14 Classic Works of Literature Hated By Famous Authors
"I got a little bored after a time. I mean, the road seemed to be awfully long."
The literary world can be a bit of an echo chamber. That is, if enough people say a book is “great,” it becomes official. It becomes a Great Book, and horrified looks are administered to anyone who would dare disparage it. Reputations like this can be made even when almost nobody has read the book in question, just by passing around a few “I hear it’s amazing”s. But even when everyone seems to agree, it’s a safe bet there are a few—or in some cases more than a few—dissenters out there. They may just be in hiding.
It seems a shame these days many writers feel they can’t express any negative feelings about a book publicly—it’s bad for readers, who increasingly count on their favorite authors for suggestions, and also for the book industry, which risks hyping itself into oblivion when readers are disappointed too many times by bloated reviews. I understand why it happens, but I still don’t like it—but that’s an essay for another time.
All this is to say that it’s fun to see a giant get kneecapped (especially if you secretly didn’t like that giant all that much anyway), and even more fun to watch giants fight—which is pretty much how I feel reading great writers disparaging the work of other great writers. All the legends in question are secure, which makes the literary dissension—and let’s face it, bitchy commentary—a guilt-free pleasure.
So without further ado, a selection of writers who hated books that have become classics, and what they said about them. Whether they were right or wrong is still up for debate.
Virginia Woolf on Ulysses
From her diaries:
Wednesday, August 16th, 1922:
I should be reading Ulysses, and fabricating my case for and against. I have read 200 pages so far—not a third; and have been amused, stimulated, charmed, interested, by the first two or three chapters—to the end of the cemetery scene; and then puzzled, bored, irritated and disillusioned by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples. Tom, great Tom [T.S. Eliot], thinks this is on a par with War and Peace! An illiterate, underbred book, it seems to me; the book of a self-taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating. When one can have the cooked flesh, why have the raw? But I think if you are anaemic, as Tom is, there is glory in blood. Being fairly normal myself I am soon ready for the classics again. I may revise this later. I do not compromise my critical sagacity. I plant a stick in the ground to mark page 200.
Wednesday, September 6th, 1922:
I finished Ulysses and think it a mis-fire. Genius it has, I think; but of the inferior water. The book is diffuse. It is brackish. It is pretentious. It is underbred, not only in the obvious sense, but in the literary sense. A first rate writer, I mean, respects writing too much to be tricky; startling; doing stunts. I’m reminded all the time of some callow board school boy, full of wits and powers, but so self-conscious and egotistical that he loses his head, becomes extravagant, mannered, uproarious, ill at ease, makes kindly people feel sorry for him and stern ones merely annoyed; and one hopes he’ll grow out of it; but as Joyce is 40 this scarcely seems likely. . . I feel that myriads of tiny bullets pepper one and spatter one; but one does not get one deadly wound straight int he face—as from Tolstoy, for instance; but it is entirely absurd to compare him with Tolstoy.
Dorothy Parker on Winnie-the-Pooh
In her “Constant Reader” column in The New Yorker, October 20th, 1928:
The above lyric is culled from the fifth page of Mr. A. A. Milne’s new book, “The House at Pooh Corner,” for, although the work is in prose, there are frequent droppings into more cadenced whimsy. This one is designated as a “Hum,” that pops into the head of Winnie-the-Pooh as he is standing outside Piglet’s house in the snow, jumping up and down to keep warm. It “seemed to him a Good Hum, such as is Hummed Hopefully to Others.” In fact, so Good a Hum did it seem that he and Piglet started right out through the snow to Hum It Hopefully to Eeyore. Oh darn—there I’ve gone and given away the plot. I could bite my tongue out.
As they are trotting along against the flakes, Piglet begins to weaken a bit.
“ ‘Pooh,’ he said at last and a little timidly, because he didn’t want Pooh to think he was Giving In, ‘I was just wondering. How would it be if we went home now and practised your song, and then sang it to Eeyore tomorrow—or—or the next day, when we happen to see him.’
“ ‘That’s a very good idea, Piglet,’ said Pooh. ‘We’ll practise it now as we go along. But it’s no good going home to practise it, because it’s a special Outdoor Song which Has To Be Sung In The Snow.’
“ ‘Are you sure?’ asked Piglet anxiously.
“ ‘Well, you’ll see, Piglet, when you listen. Because this is how it begins. The more it snows, tiddely-pom—’
“ ‘Tiddely what?’ said Piglet.” (He took, as you might say, the very words out of your correspondent’s mouth.)
“ ‘Pom,’ said Pooh. ‘I put that in to make it more hummy.’ ”
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.
Charlotte Brontë on Pride and Prejudice
In a letter to G.H. Lewes (lover of George Eliot), January 12th, 1848:
Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point. What induced you to say you would rather have written Pride and Prejudice or Tom Jones’ than any of the Waverly Novels? I had not seen Pride and Prejudice till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book and studied it. And what did I find? An accurate daguerrotyped portrait of a common-place face; a carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden with near borders and delicate flowers—but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy—no open country—no fresh air—no blue hill—no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in they elegant but confined houses.These observations will probably irritate you, but I shall run the risk.
Now I can understand admiration for George Sand—for though I never saw any of her works which I admired throughout (…yet she has a grasp of mind which if I cannot fully comprehend I very deeply respect; she is sagacious and profound; Miss Austen is only shrewd and observant. Am I wrong—or were you hasty in what you said?
Charlotte Brontë on Emma
In a letter to W. S. Williams, April 12th, 1850:
I have likewise read one of Miss Austen’s works—Emma—read it with interest and with just the right degree of admiration which the Miss Austen herself would have thought sensible and suitable. Anything like warmth or enthusiasm—anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstration the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outré and extravagant. She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well. There is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting. She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood. Even to the feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition—too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress. Her business is not half so much with the human heart as with the human eyes, mouth, hands, and feet. What sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study; but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushed through, what is the unseen seat of life and the sentient target of death—this Miss Austen ignores. . . . Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete, and rather insensible (not senseless) woman. If this is heresy, I cannot help it.
Mark Twain on Pride and Prejudice
In a letter to Joseph Twichell, September 13th, 1898:
I haven’t any right to criticize books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. 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.
From Twain’s incomplete fragment, entitled “Jane Austen”:
Whenever I take up Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, I feel like a barkeeper entering the Kingdom of Heaven. I mean, I feel as he would probably feel, would almost certainly feel. I am quite sure I know what his sensations would be-and his private comments. He would be certain to curl his lip, as those ultra-good Presbyterians went filing self-complacently along. Because he considered himself better than they? Not at all. They would not be to his taste—that is all.
Aldous Huxley on On the Road
As quoted in Nicholas Murray’s Aldous Huxley: A Biography:
I got a little bored after a time. I mean, the road seemed to be awfully long.
Katherine Mansfield on Howards End
From her journals:
Putting my weakest books to the wall last night I came across a copy of Howards End and had a look into it. But it’s not good enough. 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.
And I can never be perfectly certain whether Helen was got with child by Leonard Bast or by his fatal forgotten umbrella. All things considered, I think it must have been the umbrella.
Martin Amis on Don Quixote
From his review as printed in The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000:
While clearly an impregnable masterpiece, Don Quixote suffers from one fairly serious flaw—that of outright unreadability. This reviewer should know, because he has just read it. The book bristles with beauties, charm, sublime comedy; it is also, for long stretches (approaching about 75 per cent of the whole), inhumanly dull. . . Reading Don Quixote can be compared to an indefinite visit from your most impossible senior relative, with all his pranks, dirty habits, unstoppable reminiscences, and terrible cronies. When the experience is over, and the old boy checks out at last (on page 846 – the prose wedged tight, with no breaks for dialogue), you will shed tears all right: not tears of relief but tears of pride. You made it, despite all that Don Quixote could do.
David Foster Wallace on American Psycho
From an interview with Larry McCaffery published in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1993:
LM: In your own case, how does this hostility manifest itself?
DFW: Oh, not always, but sometimes in the form of sentences that are syntactically not incorrect but still a real bitch to read. Or bludgeoning the reader with data. Or devoting a lot of energy to creating expectations and then taking pleasure in disappointing them. You can see this clearly in something like Ellis’s American Psycho: it panders shamelessly to the audience’s sadism for a while, but by the end it’s clear that the sadism’s real object is the reader herself.
LM: But at least in the case of American Psycho I felt there was something more than just this desire to inflict pain—or that Ellis was being cruel the way you said serious artists need to be willing to be.
DFW: You’re just displaying the sort of cynicism that lets readers be manipulated by bad writing. I think it’s a kind of black cynicism about today’s world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s cliched and not recognizably human, etc.–is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend Psycho as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.
Elizabeth Bishop on Seymour—An Introduction
(NB: this is sometimes marked down as being about The Catcher in the Rye, but given the timing I find the novella—published in The New Yorker in 1959—more likely)
In a letter to Pearl Kazin, September 9th, 1959:
I HATED the Salinger story. 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? That horrible self-consciousness, every sentence comments on itself and comments on itself commenting on itself, and I think it was actually supposed to be funny. And if the poems were so good, why not just give us one or two and shut up, for God’s sake? That Seymour figure doesn’t impress me at all as anything extra—or is that the point and I’ve been missing it? GOD is in any slightly superior, sensitive, intelligent human being or something? or WHAT? and WHY? And is it true that The New Yorker can’t change a word he writes? It seems to be the exact opposite of those fine old-fashioned standards of writing Andy White admires so, and yet it isn’t “experimental” or original—it’s just tedious. Now if I am running counter to all the opinions at present, tell me why, because I’d like to know how it can be defended.
Mary McCarthy on Franny and Zooey
In a review in Harper’s, October 1962:
Who is to inherit the mantle of Papa Hemingway? Who if not J. D. Salinger? . . . And who are these wonder kids but Salinger himself, splitting and multiplying like the original amoeba?
In Hemingway’s work there was never anybody but Hemingway in a series of disguises, but at least there was only one Papa per book. To be confronted with the seven faces of Salinger, all wise and lovable and simple, is to gaze into a terrifying narcissus pool. Salinger’s world contains nothing but Salinger, his teachers, and his tolerantly cherished audience — humanity; outside are the phonies, vainly signaling to be let in, like the kids’ Irish mother, Bessie, a home version of the Fat Lady, who keeps invading the bathroom while her handsome son Zooey is in the tub or shaving.
. . .
A great deal of attention is paid, too, to the rituals of cigarette lighting and to the rites of drinking from a glass, as though these oral acts were sacred — epiphanies. In the same way, the family writings are treated by Salinger as sacred scriptures or the droppings of holy birds, to be studied with care by the augurs: letters from Seymour, citations from his diary, a letter from Ruddy, a letter from Franny, a letter from Boo Boo, a note written by Boo Boo in soap on a bathroom mirror (the last two are from another story, “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters”).
These imprints of the Glass collective personality are preserved as though they were Veronica’s veil in a relic case of well-wrought prose. And the eerie thing is, speaking of Veronica’s veil, a popular subject for those paintings in which Christ’s eyes are supposed to follow the spectator with a doubtless reproachful gaze, the reader has the sensation in this latest work of Salinger that the author is sadly watching him or listening to him read. That is, the ordinary relation is reversed, and instead of the reader reading Salinger, Salinger, that Man of Sorrows, is reading the reader.
. . .
Seymour’s suicide suggests that Salinger guesses intermittently or fears intermittently that there may be something wrong somewhere. Why did he kill himself? Because he had married a phony, whom he worshiped for her “simplicity, her terrible honesty”? Or because he was so happy and the Fat Lady’s world was so wonderful?
Or because he had been lying, his author had been lying, and it was all terrible, and he was a fake?
H.L. Mencken on The Great Gatsby
In a review published in The Chicago Sunday Tribune, May 3, 1925:
Scott Fitzgerald’s new novel, The Great Gatsby is in form no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that. The scene is the Long Island that hangs precariously on the edges of the New York City trash dumps—the Long Island of the gandy villas and bawdy house parties. The theme is the old one of a romantic and preposterous love—the ancient fidelis ad urnum motif reduced to a macabre humor. The principal personage is a bounder typical of those parts—a fellow who seems to know every one and yet remains unknown to all—a young man with a great deal of mysterious money, the tastes of a movie actor and, under it all, the simple sentimentality of a somewhat sclerotic fat woman.
. . .
This story is obviously unimportant and, though, as I shall show, it has its place in the Fitzgerald canon, it is certainly not to be put on the same shelf with, say, This Side of Paradise. What ails it, fundamentally, is the plain fact that it is simply a story—that Fitzgerald seems to be far more interested in maintaining its suspense than in getting under the skins of its people. It is not that they are false: it is that they are taken too much for granted. Only Gatsby himself genuinely lives and breathes. The rest are mere marionettes—often astonishingly lifelike, but nevertheless not quite alive.
Vladimir Nabokov on Dr. Zhivago
From an interview fragment dated October 1972, republished in Strong Opinions:
Any intelligent Russian would see at once that the book is pro-Bolshevist and historically false, if only because it ignores the Liberal Revolution of spring, 1917, while making the saintly doctor accept with delirious joy the Bolshevist coup d’état seven months later—all of which is in keeping with the party line. Leaving out politics, I regard the book as a sorry thing, clumsy, trivial, and melodramatic, with stock situations, voluptuous lawyers, unbelievable girls, and trite coincidences.
. . .
I applauded [Pasternak] getting the Nobel Prize on the strength of his verse. In Dr. Zhivago, however, the prose does not live up to his poetry. Here and there, in a landscape or simile, one can distinguish, perhaps, faint echoes of his poetical voice, but those occasional fioriture are insufficient to save his novel from the provincial banality so typical of Soviet literature for the past fifty years.
Vladimir Nabokov on The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment
In an interview with James Mossman, published in The Listener, October 23, 1969, and reprinted in Strong Opinions:
If you are alluding to Dostoevsky’s worst novels, then, indeed, I dislike intensely The Brothers Karamazov and the ghastly Crime and Punishment rigamarole. 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.
Vladimir Nabokov on Finnegans Wake
From a 1967 interview in The Paris Review:
I detest Punningans Wake in which a cancerous growth of fancy word-tissue hardly redeems the dreadful joviality of the folklore and the easy, too easy, allegory.
From a different 1967 interview, this one conducted by one of Nabokov’s students at Cornell:
Ulysses towers over the rest of Joyce’s writings, and in comparison to its noble originality and unique lucidity of thought and style the unfortunate Finnegans Wake is nothing but a formless and dull mass of phony folklore, a cold pudding of a book, a persistent snore in the next room, most aggravating to the insomniac! I am. Moreover, I always detested regional literature full of quaint old-timers and imitated pronunciation. Finnegans Wake’s facade disguises a very conventional and drab tenement house, and only the infrequent snatches of heavenly intonations redeem it from utter insipidity. I know I am going to be excommunicated for this pronouncement.