Bad Literary Reviews to Make Your Day

People seemed to like my The Writers Who Didn’t Give Up so here’s another little morale booster for you fellow keyboard worshipers out there, especially the ones who are trying to get over a bad review. It happens to everyone and I mean everyone. Austen, Joyce, Twain…

I’ve actually given some of my own work bad reviews before. I deserved it.

Below you will find some first class trashing by a few of my favorites, like Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde. The greatest works in literature have had the worst critiques. Interestingly enough, most of the cattiest insults come from other writers and no writer is safe. Meow!


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And it is that word “hummy,” my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader Fwowed up.

– Dorothy Parker writing about The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne (The New Yorker, October 1928)


An enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.

– Henry James on Edgar Allan Poe


One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.

– Oscar Wilde writing about The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens


Taken one by one, each of these stories is prettily fashioned enough: fluently written, finely observed, dextrously assembled, but in the end, a little slight – a little too cerebral to be affecting, a little too banal to be intellectually compelling.

– Michiko Kakutani writing about Cross Channel by Julian Barnes  (The New York Times, April 1996)


Reading him is like wading through glue.

– Alfred Lord Tennyson on Ben Jonson


E.M. Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot. He’s a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain’t going to be no tea.

– Katherine Mansfield on E.M. Forster (Diary Entry, 1917)


[Frankenstein is] a book about what happens when a man tries to have a baby without a woman.

– Anne K. Mellor writing about Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (Sunday Correspondent, April 1990)


He writes like a housewife on the verge of the vapors.

– Robert Bolt on Lord Byron


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 writing about The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (The New York Times, February 1986)


The Ancient Mariner would not have been taken so well it if had been called The Old Sailor.

– Samuel Butler writing about “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge


The triumph of sugar over diabetes.

– George Jean Nathan on J.M. Barrie


He has driven some susceptible persons to crime in a very fury of boredom.

– Ezra Pound on William Wordsworth


This obscure, eccentric, and disgusting poem.

– Voltaire writing about “Paradise Lost” by John Milton


A monster gibbering shrieks, and gnashing imprecations against mankind – tearing down all shreds of modesty, past all sense of manliness and shame; filthy in thought, furious, raging, obscene.

– William Makepeace Thackeray writing about Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift


English literature’s performing flea.

– Sean O’Casey on P.G. Wodehouse


The same old sausage, fizzing and sputtering in its own grease.

– Henry James on Thomas Carlyle


I could readily see in Emerson…a gaping flaw. It was the insinuation that had he lived in those days when the world was made, he might have offered some valuable suggestions.

– Herman Melville on Ralph Waldo Emerson


Bernard Shaw is an excellent man; he has not an enemy in the world, and none of his friends like him.

– Oscar Wilde on Bernard Shaw


What is Conrad but the wreck of Stevenson floating about in the slipsop of Henry James.

– George Moore on Joseph Conrad


Miss Lee’s problem has been to tell the story she wants to tell and yet to stay within the consciousness of a child, and she hasn’t consistently solved it.

– Granville Hicks writing about To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (The Saturday Review, July 1960)


The first 200 pages of Ulysses…Never have I read such tosh. As for the first two chapters we will let them pass, but the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th – merely the scratchings of pimples on the body of the bootboy at Claridges.

– Virginia Woolf writing about Ulysses by James Joyce (Letter to Lytton Strachey, April 1922)


Take from him his sophisms, futilities, and incomprehensibilities and what remains? His foggy mind.

– Thomas Jefferson on Plato


The more I read him, the less I wonder that they poisoned him.

– Thomas Babington Macaulay on Socrates


Jane Austen’s books, too, are absent from this library. Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it.

– Mark Twain on Jane Austen


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 writing about Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (The New Yorker, May 1969)


I wish her characters would talk a little less like the heroes and heroines of police reports.

– George Eliot writing about Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte


I have just read Dombey and Son. The worst book in the world.

– Evelyn Waugh writing about Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens (Letter to Laura Waugh, January 1945)


A hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe, who tried out a few of the old proven “sure-fire” literary skeletons with sufficient local color to intrigue the superficial and the lazy.

– William Faulkner on Mark Twain


I found out in the first two pages that it was a woman’s writing – she supposed that in making a door, you last of all put in the panels!

– Thomas Carlyle writing about Adam Bede by George Eliot


A pair of boots is in every sense better than Pushkin…Pushkin is mere luxury and nonsense.

– Fyodor Dostoevsky on Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (Epokha)


He writes like a sick man.

– Gertrude Stein on D.H. Lawrence


Howl is meant to be a noun, but I can’t help taking it as an imperative.

– John Hollander writing about “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg (Partisan Review)


Scott Fitzgerald’s new novel, The Great Gatsby is in form no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that…

– H.L. Mencken writing about The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Chicago Tribune, 1925)


This awful Whitman. This post-mortem poet. This poet with the private soul leaking out of him all the time.

– D.H. Lawrence on Walt Whitman


Truman Capote has made lying into an art. A minor art.

– Gore Vidal on Truman Capote


No, I didn’t think Lolita any good except as smut. As that it was highly exciting to me.

– Evelyn Waugh writing about Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (Letter to Nancy Mitford, June 1959)


All the faults of Jane Eyre are magnified a thousandfold, and the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read.

– James Lorrimer writing about Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (North British Review)



Nicolina Torres
Nicolina Torres

Nikki worked for Barnes & Noble for 15 years, in seven stores. She is the author of This Red Fire, Young Nation, and Girls Who Wear Glasses. She prefers to live in the country and is a new aunt to a potential bookworm.

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