Larry Ceplair wrote in the LA Times when Rotten Reviews first came out that “these books, collections of snippets of nasty comments on well-known books or well-known authors … force one to confront a hideous, hidden truth about high culture: Critics hate authors even more than authors hate critics.” And as the LA Review of Books's William Giraldi wrote when Rotten Reviews Redux appeared:
Bloggers and other online epigones are the impetus behind editor Bill Henderson’s reprisal of his 1987 bestseller.... (Henderson is the publisher of the long-standing Pushcart Prize series, a labor of love and annual celebration of literary journals for which he deserves to be sainted.) Now called Rotten Reviews Redux, this priceless little compendium boasts a new preface by Henderson in which he castigates the “unfettered, unedited, unfiltered, and ridiculous rage” rampant on the Net. But it’s not necessarily the foppish rage that so incenses Henderson — it’s the anonymity: “Anonymous online critics ambush unprotected writers in bursts of verbal automatic rifle fire.” We now live, according to Henderson, “in an online Wild West.” The image is apt, whether or not your business is literature. “All civility gone. Empathy, balance, decency, knowledge, out the window. Everybody a blogger. Everybody an instant critic.”Here, for your delectation, are some more choice bits of literary snarkery taken from the Rotten Reviews omnibus linked to above.
On Edgar Allen Poe
After reading some of Poe's stories one feels a kind of shock to one's modesty. We require some kind of spiritual ablution to cleanse our minds of his disgusting images. (Leslie Stephen [Virginia Woolf's father], 1874)
[Poor Poe. Not only did he have to fight for survival in this world, but they ganged up on him in the afterlife!]
An idiot, and a Boston idiot to boot, than which there is nothing lower in the world. (H.L. Mencken, The American Scene, 1915)
On Ulysses, James Joyce [right]
...a misfire... the book is diffuse. It is brackish, It is pretentious. It is underbred, not only in the obvious but in the literary sense. A first rate writer, I mean, respects writing too much to be tricky. (Virginia Woolf, in her diary)
On Moby Dick, Herman Melville
This sea novel is a singular medley of naval observation, magazine article writing, satiric reflection upon the conventionalisms of civilised life, and rhapsody run mad... (The Spectator)
Mr Eliot has shown that he can at moments write real blank verse; but that is all. For the rest he has quoted a great deal, he has parodied and imitated. But the parodies are cheap and the imitations inferior. (New Statesman, 1922)
On Ezra Pound
A village explainer, excellent if you were in a village, but if you were not, not. (Gertrude Stein; above right) [surely the readers/critics who loathe Stein herself are legion??]
On Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust
My dear fellow, I may perhaps be dead from the neck up, but rack my brains as I may I can't see why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep. (Marc Humblot, French editor, rejection letter to Proust, 1912)
...poorly written, full of repetitions, replete with borrowings from unbelievers, and spoiled by the author's atheistic bias and his flimsy psycho-analytic fancies. (Catholic World)
On Hamlet, William Shakespeare
It is a vulgar and barbarous drama, which would not be tolerated by the vilest populace of France, or Italy... one would imagine this piece to be the work of a drunken savage. (Voltaire, 1768)
On A Midsummer Night's Dream
The most insipid, ridiculous play I ever saw in my life. (Samuel Pepys, Diary) [fairies courtesy of Edmund Dulac]
As Anthony Brandt remarks in his introduction to Rotten Reviews Redux, “One of the pleasures of this wicked collection is watching the great being terribly wrong about the great.” Although surely one must acknowledge the often vast differences between cultures, periods, tastes, and styles of writing when evaluating the evaluators!
Coda: Yesterday a reader observed that Virginia Woolf dwelt often on class issues. Read this diary entry and wait for the kicker:
I have finished the Wings of the Dove, & make this comment. His [Henry James's] manipulations become so elaborate towards the end that instead of feeling the artist you merely feel the man who is posing the subject. And then I think he loses the power to feel the crisis. And then I think he loses the power to feel the crisis. He becomes merely excessively ingenious. This, you seem to hear him saying, is the way to do it. Now just when you expect a crisis, the true artist evades it. Never do the thing, and it will be all the more impressive. Finally, after all this juggling and arranging of silk pocket handkerchiefs, one ceases to have any feeling for the figure behind. Milly thus manipulated disappears. He overreaches himself. And then one can never read it again. The mental grasp & stret[c]h are magnificent. Not a flabby or slack sentence, but much emasculated by this timidity or consciousness or whatever it is. Very highly American, I conjecture, in the determination to be highly bred, and the slight obtuseness as to what high breeding is.Poisoned Pens, as are several long passages on D. H. Lawrence by both Woolf and Dame Edith Sitwell. Both are engrossing, but it is the Mandarin Sitwell who takes Lawrence out for his faux working-class lingo.