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Top 10 Classical Novels That Received Dreadful Reviews

 

Most of us have grown so accustomed to classical works of novelists being regarded as the epitome of literary excellence that we become unaware of the problematic aspects of these stories. Even the most beautifully written and well-arranged prose can suffer under the bitter scrutiny of critical minds. For these enduring works of literature that have lasted decades or even centuries, their initial response were not always positive. 

 

Here is a collection of some of the harshest and most scathing commentaries well-known authors have received. The titles mentioned are not listed in any particular order.

 

1. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

 

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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

 

2. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

 

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“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.” — Mary McCarthy, The New York Times, February 9, 1986

 

3. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

 

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“At a conservative estimate, one million dollars will be spent by American readers for this book. They will get for their money 34 pages of permanent value. These 34 pages tell of a massacre happening in a little Spanish town in the early days of the Civil War…Mr. Hemingway: please publish the massacre scene separately, and then forget For Whom the Bell Tolls; please leave stories of the Spanish Civil War to Malraux…” — Commonweal, 1940

 

4. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

 

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“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

 

5. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

 

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“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…” — Susan Lardner, The New Yorker, May 17, 1969 Issue

 

6. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

 

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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.”  — Orville Prescott, The New York Times, August 18, 1958

 

7. Ulysses by James Joyce

 

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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… 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.” — Aramis, The Scandal of Ulysses in The Sporting Times, April 1, 1922

 

8. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

 

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“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. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.” — Graham’s Lady’s Magazine, July 1848

 

“We rise from the perusal of Wuthering Heights as if we had come fresh from a pest-house. Read Jane Eyre is our advice, but burn Wuthering Heights.” — Paterson’s Magazine, February 1848

 

“What may be the moral which the author wishes the reader to deduce from his work, it is difficult to say; and we refrain from assigning any, because to speak honestly, we have discovered none but mere glimpses of hidden morals or secondary meanings. In Wuthering Heights the reader is shocked, disgusted, almost sickened by details of cruelty, inhumanity, and the most diabolical hate and vengeance, and anon come passages of powerful testimony to the supreme power of love—even over demons in the human form. The women in the book are of a strange fiendish-angelic nature, tantalising, and terrible, and the men are indescribable out of the book itself.”  — Douglas Jerrold’s Weekly Newspaper, January 15, 1848

 

9. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

 

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“Let us hope that One Hundred Years of Solitude will not generate one hundred years of overwritten, overlong, overrated novels.” — Jonathan Bate, The Telegraph,  Sep 25, 1999

 

10. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

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“Altogether is seems to us this book is a minor performance. At the moment, its author seems a bit bored and tired and cynical.  There is no ebullience here, nor is there any mellowness or profundity. For our part, The Great Gatsby might just as well be called Ten Nights on Long Island.” — Ralph Coghlan, St. Louis Dispatch, April 25, 1925

 

Despite the dissatisfaction as manifested in the bitter remarks of critics, these classical works survived through generations and earned a highly-esteemed ranking on modern readers’ minds. It is only normal that a piece of prose should elicit mixed responses and sometimes stir dissonance between reviewers and readers. Depending on social and cultural factors, even if certain artistic efforts are not entirely appreciated upon its initial release, they may still have a chance or success and see to the light of day in the future.

 

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