12 Classic Books That Got Horrible Reviews When They First Came Out

01/23/2015 09:22 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2015
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Reviewers are tasked with the daunting challenge of critically assessing a work's artistic merit, and determining whether a book is worth readers' valuable time. They are often also expected to predict -- or influence -- a novel's future, an assignment that may be impossible to fulfill with complete accuracy. Which is one reason why the art of the negative review has been called into question recently -- not only do writers need our support, there's also often a dissonance between critical reception and, say, Goodreads' crowd-sourced opinions. The Goldfinch is just one recent example of a title that failed to garner the support of top reviewers, but charmed book lovers (not to mention the 2014 Pulitzer judges) nevertheless.

Donna Tartt was preceded by a slew of talented writers whose works were initially snubbed by critics. Fitzgerald's Gatsby (y'know -- the Great one?) was originally panned as "obviously unimportant," and Brave New World was once said to be "heavy-handed propaganda." Yikes! Below are 12 classic books that once received bad reviews:

  • 'The Tropic of Cancer' by Henry Miller
  • "Miller stands under his Paris street-lamp, defiantly but genially drunk, trolling his catch mixed of beauty and banality and recurrent bawdry-a little pathetic because he thinks he is a discoverer and doesn't realize that he is only a tourist on a well-marked tour. We see him at last as an appealingly zestful, voracious, talented hick."

    The New Republic
  • 'The Handmaid's Tale' by Margaret Atwood
  • "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."

    The New York Times
  • 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' by Ernest Hemingway
  • "A master of the concentrated short story, Hemingway is less sure in his grasp of the form of the elaborated novel. The shape of For Whom the Bell Tolls is sometimes slack and sometimes bulging. It is certainly quite a little too long."

    The New Republic
  • 'Lolita' by Vladimir Nabokov
  • "Lolita then, is undeniably news in the world of books. Unfortunately, it is bad news. There are two equally serious reasons why it isn't worth any adult reader's attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive...

    Past the artistic danger line of madness is another even more fatal. It is where the particular mania is a perversion like Humbert's. To describe such a perversion with the pervert's enthusiasm without being disgusting is impossible. If Mr. Nabokov tried to do so he failed."

    The New York Times
  • 'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • "Scott Fitzgerald's new novel, The Great Gatsby is in form no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that...

    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."

    The Chicago Tribune
  • 'To Kill a Mockingbird' by Harper Lee
  • "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."

    The Saturday Review
  • 'Brave New World' by Aldous Huxley
  • "Mr. Huxley has the jitters. Looking back over his career one can see that he has always had them, in varying degrees... [he] rushes headlong into the great pamphleteering movement. [Brave New World] is a lugubrious and heavy-handed piece of propaganda."

    NYHTBR
  • 'On the Road' by Jack Kerouac
  • "It is not so much a novel as a long affectionate lark inspired by the so-called "beat" generation, and an example of the degree to which some of the most original work being done in this country has come to depend upon the bizarre and the offbeat for its creative stimulus."

    The New York Times
  • 'O Pioneers' by Willa Cather
  • "Miss Willa S. Cather in O Pioneers (O title!!) is neither a skilled storyteller nor the least bit of an artist."

    Dress and Vanity Fair Magazine
  • 'Gone with the Wind' by Margaret Mitchell
  • "I happen to feel that the book would have been infinitely better had it been edited down to, say, 500 pages -- but there speaks the harassed daily reviewer an [sic] well as the would-be judicious critic. Very nearly every reader will agree, no doubt, that a more disciplined and less prodigal piece of work would have more nearly done justice to the subject-matter."

    The New York Times
  • 'Slaughterhouse-Five' by Kurt Vonnegut
  • "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..."

    The New Yorker
  • 'The Catcher in the Rye' by J.D. Salinger
  • "The book as a whole is disappointing, and not merely because it is a reworking of a theme that one begins to suspect must obsess the author. Holden Caulfield, the main character who tells his own story, is an extraordinary portrait, but there is too much of him. ...

    In the course of 277 pages, the reader wearies of [his] explicitness, repetition and adolescence, exactly as one would weary of Holden himself. And this reader at least suffered from an irritated feeling that Holden was not quite so sensitive and perceptive as he, and his creator, thought he was."

    The New Republic

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