A compilation of 'Rotten Reviews' of good books

By Margot Mifflin
Updated June 05, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT
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All the world loves a pan, and now there’s a bible of bad press, brutal brush-offs, and woefully erroneous literary slams. Rotten Reviews & Rejections (Pushcart Press) rolls three recent popular books — Rotten Reviews, Rotten Reviews II, and Rotten Rejections — into a venomous volume spiked with nasty new additions. Nothing and no one is sacred, from Moby Dick, deemed ”so much trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature” to Tony Hillerman, who got a rejection letter urging him to ”get rid of all that Indian stuff” in The Blessing Way.

”I published Rotten Reviews because I was so angry about a review of a book I dearly loved that I was contemplating violence,” says Pushcart publisher Bill Henderson. ”Finally, I decided to get back at them by laughter.” Henderson coedited the new volume with André Bernard, an editor at Harcourt Brace.

The book’s most perversely pleasurable entries show famous writers trashing…famous writers: Zola slams Baudelaire, Emerson reviles Austen, and George Bernard Shaw calls Shakespeare’s Othello ”pure melodrama [without] a touch of characterization that goes below the skin.” This, after the play had enjoyed nearly three centuries of critical kudos.

While most of the literary floggings in the latest volume were culled from biographies, the editors collected many recent examples directly from writers. ”They had to be good sports about it — it’s a painful business,” says Henderson. And it shows. In a letter to the editors, Erica Jong confesses that a cruel review of Fear of Flying in 1974 broke her heart.

But for classics such as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (”sentimental rubbish”) or Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (”a curiously dead novel”), Edna St. Vincent Millay’s words apply: ”A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down…. If it is a good book nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book, nothing can help him.”

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