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
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
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
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)
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?”
Lolita by Vladimir Nobokov
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. 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
This 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
— Author Elizabeth Bishop
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by 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
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
— The New Yorker (1961)
View the Catch-22 infographic and study guide.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Our 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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