10 Scathing Reviews of Classic Literature

Even some of the biggest and most-acclaimed titles in literature aren’t immune to the claws of harsh critics. From Jane Austen to Mark Twain, esteemed writers throughout the centuries have endured scathing reviews from the pens (and keyboards) of critics, scholars—and sometimes, even from one another. These are just a few of the harshest reviews we’ve seen on otherwise universally beloved—or at least respected—pieces of literature.

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. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.

Graham’s Lady Magazine (1848) by Anonymous

View the Wuthering Heights infographic and study guide.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

pride-and-prejudice-jane-austen (1)I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin bone!

Mark Twain, in an 1898 letter to writer Joseph Twichell

View the Pride and Prejudice infographic and study guide.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald


Scott Fitzgerald’s new novel, The Great Gatsby, is in form no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that … This clown Fitzgerald rushes to his death in nine short chapters.

Chicago Tribune (1925)

View the infographic and study guide for The Great Gatsby.


Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky


If you are alluding to Dostoevski’s  worst  novels, then, indeed, I dislike intensely The Karamazov Brothers and the ghastly Crime and Punishment rigmarole. No, I do not object to soul-searching  and  self-revelation,  but  in  those books, the  soul, and the sins, and the sentimentality, and the journalese, hardly warrant the tedious and muddled search.

— Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov, after an interviewer asked “Why do you dislike writers who go in for soul-searching and self-revelations in print?”

View the infographics and study guides for Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.

Lolita by Vladimir Nobokov

lolita-vladimir-nabokovThere 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. Mr. Nabokov, whose English vocabulary would astound the editors of the Oxford Dictionary, does not write cheap pornography. He writes highbrow pornography. Perhaps that is not his intention. Perhaps he thinks of his book as a satirical comedy and as an exploration of abnormal psychology. Nevertheless, “Lolita” is disgusting.

The New York Times (1958)

View the Lolita infographic and study guide.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

moby-dick-herman-melvilleThis is an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact. The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition. The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed … We have little more to say in reprobation or in recommendation of this absurd book…. Mr. Melville has to thank himself only if his horrors and his heroics are flung aside by the general reader, as so much trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature — since he seems not so much unable to learn as disdainful of learning the craft of an artist.

— Henry F. Chorley, in London Athenaeum (1851)

View the Moby-Dick infographic and study guide.

Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

the-catcher-in-the-ryeI hated [Catcher in the Rye]. It took me days to go through it, gingerly, a page at a time, and blushing with embarrassment for him every ridiculous sentence of the way. How can they let him do it?

— Author Elizabeth Bishop

View the infographic and study guide for The Catcher in the Rye.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

the-adventures-of-huckleberry-finn-mark-twain[It is] the most grotesque example of racist trash ever given our children to read … Any teacher caught trying to use that piece of trash with our children should be fired on the spot, for he or she is either racist, insensitive, naive, incompetent or all of the above.

— African American critic and educator John Wallace

View the infographic and study guide for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

catch-22[It’s] not really a book. It doesn’t even seem to have been written; instead it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper.

The New Yorker (1961)

View the Catch-22 infographic and study guide.



Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

frankenstein-mary-shelleyOur taste and our judgment alike revolt at this kind of writing, and the greater the ability with which it may be executed the worse it is—it inculcates no lesson of conduct, manners, or morality; it cannot mend, and will not even amuse its readers, unless their taste have been deplorably vitiated—it fatigues the feelings without interesting the understanding; it gratuitously harasses the heart, and wantonly adds to the store, already too great, of painful sensations.

— Irish author John Wilson Croker in The Quarterly Review (1818)

View the Frankenstein infographic and study guide.

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About the author

Sam DeReign

Sam is the Senior Educational Content Specialist for Course Hero. If you have ideas or suggestions for what you'd like to see on Course Hero, let him know at [email protected]!

1 Comment

  • @Sam, you have done a very excellent job with these collections. I laughed quite heartily when I saw the review for Huck,
    “[It is] the most grotesque example of racist trash ever given our children to read … Any teacher caught trying to use that piece of trash with our children should be fired on the spot, for he or she is either racist, insensitive, naive, incompetent or all of the above.

    — African American critic and educator John Wallace

    What I thought at that moment was what John would have said about the yellow wallpaper by Charlotte Gilman which happens to be the first book in favour of feminism.

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