Brutal Reviews of Classic Books

A version of this week’s post appeared here a few years ago. Enjoy!

As part of my efforts at getting my name out in the world, I’ve often asked (begged? cajoled? pleaded with?) my readers to write reviews of my books after they’ve read them. Most of us have done that at one time or another, right?

While generally things work out for the best, occasionally we do get a review that shows a reader was, shall we say, singularly unimpressed with our creative initiatives.

The blogs are filled with advice on how to deal with bad reviews . . . some say don’t read them, some say read but disregard them, some say imagine the reviewers in their underwear, and so.

My own way of dealing with the problem is to remind myself that even the best got lousy reviews, and it didn’t stop them.

Here’s a selective listing of scathing reviews of fifteen books that are now considered classics of literature. Most reviews were published contemporaneously with the books they review. They range from the snarky to the morally outraged, and they’re a good reminder that not every book is to every reader’s taste . . . and reviewers, like everybody else, are sometimes not very good at what they do.

Enjoy, have a laugh—and then get back to work!

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“Whitman is as unacquainted with art as a hog is with mathematics.” —The London Critic, 1855, on 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.” — Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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“The final blow-up 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.” —The New Yorker on Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

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“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, on The Awakening by Kate Chopin

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“Miss Willa S. Cather in O Pioneers (O title!!) is neither a skilled storyteller nor the least bit of an artist.” —Dress and Vanity Fair Magazine

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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, on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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“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, North British Review, 1847, on Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

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“That a book like this could be written—published here—sold, presumably over the counters, leaves one questioning the ethical and moral standards…there is a place for the exploration of abnormalities that does not lie in the public domain. Any librarian surely will question this for anything but the closed shelves. Any bookseller should be very sure that he knows in advance that he is selling very literate pornography.”  —Kirkus Reviews, 1958, on Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

“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.” —New York Times on Lolita

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“A gloomy tale. The author tries to lighten it with humor, but unfortunately her idea of humor is almost exclusively variations on the pratfall. . . .Neither satire nor humor is achieved.” ⎯Saturday Review of Literature, 1952, on Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

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“Monsieur Flaubert is not a writer.” —Le Figaro, 1857, on Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

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“Never have I read such tosh. As for the first two chapters, we will let them pass, but the third, the fourth the fifth the sixth – merely the scratchings of pimples on the body of the boot-boy at Claridges.” —Virginia Woolf on Ulysses by James Joyce

“The average intelligent reader will glean little or nothing from it … save bewilderment and a sense of disgust.” —New York Times on Ulysses

“[Ulysses] 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.“—The Sporting Times, 1922

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“This is easily one of the worst books I’ve ever read. And bear in mind that I’ve read John Grisham.” Susan Cohen on Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With That Dragon Tattoo in the Charleston City Paper

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“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 on Chesapeake by James Michener

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“Occasional overwriting, stretches of fuzzy thinking, and a tendency to waver, confusingly, between realism and surrealism.” —Atlantic Monthly on Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

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“[Kerouac] can slip from magniloquent hysteria into sentimental bathos, and at his worst he merely slobbers words.” —Chicago Tribune on On the Road by Jack Kerouac

“That’s not writing. That’s typing.” —Truman Capote on On the Road

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“Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and  hit her over the skull with her own shinbone!” —Mark Twain on Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Indie Monday

This week’s guest: Rick Bailey

This week on Indie Monday, I’m proud to host Rick Bailey, author, educator, essayist, and world traveler. Rick grew up in Freeland, Michigan, on the banks of the Tittabawassee River. He taught writing for 38 years at Henry Ford College in the Detroit area. While writing textbooks for McGraw-Hill, he also wrote with classes he taught, a work habit that eventually led to Tittabawassee Road, a blog of essays on family, food, travel, and currrent events. His blog became the basis for American English, Italian Chocolate: Small Subjects of Great Importance (University of Nebraska Press, 2017). A Midwesterner long married to an Italian immigrant, in retirement he and his wife divide their time between Michigan and the Republic of San Marino. His second book is the memoir/travelogue The Enjoy Agenda at Home and Abroad (University of Nebraska Press, 2019).

This week, Rick will talk about his brand-new release, Get Thee to a Bakery: Essays (University of Nebraska Press, 2021).

DL: Congratulations on your new book! We’re anxious to hear what it’s about.

RB: Thanks for the opportunity to talk it. And major congratulations to you. I can’t wait to get into the next Martin Preuss book.  

Get Thee to a Bakery is my third collection of essays, part memoir, part creative nonfiction. Think David Sedaris. In this collection there are 42 new pieces. That’s a lot. So they’re on the short side. You can read them on the beach, or waiting in the doctor’s office, or on a flight (when we start to fly agains, that is). Try them lying in bed at night. Readers of my first two books tell me they go to sleep with a smile on their face. 

Among the important topics I explore are: family and friends, food and wine, technology and the environment, the general weirdness and surprise in contemporary life. My wife and I live in Italy three months of the year, or we did until Covid, so there’s some Italy in the book. And there’s some China in the book. And travel around the US West. One of my current favorites is an essay about the American smile. Americans smile more than other people. I mean in public, presenting this congenial disposition. Europeans think Americans are kind of crazy like that. Another current favorite in this collection is about earworm, a condition I’m afflicted with too often. Why is that Captain and Tenille song stuck in my head this morning? How do I get rid of it?

DL: What inspired the creation of the book?

RB: I write a blog (rick-bailey.com), which sort of keeps me in a constant state of alert. The blog is my compost pile. It’s a place where I “write my life.” The books grow there. This particular book came sooner than I thought it would. By Spring of 2019 I had accumulated a lot of stuff on my blog, when I came down with a detached retina. That will slow you down, let me tell you. I had to sit for a week, to avoid jiggling my repaired retina. And I thought: what the hell, let me see if there’s enough accumulated material on my blog to make a book. And there was.

Initially I was kind of surprised, even a little embarrassed about, you know, the use of the term “memoir.” I always thought of memoir as something old famous people wrote. Well, I satisfied one of those conditions. (I’m 68 years old.) Back in the 90’s and 00’s, I started reading reviews of memoirs in the New York Times. Regular people were writing memoirs. People who were, like, 35 years old. In my mind, the genre started to morph. I began to see it as what I said above, “writing my life.” I saw that I didn’t have to have this big overarching narrative. I wasn’t writing the story of my life. I was writing stories from my life.

I usually choose one of the essays to become the title piece of the book. American English, Italian Chocolate, my first book, is named for an essay about pride in regional language and regional foods in the US and Italy. The Enjoy Agenda, my second book, is named for an essay about getting older, the perils of international travel, and being able to manage your life to maximize pleasure and avoid pain. I think that’s called hedonism. That’s my agenda. 

Get Thee to a Bakery, my new book, is named after an essay about cleaning the gutters on my house in the fall, the delightful season of pumpkin pie and my reflections on falling from a ladder into a bed of dying hastas, where I pictured myself like the drowned Ophelia in that Pre-Raphaelite painting. As long as I was full of pumpkin pie, that would be an okay way to go. Again, maximize pleasure, take rational steps to minimize risk and pain.  I’d say that’s Get Thee to a Bakery. I guess it’s all three books. 

I’m working on a fourth collection of essays right now that focuses more on growing up years. I remember the first time I heard Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” going to see “Bonnie and Clyde” the weekend Martin Luther King was assassinated, how we worked through our agonizing differences on the Vietnam war in our family. A lot of that formative stuff. We’ll see where that goes. 

DL: Could you talk about your writing process? Did it differ from the way you’ve written your other works? Did the pandemic affect the writing or launch?

RB: I’m a morning person. I taught online for 20 years and formed the habit of writing a few hours every day with and for my students, usually beginning at about 5:00 a.m. In retirement, you’d think I’d be sleeping in. In fact, I get up even earlier, usually sitting down to my laptop and coffee around 4:00 a.m. There’s nothing much happening at night that interests me. I go to bed thinking about what I’m writing and I wake up thinking about it. 

I’m also a quota guy. I aim for 750-1000 words a day. When you hit that number by 7:00 a.m., you have the rest of the day to ruminate, to open your imagination, to pay attention to your receptors and be alert to new ideas. If my wife and I are walking and I think of something related to the writing, I don’t trust myself to remember it. I take out my phone and capture it with the Notes app in a sentence or two. I write first drafts on Google Docs. Sometimes I sit in the grocery store parking lot. I’m there to buy a cauliflower. But the car is a quiet place. I take out my phone, open Google Docs, and read what I wrote that morning, editing by voice or by thumb. I have a little portable keyboard I can open and use with my iPhone. When we’re in Italy I spend quite a lot of time waiting for my wife. She’s in a shop, I’m in a coffee bar. I take out my two devices, keyboard and phone, and write up what we had to eat at that restaurant, Il Passatore, the night before. With color photos. I can blog while having a glass of wine in a bar in Italy. That’s the indescribable beauty and utility of modern technology.

The pandemic? It’s been good for my writing. Isolation and I get along pretty well.  

DL: What was the best part of/most fun about writing this book?

RB: The best part is the capture—of memories old and new. I always wonder why some memories are so vivid, from my childhood, I mean. I want to capture some of those moments. If I remember them, they must mean something. And I want to capture funny or interesting stuff that happened yesterday or last week. 

The fun part is making connections. I take my son to have his wisdom teeth out and I hear on the radio that Encyclopedia Britannica will cease publication. Two unrelated subjects that I bring together in an essay. We have a power outage in the middle of summer, I write about that—two days sleeping in the basement, but also a brief history of air conditioning technology. In The Enjoy Agenda, there’s an essay about having a toothache in Italy. I tell that story. But I also did some research for the essay, stumbled onto what art historians say about smiling and teeth and portraiture conventions in Renaissance painting (only peasants and dead people show their teeth). I also looked at the history of dentistry (the first of important book was written, in Latin, by a Venetian in the 16thcentury), at gruesome primitive dental practices in the 18th and 19th century, at-home remedies for dealing with toothache. This discovery process is fun. And making connections involves an act of imagination that’s always kind of a rush.  

The capture is the thing, putting memories in context—sometimes, as in the case of toothache, in a really broad context. I like thinking that my grandkids might read one or more of my books one day, that they might laugh and wonder at what happened to me and at what I thought about, that they might appreciate the sound of my voice. I guess I think that about readers in general.

DL: What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

RB: Any book, it’s a long-term project. In that week with a detached retina, I assembled a manuscript. Then came rewriting, revising, adding and subtracting content, moving stuff around. Five months later I had something that felt like a book. The work doesn’t do itself. You have to stay with it, move it along. That’s a challenge. I had the good fortune of writing a doctoral dissertation in the 80’s. The experience was awful, the work was of no great value, but I learned how to manage a long-term project and see it through to completion. It made doctoral suffering worth it. I’ve written a lot since that doctorate, a bunch of textbooks and now these books, which have been really fun. 

DL: How can readers purchase it or get a signed copy?

RB: It doesn’t look like I will have a face-to-face launch or any signing events for this book. I’m hoping to do a few Zoom launches. I’ll announce those on Facebook and Twitter. If a reader wanted a sample of my writing, I’ve recorded a bunch of podcasts and posted them on my website, and I’m working on screencasts now, too. They’re under 5 minutes in length. You can hear how my voice sounds and sample the content. And of course, my blog gives readers a sample of my work. “The Summer of 1964,” which I posted on February 15, will probably be an essay in my fourth collection.  

To purchase Get Thee to a Bakery, I recommend your local bookstore. We need those stores. I mean communities need those stores. And I’d be happy to get a signed copy to anyone interested in that. Contact me by email—baileyrv@gmail.com.

DL: Thank you for joining us this week, Rick. Much luck with the book!

Sestina: The Cleaners

Back when I was writing poetry more or less full-time, I loved to experiment with poetic form, both organic and received. As a boy I once wanted to be an architect (until I realized you had to learn, you know, math). I’ve never lost that interest in structure.

As visual artists are fascinated by the structural intricacies of, say, fractals, I’ve long been fascinated by the ways in which language works; how letters represent sounds and join to form words, then larger syntactic elements, then even larger structural constituents until lines, sentences, paragraphs, stanzas, and so on create the massive architectural units of a poem and a novel.

As a poet, I found great joy in writing in (and ringing changes on) forms as disparate as sonnets and their minimalist siblings, word sonnets, and their maximalist cousins, sonnet crowns; gloses; ghazals; villanelles; pantuns; and so on.

One of the forms I found especially compelling was the sestina, a form dating from the twelfth century. It’s a poem of six stanzas of six lines each, followed by a three-line envoi. The words that end each line of the first stanza are used as line endings in each of the following stanzas, rotating in a set pattern. The envoi contains the six line-ending words, often in a proscribed order.

There have been some great sestinas written by poems such as Elizabeth Bishop, W.H. Auden, and Seamus Heaney, to name just three.

Besides its elegant complexity, one of the things that fascinated me about the sestina was the almost hypnotic repetition of line-ending words that gave the poem a sense of obsession, even of being trapped.

When I sat down to write my own sestina, I drew on my experience as the manager of a movie theatre in Birmingham, Michigan, many years ago. (The theatre was the Bloomfield, if anybody remembers that; it has sadly morphed into a parking garage underneath a gym.)

Bloomfield Theatre, Birmingham, MI.

Every night, a young married couple came in to clean the place after each day’s showings. It was not a pleasant job, and the young man–Ricky, his name was–seemed perpetually angry; his wife was mostly silent.

I decided to write a sestina in the form of a dramatic monologue spoken by the wife. It seemed to me that she was trapped in a bad marriage with a volatile man who didn’t appreciate her, and the sestina with its restricted order of repetition of words would be a good correspondence.

As I started to work with the poem, I quickly saw that the woman was trapped in more than just a bad marriage. I tried to reflect that.

I was chuffed that this poem won the Grand Prize for poetry in a literary contest put on by the Metro Times in 2005. It also appeared in my chapbook, New Year’s Tangerine (Pudding House Press, 2007).

Sestina: The Cleaners

Every midnight when we leave our small room
in the boarding house basement where we stay
beside the lumberyard in Hazel Park
we drive to Birmingham, to finish
the night inside an empty theatre. We clean.
We pick up what the rich leave behind. 

Stuffing the car’s back seat, behind
Rickie and me, our supplies leave no room
for a passenger. Mops, gallons of Mr. Clean,
Windex, boxes of urinal cakes that stay
in my nose all night, polish for the brass finish
on the front doors — these fill our life. We park 

under the marquee, in the “Do Not Park”
zone, while my Rickie leaves me behind
to unload the car alone. When we finish
our work in the morning, every rest room
will be spotless, the long lobby will stay
as we leave it, sweet smelling and clean 

until those who hire others to clean
their own homes come and treat this like a park
where they can throw trash anywhere and it will stay
where it is until Rickie and me follow behind
to pick up after them. There is no room
to even walk in the auditorium after they finish 

dumping the tubs of popcorn they never finish
while they lounge at the movies. The greasy floor is clean
when Rickie stops mopping, while in the Ladies Room
on my hands and knees I carefully park
the stiff brush against the toilet that some behind
sat on like a throne and hope my dinner can stay 

in my belly, my canned macaroni and cheese will stay
where it is till the tile is scrubbed when I finish.
Now is when I want to scream, now crawl behind
the stall partitions on the floor that is spotlessly clean
and rage against Birmingham and Hazel Park
and curse my life that has so little room, 

curse this narrow stinking room that will finish
my dreams, make me stay on my knees and clean
in an endless “Do Not Park” zone, forever left behind.

©️ Donald Levin 2007

Indie Monday

This week’s guest: Brenda Hasse

This week on Indie Monday I’m delighted to host Brenda Hasse, a multi-award-winning author and freelance writer. Brenda has written and published award-winning young adult historical romance, pre-teen historical mystery, and adult metaphysical/visionary novels. She is also the author of several picture books for children. Brenda volunteers her time researching and writing scripts for the Fenton Village Players to perform during the Ghost Walk and Historical Cemetery Walk. She resides in Fenton, Michigan, with her husband and cats.

This week, Brenda will talk about her forthcoming release, A Victim of Desperation.

DL: Congratulations on your new book! We’re anxious to hear what it’s about.

BH: Thank you, Don. A Victim Of Desperation is a novel based on a woman’s experience in human trafficking, her perseverance to escape, and her determination to move forward afterward.  

DL: What inspired the creation of the book?

BH: I was at a two-day book signing. I sat at my table on the first day and a woman, who was selling her products across the way, walked over to my table and introduced herself. We talked for a few minutes before she returned to her booth. The next day I went to her booth to see what she was selling. We started chatting. Our conversation led from one subject to another, and before long the topic of human trafficking came up. She started telling me about the time she was human trafficked. After revealing her experience, she confessed she had never told anyone else about her experience. Even her children didn’t know about it.

We parted ways that day, but her personal story haunted my mind for months. I was able to make contact with her through Facebook and asked for her permission to write a story based on her experience with the hope of preventing others from falling into the entrapment of human trafficking. 

DL: Could you talk about your writing process? Did it differ from the way you’ve written your other works? Did the pandemic affect the writing or launch?

BH: To write this novel, I worked closely with the “victim,” who is known as “Jessica” in the book. She was forthcoming with her experience. Many conversations and emails between us helped to make the story come together. I usually outline my novels because I like to know where I am writing to, but this novel told itself through Jessica, who is a very strong, determined character.

I believe the overall theme is perseverance. The novel differed from the way I normally write because it is based on a true event. I usually write fiction: picture books for children, pre-teen, young adult historical romance, and metaphysical/visionary. With the confinement of the pandemic, I was able to focus on the book to complete it on a timely basis. However, I have delayed the publication with the hope of holding the launch of the book at a bookstore in May.

DL: What was the best part of/most fun about writing this book?

BH: I truly enjoyed working with Jessica. We laughed a lot and, as our topic of conversation would often stray, we found a common ground for many of today’s issues. I am thankful for the day our paths crossed and she allowed me to share her story with everyone. She is an amazing person.   

DL: What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

BH: The most challenging part of writing this book was trying to make it as accurate as possible. I want the reader to feel the emotions she experienced and the environment she endured. I’m certain Jessica grew tired of the detailed question I posed. However, I think she enjoyed sharing her story.

DL: How can readers purchase it or get a signed copy?

BH: My books are always in stock at Fenton’s Open Book in Fenton, MI, and R&B Used Books in Grand Blanc, MI. They may also be ordered through any independent bookstore and online (Bookshop.org, Amazon.com). I will be holding a book launch signing at R&B Used Books on Saturday, May 15, 2021, from noon to 3:00 (COVID restrictions apply).  

Readers interested in this or other of my works can visit my website: http://www.BrendaHasseBooks.com

DL: Sounds great. Thanks for much for joining us this week, Brenda. Any final thoughts you would like to share?

BH: The first and last chapter of A Victim Of Desperation conveys a technique used by human traffickers today. I hope with the publication of this book, many will recognize the devious scheme and avoid becoming their victim. I have a friend whose son was a Michigan State Police officer, who worked with the FBI, to bust the first two big human trafficking cases in our state. He said the hot spots are Genessee County in Swartz Creek, Davison, and Grand Blanc. He confirmed the technique I described in the first and last chapters.