Hillingdon Libraries staff challenge for July was to seek out a book that had been set upon with bad reviews and see if they agreed.
Surprisingly, a lot of books that we consider classics have terrible reviews from contemporary critics. Books such as To Kill A Mockingbird, Slaughterhouse-Five and Catcher in the Rye got some really awful reviews when they first came out but despite this have become great institutions in the literary canon. Here is what our library staff think of Lolita, Moby Dick, The Handmaid’s Tale, Gone with the Wind, The Great Gatsby & Grey.
1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Lolita takes an unpromising idea- i.e. the infatuation of a middle-aged man with a twelve year old girl, aka paedophilia-, & attempts to construct a ‘sympathy for the devil’ scenario around this. The book’s initial bad reviews, whatever they were & by whom, probably presumed that Nabokov ‘approved of’ or at least did not sufficiently condemn what is nowadays demonized & damned as a sin beyond the pale of redemption. However, Nabokov is cleverer & more teasing than that, of course. As a writer, he has obviously set himself the task of writing entertainingly, at length, & with much wit, maybe with the intention of inveigling the unsuspecting reader into his/Humbert’s sleazy web?
Conventional elements such as a revenge-murder/pursuit plot & satire of contemporary 50’s American vulgarities are worked in alongside this, as well as a ‘spurious’ editorial foreword which is part of the fiction rather than outside of its world. The novel thus works on multi-levels of narrative & form, with ‘something for everyone’, low/middle/high brow alike. To me, too, Nabokov is also a Dickensian stylist in some of his work, & Lolita indeed displays traits which echo the C19 master. Character names such as ‘Humbert Humbert’, ‘Dolores Haze’ & ‘Quilty’ all hint with psychological onomatopoeia at qualities not quite definable, yet immediately recognisable, perhaps. And what do we make of such lines as ‘You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.’? (1.i.11-12) Is this a paradox, a plain truth, a non sequitur, a nonsense, or bits of these all in one? It makes you think, & has nothing to do with (fictional) child abuse or crime at all!
Most likely, it is the author messing with phrases to bemuse & divert the reader, whilst furthering character development with such idiosyncratic utterances. Anyhow, classics, post-Modern or otherwise, do not become so because of bad reviews, but despite them! Superior writers like Nabokov will always rise above negative press, which is time, place & context-specific in ways that the longevity of universality can never be.
3 out of 5 stars
Len – Harefield Library
2. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Of all the books labelled the Great American Novel, Moby-Dick is generally considered to be the Greatest among them. And it did attract some good reviews at the time, but the damning ones outweighed them and were more forceful, so strongly worded that Melville told Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I have pretty much made up my mind to be annihilated”.
The negativity from British reviewers is partly attributable to the missing epilogue in original UK editions, which if included would have revealed that the narrator survives the ordeal on the boat, the Pequod. (As the reviewers reasonably believed Ishmael dead, how can he possibly be telling the story?) It was called “sad stuff, dull and dreary, or ridiculous” in an 1852 review. Poor sales also contributed to a weakening of Melville’s standing in literary society and other, now almost forgotten works of his were held in higher regard.
Some 20 years after his death, Moby-Dick was re-evaluated and it is now spoken of as a work of almost unparalleled genius. It is, without doubt, a tough read. But it is a lot more fascinating and playful (not to say a bit madder) than its foreboding reputation would suggest. Consider the very first, very famous line. ‘Call me Ishmael.’ Not ‘My name is Ishmael’. We’re immediately in uncertain territory, and there are some chapters where the narrator cannot possibly be Ishmael – some amazing philosophical stuff about hunting, the sea, the whiteness of the whale, sanity and brotherhood. It’s an unhinged, sprawling, dense work that the author is either just about in control or has just about lost a grip of. It is quintessentially American, capturing an industry and a period like no other novel has. It is a huge and intimidating challenge, but the bad press of the time has been firmly shown as wrong. It’s a book that is part of wider public consciousness, but that doesn’t prepare the reader for what actually awaits them.
5 out of 5 stars
Darren – Uxbridge Library
3. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Among the criticisms of The Handmaid’s Tale were that as dystopias go it wasn’t very imaginative, that the protagonist was ambiguous and the ending inconclusive. Mary McCarthy in the New York Times complained that the author, Margaret Atwood, hadn’t created a new language to rival that of A Clockwork Orange or 1984. I was prepared to agree with all of this and more, having found another of Atwood’s novels, Oryx and Crake, pretty hard going, but I was pleasantly surprised at how gripped I was by this one and how little I cared about the supposed problems with it.
Serious it is, a vision of a less fertile future where women capable of childbearing are assigned to powerful men and completely subjugated by them and their appalling wives. I liked the fact that the heroine’s attitude to all this never seemed clear, allowing the reader to project, and surely an ambiguous ending is appropriate. While there are no linguistic innovations to rival Orwell’s Newspeak, the laconic, bitter punning on horrific subjects creates an atmosphere all its own. The novel’s issues of control and freedom are no less thought-provoking today than in the 1980s when the novel was published. Recommended.
5 out of 5 stars
Mike – Eastcote Library
4. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
There have been bad reviews about this book published in 1936 but set during the American civil war. The criticism comes from the long length of the book, the racism and the fact that the lead character Scarlett O’Hara is not a feminist but someone who flirts to get what she wants from men. Scarlett O’Hara is certainly not a perfect person but a flawed character with strengths and weaknesses. I must admit I admire her determination to work and achieve success during a time when women were not usually able to do so. She continues working even throughout her pregnancy which was frowned upon. She is so driven because she never wants to go hungry again. I think most people would feel compelled to work as hard as possible to try to ensure they wouldn’t experience hard times again.
When Scarlett is having a difficult time she says “After all, tomorrow is another day!” I find this to be the most inspirational quote in the novel. The novel is very long but that didn’t personally bother me as I enjoyed reading it. The popular film cuts out quite a lot of the novel as I suppose it would make the running time too long.
There are certainly racist terms used in this novel and the Ku Klux Klan is portrayed in a positive light, which is quite disturbing to read. I presume it was written using the terminology that would have been used by white people at the time and with the type of thoughts and views that would have been typical for the time.
4 out of 5 stars
Siobhan – Uxbridge Library
5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby opens with a consideration of criticism and privilege. It’s appropriate then that such a novel has received bad reviews. Even in seemingly positive reviews, such as H. L. Mencken’s 1925 review for the Chicago Tribune, there’s criticism amongst the praise. Mencken argues that the story is “obviously unimportant”.
We might think that time has been kind to The Great Gatsby. It’s been appropriated into the canon of great American literature, which naturally means movie adaptations and a desire to teach it as part of a school syllabus. This hasn’t necessarily gone down well with the students reading it. As one Amazon reviewer wrote: “I was forced to read The Great Gatsby at school. I hated every page of this book. It was boring and had no point.”
Now seems a suitable time for a small confession. When I first read The Great Gatsby I felt disappointed. It felt shallow. The language was undeniably beautiful but there didn’t seem to be much underneath, but what I saw as the novel’s shortcomings are in fact its attributes. Often when I think back on The Great Gatsby I remember feeling a haunting sense of something lacking. But that was by design, it’s right there in the novel. Jay Gatsby longs after a light that signifies a symbolic love for Daisy, but not a real love. When they reunite there’s an overwhelming sense of disappointment. And then suddenly, and at incredible speed, we reach the crescendo of the book where death strikes and shakes up that sense of loneliness and emptiness. The novel suddenly introduces its stakes. Do we truly care about Jay Gatsby’s melancholic love, or the other affairs that riddle the novel? I rarely did. But I cared for poor Myrtle, run over by Daisy Buchanan driving fast, just as all the prominent characters of West Egg society live fast and live hard. But I didn’t initially get that.
Thinking about bad reviews always makes me think of William S. Burrough’s lecture on ‘Creative Reading’. Something Burrough’s said has stuck with me ever since I heard it. “A book that may mean nothing to you at one time may mean a great deal to you at another time.” That is true of my relationship with The Great Gatsby. I have changed and so has my appreciation of it.
5 out of 5
Mark – Uxbridge Library
6. Grey by E.L. James
It has become relatively fashionable to ridicule and completely tear apart the “Fifty Shades of Grey” series, and to be honest I used to think a lot of it was well deserved, but reading this in the context of books with other “bad reviews” I’m not sure it’s really justified.
Ultimately this is just erotic fiction, not the best erotic fiction, but definitely not the worst. Innocent virginal girl, meets rich experienced controlling man and all sorts of fun ensues. I think it’s been so ridiculously popular because it’s been packaged as general fiction, so it’s more socially acceptable for commuters to read on the train to work or on a beach. A lot of the audience that read this would never touch an erotic fiction novel and I think that’s why it’s been so popular. You can get your kicks all while slating it for it’s terrible narrative and awful characters, all very acceptable and even encouraged. This is a book that is so easy to slate, too easy to slate.
This particular book in the series is the original novel from Christian Grey’s POV. It’s completely unnecessary, as it’s clear that he’s a self-obsessed control freak but it sold over a million copies in the UK alone, so not everyone think’s it awful, or maybe they say they do but secretly love it? Personally it’s not my cup of tea, if I wanted to read erotic fiction I would read Story of O or pick up a book published by Black Lace.
2 out of 5, as it’s not as bad as everyone says it is.
Lara – Harefield Library
So what do you think about our reviews? Are they deserved? Let us know in the comments below.
Thanks for reading.