Moby Dick is Ridiculous and other encouraging literary critiques

How do you deal with literary criticism if you’re a writer? The standard advice is to look for some truth in the comments but don’t respond to the reviewer… ever. Then try to shake off the very terrible side effect of criticism… self-doubt, that soul-destroying, suicide inviting, give-it-all-up feeling.

It happens to great writers and poor ones. If you don’t believe me consider this quote made by 44-year-old Joseph Conrad just a few months before the publication of a collection of his stories that included, HEART OF DARKNESS. Conrad said:

“I have now lost utterly all faith in myself, all sense of style, all belief in my power of telling the simplest fact in a simple way. My mind is becoming base, my hand heavy, my tongue thick – as though I had drunk some subtle poison…. Oh, my dear fellow, I am so very disgusted with my mental impotence, so afraid of my hollowness – so weary – deadly weary of writing.”

Terrible reflections by one of the greatest writers! Self-doubt, almost certainly brought on at least in part by literary criticism. As Stephen King says, “If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.”

How are you supposed to feel if you’ve published one (or in my case ten) novels, and you get some negative literary reviews? Well, one solution might just be to look at the company you’re in, the company of writers who have been highly criticized. That’s probably all of them. We all know that many of the most successful writers went through years of rejection before they were finally published. They were all probably subjected to harsh critical reviews as well. Here are a few noteworthy examples of the derogatory remarks made about some really great books and really great authors. I think they speak for themselves.

  • Moby Dick is “sad stuff, dull and dreary and ridiculous.” — The Southern Quarterly
  • “1984 is a failure.” – An eminent British literary critic
  • “I finished Ulysses and think it is a misfire,” — Virginia Woolf.
  • “A hundred years from now it is very likely that, of Mark Twain works, The Jumping Frog alone will be remembered.” — The editor of Bookman

Of course, as I’ve said, critics not only tend to knock the book, they knock the author as well. Consider these comments:

  • “We do not believe in the permanence of Dickens reputation.” – published in the London Saturday Review.
  • “Monsieur Gustave Flaubert is not a writer.” — a reviewer at Le Figaro
  • “Walt Whitman is as unacquainted with art as a hog is with mathematics,” — a London critic.

See what I mean? Check the notes at the end of this blog, and you’ll see a reference to a whole book of these kinds of quotes. If you’re a writer or a critic you might want to pick up a copy just to remind yourself that criticism is part of the writer’s existence, like it or not.

Actually though, my favorite and maybe the most famous negative artistic review related not to literature but to music, and yet it still seems to fit right in here. Remember the words, “Too many notes”? Before Peter Shaffer wrote the scripts for the play and movie Amadeus, the words were attributed not to the Emperor Josef II of Austria, but to England’s King George III who was entertained by the Mozarts on their visit to London. That conversation was supposed to have gone something like this:


  • What did you think of my son’s work?


  • It was good, but there were just too many notes.


  • But there were exactly as many notes as there needed to be.


  • My boy, if you had a third less talent and a third more tact your life would be much more comfortable.

Okay, so maybe Schaffer did improve on the earlier version of the story. If you want to relive the movie version of the “too many notes” scene in Amadeus, check it out on YouTube using this link.

As for me, I’m content with that non-artistic but very American saying: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” And so, as Mr. King advises, “Stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea.” In other words, I’ll just keep writing.

Thanks for reading.

  • Note: The historic negative reviews are taken from The Experts Speak, A Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation by Christopher Cerf.
  • I discovered them in the blog “Confronting Bad Book Reviews” by noted author and screenwriter Warren Adler.
  • If you are a writer and want some more advice on dealing with negative literary criticism check out that last blog post. You might also want to look at “22 lessons from Stephen King on How to be A Great Writer. It’s in Business Insider (an update of an article by Maggie Zhang. )

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