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The 13 Worst Reviews of Classic Books

This post is reblogged entirely from its original as a Publishers Weekly article, available here.

 

A quarter century ago, Pushcart editor Bill Henderson put together Rotten Reviews Redux, a collection of the meanest and most scathing reviews of classic books and the writers who penned them. The vitriol returns in a 2012 edition of the book with a new introduction from Henderson. We sorted through the book to find 13 of our favorites.

“The final blow-up of what was once a remarkable, if minor, talent.” The New Yorker, 1936, on Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

 

“Whitman is as unacquainted with art as a hog is with mathematics.” The London Critic, 1855, on Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

 

“That this book is strong and that Miss Chopin has a keen knowledge of certain phrases of the feminine will not be denied. But it was not necessary for a writer of so great refinement and poetic grace to enter the overworked field of sex fiction.” Chicago Times Herald, 1899, on The Awakening by Kate Chopin

 

“What has never been alive cannot very well go on living. So this is a book of the season only…” New York Herald Tribune, 1925, on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

“Here all the faults of Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Brontë) are magnified a thousand fold, and the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read.” -James Lorimer, North British Review, 1847, on Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

 

“That a book like this could be written–published here–sold, presumably over the counters, leaves one questioning the ethical and moral standards…there is a place for the exploration of abnormalities that does not lie in the public domain. Any librarian surely will question this for anything but the closed shelves. Any bookseller should be very sure that he knows in advance that he is selling very literate pornography.” Kirkus Reviews, 1958, on Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

 

“Her work is poetry; it must be judged as poetry, and all the weaknesses of poetry are inherent in it.” New York Evening Post, 1927, on To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

 

“An oxymoronic combination of the tough and tender, Of Mice and Men will appeal to sentimental cynics, cynical sentimentalists…Readers less easily thrown off their trolley will still prefer Hans Andersen.” Time, 1937, on Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

 

“Its ethics are frankly pagan.” The Independent, 1935, on Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

 

“A gloomy tale. The author tries to lighten it with humor, but unfortunately her idea of humor is almost exclusively variations on the pratfall…Neither satire nor humor is achieved.” Saturday Review of Literature, 1952, on Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

 

Middlemarch is a treasure-house of details, but it is an indifferent whole.” -Henry James, Galaxy, 1872, on Middlemarch by George Eliot

 

“At a conservative estimate, one million dollars will be spent by American readers for this book. They will get for their money 34 pages of permanent value. These 34 pages tell of a massacre happening in a little Spanish town in the early days of the Civil War…Mr. Hemingway: please publish the massacre scene separately, and then forget For Whom the Bell Tolls; please leave stories of the Spanish Civil War to Malraux…” Commonweal, 1940, on For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

 

“Monsieur Flaubert is not a writer.” Le Figaro, 1857, on Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

 

 

There’s hope for us all!

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Emma Thompson & Peter Rabbit


E
mma Thompson’s The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit was published on 6th September, illustrated by Eleanor Taylor. It is the first time that Frederick Warne has published an additional title to Beatrix Potter’s original series.

According to Publisher’s Weekly, Thompson and Taylor preserve the delicious dry wit of Potter’s original tales—this is top-notch read-aloud fare that both children and their parents will enjoy. Here’s to having Peter hop into trouble for another hundred years. The book also includes an audio recording of the tale, read by the author.

Thompson was first asked to pen a sequel to Beatrix Potter’s books by Frederick Warne himself when a cardboard box arrived at her front door with a half-eaten radish leaf inside next to a letter from ‘Peter Rabbit’ asking that she write him into another story.

Known to possess a dry sense of humor, as was Potter, Thompson is a longtime devotee of Peter and his pals: “I’ve always loved Beatrix Potter, as a child and then as a mother and all the years in-between as well,” she said in a statement. “When Mr. Rabbit invited me to write a further tale, I was more honored than I can say. I hope I don’t let him or his extraordinary creator down.”

Luckily for us, the Bookseller announced yesterday that Thompson is set to write two further sequels: The second title will be set in the Lake District and will follow Peter’s “comical little cousin” Benjamin Bunny plus a new character called William. It is lined up for Christmas 2013. The third title will be published in 2014.

Francesca Dow, Penguin Children’s M.D., said, “The recent launch of the 24th tale The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit has been amazingly well-received all over the world and I can’t tell you how excited we are that Emma is writing two more tales. Emma’s writing is completely fresh and original and yet she also captures perfectly the spirit of Potter’s own unique style . . .What with Peter celebrating his 110th birthday this year, the forthcoming launch of the new Peter Rabbit animation series and now two new tales from Emma it’s certainly an exciting time for everybody’s favourite rabbit.”

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Bin Laden book to come out early

Only five days ago this blog reported that Mark Owen’s account of his Navy SEAL mission to capture Osama Bin Laden was a bestseller, due to be published on 11th of September. However, Penguin’s Dutton imprint has moved up the publishing date.

GalleyCat says: “Originally slated for an October release, No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden was then supposed to come out on September 11th, but will now be out on September 4th.”

Publishers Weekly has more:

Dutton announced the additional publication change. In a statement, the publisher said the publication was moved up “in response to the overwhelming excitement in the marketplace,” and Dutton “now feels it is important to put No Easy Day on sale and let the book speak for itself.”

The book is getting coverage all over the country for the new details it reveals, including that Bin Laden was already dead when the SEALs entered his bedroom in the compound. The publisher and author have also been criticized for not providing the government with a copy of the book before announcing it on August 22.

The first printing of the book is now 575,000 copies, up from the original 300,000.

The book is still No. 1 on the Amazon Bestselling Chart.

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The Writer Magazine is back!

Just over a month ago, this blog reported that the Writer Magazine was on hiatus after 125 years in business. (The Writer magazine was founded in 1887 by Boston Globe reporters Robert Luce and William H. Hills who outlined nine goals for the magazine, including, notably: “To collect and publish the experiences, experiments and observations of literary people, for the benefit of all writers.”)

Editor Jeff Reich sent an email to his subscribers to break the news: “I’m sorry to announce that The Writer magazine will go on hiatus after the October 2012 issue, which is in production now. Kalmbach Publishing Co., which owns The Writer, is currently looking for a buyer for the magazine, and our hope is that The Writer will re-emerge under the careful stewardship of a new owner.”

Yesterday, Publishers Weekly announced that, ‘[a]fter a dozen years with Kalmbach Publishing Co. in Waukesha, Wisc., The Writer magazine will return to Boston, where it has been acquired by Madavor Media.

‘In addition to The Writer, Madavor acquired BirdWatching. “We are excited to include these brands in our lineup and to find innovative ways to expand them in new markets,” said v-p, group publisher Susan Fitzgerald, “We will continue to deliver the quality and authoritative content readers and advertisers expect.” She is committed to keeping the print edition of the magazine, and Madavor is retaining both Jeff Reich and Elfriede Abbe from Kalmbach as consultants. It will also follow through with a book of The Best of the Writer, to be published by year’s end.’

As reported by GalleyCat, authors who have graced the pages of the magazine include: Ray Bradbury, Patricia Cornwell, Jonathan Franzen, Gail Godwin, Pete Hamill, Stephen King, Sinclair Lewis, W. Somerset Maugham, Terry McMillan, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Perry, May Sarton and John Updike.

The magazine’s website is full of resources and writing aids, such as writing prompts, tips on getting published,  advice for the many common stumbling blocks of bad writing, and support in not losing hope.

Click here for The Writer Magazine website.

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Bad Writing Wins Awards

Since 1982 the English Department at San Jose State University has sponsored the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels. The contest was the brainchild of Professor Scott Rice, whose graduate school excavations unearthed the source of the line “It was a dark and stormy night” by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

Conscripted numerous times to be a judge in writing contests that were, in effect, bad writing contests but with prolix, overlong, and generally lengthy submissions, Rice struck upon the idea of holding a competition that would be honest and – best of all – invite brief entries. Already familiar with Bulwer-Lytton, Rice named the competition after him, as a nod to all overwrought prose.

The winner of this year’s contest is Cathy Bryant, and this is the line that won it for her:

“As he told her that he loved her she gazed into his eyes, wondering, as she noted the infestation of eyelash mites, the tiny deodicids burrowing into his follicles to eat the greasy sebum therein, each female laying up to 25 eggs in a single follicle, causing inflammation, whether the eyes are truly the windows of the soul; and, if so, his soul needed regrouting.”

Here are some other examples from this year’s entries (via Publishers Weekly):

She slinked through my door wearing a dress that looked like it had been painted on … not with good paint, like Behr or Sherwin-Williams, but with that watered-down stuff that bubbles up right away if you don’t prime the surface before you slap it on, and – just like that cheap paint – the dress needed two more coats to cover her. — Sue Fondrie, Appleton, WI

They still talk about that fateful afternoon in Abilene, when Dancing Dan DuPre moonwalked through the doors of Fat Suzy’s saloon, made a passable reverse-turn, pirouetted twice followed by a double box-step, somersaulted onto the bar, drew his twin silver-plated Colt-45s and put twelve bullets through the eyes of the McLuskey sextuplets, on account of them varmints burning down his ranch and lynching his prize steer. — Ted Downes, Cardiff, U.K.

William, his senses roused by a warm fetid breeze, hoped it was an early spring’s equinoxal thaw causing rivers to swell like the blood-engorged gumlines of gingivitis, loosening winter’s plaque, exposing decay, and allowing the seasonal pot-pouris of Mother Nature’s morning breath to permeate the surrounding ether, but then he awoke to the unrelenting waves of his wife’s halitosis. — Guy Foisy, Orleans, Ontario

As I gardened, gazing towards the autumnal sky, I longed to run my finger through the trail of mucus left by a single speckled slug – innocuously thrusting past my rhododendrons – and in feeling that warm slime, be swept back to planet Alderon, back into the tentacles of the alien who loved me. — Mary E. Patrick, Lake City, SC

They still talk about that fateful afternoon in Abilene, when Dancing Dan DuPre moonwalked through the doors of Fat Suzy’s saloon, made a passable reverse-turn, pirouetted twice followed by a double box-step, somersaulted onto the bar, drew his twin silver-plated Colt-45s and put twelve bullets through the eyes of the McLuskey sextuplets, on account of them varmints burning down his ranch and lynching his prize steer. — Ted Downes, Cardiff, U.K.

For the full list of bad writing, have a look at the previous winners and runners-up here.

Click here to find out how Bryant got her inspiration.

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Digital sales and lawsuits


Today, Amazon UK announced that since the start of 2012, for every 100 print books purchased on their site, customers downloaded 114 Kindle books. Amazon said the figures included sales of printed books which did not have Kindle editions, but excluded free ebooks.

An article in the Guardian outlined that “much to the consternation of the publishing industry, Amazon has refused to release audited figures for its digital book sales, something it does for printed books.” It told the Guardian that the company “would not discuss future policy on the matter.”

Ebook sales have been given a boost by the publication of Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, which has sold two million copies in the past four months.

Over the past year, the site has seen a more than 400% increase in UK authors and publishers using the self-publishing tool Kindle Direct Publishing.

Jorrit Van der Meulen, vice-president of Kindle EU, said: “Customers in the UK are now choosing Kindle books more often than print books, even as our print business continues to grow. We hit this milestone in the US less than four years after introducing Kindle, so to reach this landmark after just two years in the UK is remarkable and shows how quickly UK readers are embracing Kindle. As a result of the success of Kindle, we’re selling more books than ever before on behalf of authors and publishers.”

Less favourable news came for Google Books today, with Publishers Weekly  reporting that the multinational corporation could incur damages exceeding $1 billion, if the Authors Guild prevails in its legal battle over Google’s library book scanning program.

Publishers Weekly said: “The Guild asked the court for summary judgment in its favor, and the minimum statutory damage award—$750 per infringement. With as many as four million of the estimated 20 million books scanned by Google thought to still be under U.S. copyright, the damages could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars should Google lose, depending on the ultimate size of the class, and assuming that copyright holders come forward and prove ownership.

“From the beginning, Google has portrayed the scanning program as a public good. But, in its brief, the Authors Guild portrays the scanning effort as a purely commercial venture designed to give it an advantage over competitors like Microsoft and Amazon, which had both launched book scanning projects that asked permission of the copyright owner. The brief cites internal Google documents citing Google’s desire to cement an advantage over its rivals, and notes that Google has invested nearly $180 million in the scanning program. It also notes that Google was making progress with its partner program, signing up publishers for its corpus, when it decided to scan library books.”

For the full low-down see here and The Guardian article here.

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