompson, The Los Angeles Times, 1936

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
“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

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor
“Neither satire nor humor is achieved.”

—Saturday Review of Literature, 1952

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
“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, The New York Times, 1958

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
“The book is an emotional hodgepodge”

—The New York Times, 1961

“Catch-22 has much passion, comic and fervent, but it gasps for want of craft and sensibility… 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

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

Chesapeake by James Michener
“I have two recommendations. First, don’t buy this book. Second, if you buy this book, don’t drop it on your foot.”

—The New Yorker, 1978

The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike
“Mr. Updike’s descriptions of these magical doings are cringe-making in the extreme, not funny or satiric as he perhaps intends.”

—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times, 1984

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.”

— Andrew Motion, The Observer, 1991

The Dying Animal by Philip Roth
“...curiously flimsy and synthetic. Its characters are collections of generic traits, their fates clumsily stage-managed by the author to underscore philosophic points he has made many times before…”

—Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times, 2001