I’m editing a biography of a YA author—the creator of some wildly popular novels geared toward young female readers. The biography discusses the novels’ mixed critical reception. Some of the unkind reviews got me thinking about how other famous novels were once received. From popular paperbacks to the works of literary giants, no book—or author—is universally loved.
Guardian reviewer Nancy Banks-Smith was once called upon to give her opinion of the blockbuster novel The Far Pavilions. Fittingly for the story’s Indian setting, Banks-Smith gave her review an Eastern flavor: “One of those big, fat paperbacks, intended to while away a monsoon or two, which, if thrown with a good overarm action, will bring a water buffalo to its knees.”
Wow, reviewers can be cold. Even when they haven’t actually read the book in question. Craig Brown, the British critic and author of 1066 and All That, was told that Watership Down was a novel about rabbits written by a British civil servant. Brown replied, “I’d rather read a novel about civil servants written by a rabbit.”
One reviewer dismissed Anna Karenina as “sentimental rubbish.” Another opined that “Henry James chews more than he bites off.”
Other writers can be just as cruel to their colleagues. The great humorist and bon vivant Ralph Waldo Emerson didn’t even try to be amusing when slamming Jane Austen. He simply said her novels were “vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world.” (Yes, I was being sarcastic about Emerson being a bon vivant. How dare he insult our Jane?)
Virginia Woolf called James Joyce’s Ulysses “the work of a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.” Edmund Wilson had this to say about a fellow American author: “The cruelest thing that has happened to Lincoln since he was shot by Booth was to fall into the hands of Carl Sandburg.” And of course, Truman Capote famously said of Jack Kerouac, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”
Critics have been looked upon as people who believe their job is to stand between an author and an audience, trying to make sure no one enjoys themselves. But what of those other literary gatekeepers—acquisitions editors? Next time, I’ll look at some famous editorial disses and bad calls.