Ever-mindful of the gender imbalance on my reading list, I decided it was high time for a feminist writer to teach me some shit. My next selection was Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.
The first edition of Mrs Dalloway was published in 1925 by Hogarth Press… which was founded, owned and operated by Virginia Woolf and her husband. That’s one way to get published, I suppose!
Woolf was reportedly inspired by reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, though she wasn’t a fan of his notoriously unreadable tome. Writing Mrs Dalloway was really Woolf’s way of saying “Look, mate, here’s how you do it right!”. She mirrors the format of Ulysses, with both books taking place over the course of a single day, but in this case it’s a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, an aging Pommy socialite.
Having read the two introductions to Mrs Dalloway (two! plus a foreword!), going in I knew I could safely assume that (1) Virginia Woolf was brilliant, (2) Virginia Woolf was bonkers, and (3) this was going to be a really heavy read.
And holy smokes – “heavy” might not be the right word, but it sure was something. I felt like a ping-pong ball bouncing around the inside of Woolf’s skull. It’s a “stream of consciousness” suitable for white water rafting. Woolf has us saying hello to a childhood frien-NOPE, we’re admiring a tree-NO WAIT, we’re reminiscing about a past lov-HANG ON, we’re buying flowers… on and on it goes.
I had no idea what the fuck was happening, not for a single moment. I re-read every sentence three times, and still couldn’t follow it at all. What I did manage to absorb I can summarise here in the form of a few Mrs Dalloway Fast Facts:
Mrs D is throwing a party
She feels old
She likes reading memoirs
She’s maybe a little bit queer…
There’s some peripheral guy she walks by in the park, Septimus. He’s shell shocked out the wazoo and it’s making his foreign wife miserable. He decides he loves life but hates doctors, so he throws himself out the window. Not a great end, all told. Septimus and Mrs D are the two primary characters, but they never actually meet – his suicide just features in the party gossip she hears later.
Yeah, it’s that kind of book – the kind that makes me feel extremely stupid. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was Missing The Point the whole time I was reading it. The closest analogy I can come up with is that it’s like watching an episode of Seinfeld, but harder: you keep waiting for there to be a point or a plot, but none materialises. There’s no literal interpretation, it’s just layer upon layer of metaphor until you’re buried so deep you can’t breathe.
And the best part is: according to the critiques I read online afterwards, Mrs Dalloway is a “much more accessible” version of Ulysses. So that’s the story of how Ulysses got demoted to the very bottom of my to-be-read list 😉
If I had to say what I got out Mrs Dalloway, it would probably boil down to the following: everyone is bonkers. You shouldn’t get married out of obligation. London is pretty. Women are brave to write letters without the help of a man. Teenaged daughters are annoying. Young women who wear party dresses that stop above the ankle will get called slutty behind their backs. Hosting a party is hard, especially when your girl crush shows up unexpectedly and the talk of the night is the shell-shocked veteran who topped himself. So, I guess, do with all of that what you will…
I would recommend Mrs Dalloway, wholeheartedly, to anyone who is far, far smarter than me.
“This book was drier than a popcorn fart. What happened in it? It’s hard to say. A veteran killed himself and a bunch of stuffy old English people had a party. That’s the whole story in a nutshell…” – Harmony
“Self loathing non sense.” – Richard Gianelli
“Catcher In The Rye… as told by middle-aged English farts. The party! The party! Let us listen to an old farty woman stream her consciousness to us to hear, pointless thoughts that go nowhere. That’s pretty much this book in a nutshell. Very boring. Mrs Dalloway whines about not marrying Peter Clark, but Pete’s been in India for five years. I’m sure she would have been unhappy either way, marrying him or not, him leaving or not; all she does is party, chill with friends, and rinse & repeat. Ughhh.” – Allen
Did you know that Virginia Woolf’s working title for Mrs Dalloway was originally The Hours? And that’s where Michael Cunningham got the name for his 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which “recasts the classic story of Mrs Dalloway in a startling new light”.
The Hours revolves around three generations of women living in different time periods and circumstances, each of whom has some kind of connection with Mrs Dalloway. There’s Virginia Woolf herself, in 1920s England. There’s also Laura, a Los Angeles housewife in the 1940s, who yearns to escape her life and wonders if she has the brilliance of the mind that produced Mrs Dalloway. And there’s Clarissa, in 1990s New York, whose brilliant best friend is dying of AIDS-related illness.
“Mrs Woolf”, “Mrs Brown”, and “Mrs Dalloway” (Virginia, Laura, and Clarissa, respectively) are all equally interesting, well-drawn, and complex. That’s unusual for a story with multiple protagonists, in my experience – usually, I find I’m more drawn to one over the others.
The story is told over the course of a single day, in the tradition of Mrs Dalloway – and, in that spirit, I read The Hours in a single sitting. It’s short enough to make that not-too-onerous an undertaking, and I reckon it’s the best way to do it, if you have the time and capacity.
The Hours parallels Mrs Dalloway in several other ways, too. There’s the stream-of-consciousness style, where the protagonists’ thoughts bounce around all willy-nilly, a very tricky literary technique that mirrors free association. There’s also the LGBTIQ+ themes, where each of the protagonists is some variety of queer. Cunningham quite neatly shows, across the successive generations, how queerness and queer relationships become less shameful and more open: from Virginia’s internal torment, to Laura’s clandestine kiss, to Clarissa’s long-term “out” partnership.
One other thing that’s important to note, if you’re considering picking up The Hours, is that Cunningham also explores mental illness, as a form of expression and a legitimate perspective on the world. That means some trigger warnings are necessary: The Hours opens with a scene of Woolf’s suicide in the prologue, and there are other instances of suicide, suicidal ideation, and depression throughout.
So, it’s kind of a bummer, butThe Hours is still a good read – I enjoyed it more than the O.G. Mrs Dalloway (and, for sure, I understood a lot more of it!). It also made for a really good movie, starring Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep. I wondered whether Streep was specifically cast for the project, or whether she sought it out specially, because she’s evoked as a character in The Hours with a minor off-page role in the early chapters. She said, on the DVD commentary (remember DVD commentary? how quaint!), that a friend’s daughter sent her a copy of the book, thinking she’d get a kick out of it. It would seem that she did, and I did too.
“I cannot believe that this book won a Pulitzer Prize! It was so incredibly tedious and an orgiastic dive into depression. Main lining on melodrama! Tennessee Williams on steroids!” – Don McPheeters
“I’m not going to comment on it winning the Pulitzer. I don’t like a lot of the winners. Mostly because this is a puffed up university award given to literary favorites who stick around long enough.” – Los Angeles Swinger
“If you can get past the idea that life is futile, and if you like homosexuality, you’d probably like this book.” – Dale Lund
“Just cause you won a Pulitzer Prize don’t mean you can lay down heavy pipe in your old lady’s aqueduct for hours and hours without missing a beat. Respect yourself.” – Patrick Resing
One of the things that’s been bringing me joy during, y’know, all of this is The To-Read List podcast. Today, I’m drawing inspiration from one of their episodes (which, in turn, was inspired by a Tweet from LitHub). The idea is to come up with a list of authors you’d want to be in lock-down with, or in quarantine with. You might love Virginia Woolf’s writing, but could you really stand living with her 24 hours-a-day for weeks on end? Ernest Hemingway might be brilliant, but what would it be like to share a bathroom with him? I put my thinking cap on and came up with my very own list (technically two, one for living authors a la The To Read List and one for dead authors a la LitHub): my ultimate lock-down author share-house.
Important note: this isn’t about the authors whose work I love the most. I had to scratch a whole bunch of brilliant writers for various reasons: I’d be too nervous to talk in front of Helen Garner, I’d be too intimidated by Sally Rooney (and only a little bit sour that we’re the same age), I figured I’d be cheating if I chose Elena Ferrante so that I could be one of the select few who know her secret identity, and I’d be scared of distracting Carmen Maria Machado or Roxane Gay from writing their next book. This is about the authors I reckon I could live with for an extended period under share-house circumstances.
Living Author Lock-Down Share-House
First thing’s first: I’m going to want someone around who can make me laugh. Someone who can find the funny in the mundane, someone who can make fun without being cruel, someone who will regale me with entertaining anecdotes when the days get too long. I can’t think of anyone who fits the bill better than David Sedaris. Read my full review of his essay collection, Me Talk Pretty One Day.
It can’t all be work and no play, though. We’d need someone with some aesthetic sensibilities to brighten up the place – and maybe draw us, just for lols. That’s why I’d call Mira Jacob up to the plate. I never thought of myself as a graphic novel reader until I read Good Talk. I’d happily take all of her dish-washing and laundry duties if she captured our lock-down conversations in return. Read my full review of Mira Jacob’s graphic memoir, Good Talk, here.
Dead Author Lock-Down Share-House
Whenever something crappy happens in my life (and I reckon getting locked down in a share-house during a global pandemic would count), I hear Nora Ephron‘s voice in my head, saying: “Everything’s copy”. I reckon she’d be the queen of making the best of a bad situation, and she’d get us all working on collaborative creative projects to release once regular business resumed.
And, it’s a combo deal: I’d love to have Anita Loos (sans her shit-head husband) in my author lock-down share-house, because I’m sure she and Nora would get along. Sure, I’d probably end up the odd-one-out, watching them write brilliant screenplays while I sipped my wine in the corner, but it’d be worth it to get them in the same room and watch the magic happen. Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.
Speaking of entertainment: I reckon Anaïs Nin would be captivating. She was adventurous, generous, and by all accounts, fun! I mean, anyone willing to write gloriously literary smut on commission has got to be worth talking to. And, if we didn’t get along, I’d feel less guilty about sneaking into her room and reading her diary… (I mean, I’d never do that. Ahem. Probably.) Read my full review of Delta Of Venus here.
And, finally, I’d want George Eliot in the share-house, and I’d want to ask all manner of questions, about writing and politics and life… but the one that’s front-and-center in my mind at the moment is: have we been mis-gendering George all this time? This has come up as a result of the “Reclaim Her Name” project, for which Baileys (the major sponsors of the Women’s Prize) is re-publishing a collection of works they’ve determined were written by women under masculine pseudonyms, including Middlemarch. In the (inevitable) backlash that ensued, I came across a couple of accounts that suggest George might have adopted the name that more accurately reflected their identity, rather than purely bowing to the patriarchal constraints of the time for publishing writers. Essentially, I’d want George to have the opportunity to decide for themselves, with today’s sensibilities and understanding, how they wish to identify. And then I’d start digging for dirt, like the gossip-hound I am deep down, on all their high-falootin’ Victorian friends…
Who would you want in your lock-down author share-house? Living or dead, dream big! Let me know in the comments below.
Essay collections exist in a kind of literary no-man’s-land. They’re non-fiction, but they don’t often slip neatly into a particular category (like “science” or “history”). Often, they draw from the author’s own life, but they don’t follow the chronology we expect of a memoir or autobiography. But if you can figure out where they’re shelved in your local independent bookshop, essay collections can make for some of the best reads. Check out these twenty brilliant essay collections, from all kinds of authors about all kinds of subjects.
Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit
Men Explain Things To Me is a slim little essay collection with a provocative title and a brilliant premise. Rebecca Solnit writes about the lived experience of women in the patriarchy in seven essays (or nine, if you get a later edition) from the last twenty years. She addresses violence against women, marriage equality, the influence of Virginia Woolf, the erasure of women from the archive, fraught online spaces, and more. Solnit was even credited with coining the term “mansplaining” – even though the word itself doesn’t appear in the title essay, and she later said she didn’t necessarily agree with such a gendered term.
Feel Free by Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith is a once-in-a-generation literary darling, writing beloved fiction and brilliant non-fiction with the same zeal. In Feel Free, her 2018 essay collection, she addresses questions we all find ourselves pondering from time to time. Why do we love libraries? How will we explain our inaction on climate change to future generations? What are online social networks doing to us? Her answers are categorised in the book’s five sections: In the World, In the Audience, In the Gallery, On the Bookshelf, and Feel Free (from which the essay collection gets its name). Smith interrogates major world-changing events and small personal disruptions with equal fascination, which makes for an illuminating read.
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay has built a career on being forthright, unabashed, and holding a microphone to the best and worst of the little voices in our heads. Bad Feminist is a collection of her essays, most published individually elsewhere prior to the 2014 release, grouped thematically. They’re all loosely tied to the overarching ideas of feminism and womanhood, what it means to do it well, and what the consequences are for doing it badly. As the title suggests, in one of the collection’s most memorable moments, she addresses the difficulty of reconciling her feminism with her love of hip-hop music and the colour pink. She contends throughout this essay collection that it’s better to be a ‘bad feminist’ than to be no kind of feminist at all. Read my full review of Bad Feminist here.
Shrill by Lindy West
Have you ever felt like you just take up too much space in a world that wants you to be small and quiet? Lindy West has, and that’s what she writes in Shrill, the first of her hilarious and insightful essay collections. She lays bear the shame and humiliation that comes with the journey to self-awareness and self-acceptance, in a world that insists you be smaller and quieter. West has battled internet trolls, waged war against rape jokes, and reached an uneasy accord with her unruly body and mind. These essays are brilliant, relatable and hilarious for all women who have felt like they didn’t quite fit.
How To Write An Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee
How To Write An Autobiographical Novel seems like an odd title for an essay collection, but it makes sense once you hear Alexander Chee’s explanation behind it. On book tours and at speaking events regarding his novels, he found himself facing the same question over and over: “how much of this fictional story is autobiographical?”. He started thinking about how we forge identities in literature, giving rise to this brilliant collection of essays. It’s his “manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction have changed him”.
Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby
Samantha Irby describes herself as a “cheese fry-eating slightly damp Midwest person… with neck pain and no cartilage in [her] knees… who still hides past due bills under her pillow”. Wow, No Thank You a collection of her essays about… stuff. Life. Ridiculous jobs. Trying to make friends as an adult. The lost art of making a mix-tape. Living in a place where most people don’t share your politics. Getting your period and bleeding all over the sheets of your Airbnb. Trying to remember why you ever found nightclubs fun. There’s even a whole essay of “Sure, sex is fun, but have you ever…” jokes (the format might mystify you if you’re not on Twitter, but it’s hilarious). Read my full review of Wow, No Thank You here.
Dead Girls by Alice Bolin
Are you sick of the trope where a nice, skinny, white girl shows up dead and that’s all we ever get to know about her? You’re not the only one. Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls interrogates “iconic American works from the essays of Joan Didion and James Baldwin to Twin Peaks, Britney Spears, and Serial, illuminating the widespread obsession with women who are abused, killed, and disenfranchised, and whose bodies (dead and alive) are used as props to bolster men’s stories”. This is one of those essay collections that will stick with you, and change the way you consume stories forever.
Jia Tolentino has been called “a peerless voice of our generation” and a “Joan Didion of our time”. Trick Mirror is one of the most critically acclaimed essay collections of recent years, a “dazzling collection of nine entirely original essays… [that] delves into the forces that warp our vision”. Have you ever wondered why we think what we do and the way we do? Normally, that’s the kind of question we’d leave to marketing professionals and moral philosophy professors, but Tolentino addresses it in an accessible and relatable way. She wants us to understand what advertising, social media, consumerism, and the whole she-bang has done to our consciousness and our understanding of ourselves.
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace
I’ll confess: David Foster Wallace is kind of my literary secret shame. The man was hardly a paragon of virtue, he treated the women in his life horribly, and he clearly had a lot of troubles that were never adequately addressed. But damn, if his essays aren’t some of the funniest I’ve ever read! Seriously, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is one of those brilliant essay collections that will have you howling with laughter so loud your neighbours might call the cops. Wallace is, at turns, cynical, curious, credulous, and cutting – and yet his essays feel seamless. They’re long, they’re stuffed with footnotes that would make a lit professor weep, and yet you’ll read them feeling like no time is passing at all because you’re having so much fun. I can’t speak for his fiction, but his essay collections? Must-reads, especially this one!
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
Any library of brilliant essay collections is woefully incomplete without David Sedaris, especially his 2000 collection Me Talk Pretty One Day. It’s over twenty years old, and yet it’s still as pertinent and resonant as ever. Sedaris’s wry humour and keen observations, of everything from family life to travel to cooking to education, are timeless. It’s truly masterful, a kind of comic genius you don’t see everyday. It’s also a great read for when your attention span is shot. The essays are short enough that you can read the whole thing in bite-sized chunks, but the through-line is strong enough that it will keep pulling you back in. Read my full review of Me Talk Pretty One Day here.
I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron
I find it hard not to build up a head of steam when I talk about Nora Ephron, because she is criminally underrated. Because she wrote about women and their relationships (to each other and themselves), instead of men with businesses or guns, she’s relegated to the “chick lit” and “rom-com” shelves, described as “fluffy” instead of ingenious. Want proof? Pick up I Feel Bad About My Neck, one of the most brilliant and incisive essay collections you’ll read anywhere. With her trademark candour and dry humour, she tackles the unspeakable: aging as a woman in a society that values perpetual youth.
Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud by Anne Helen Petersen
Scan the headlines of any celebrity gossip website, and you’ll notice: times have changed. We’re a long way from Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly. The women of today’s front pages are boundary pushers, provocative and powerful in ways that women of previous generations wouldn’t dare dream about. Anne Helen Petersen has had a lot of cause to study these women in her role as a Buzzfeed editor, and she’s written Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud to explain what she’s seen. She “uses the lens of “unruliness” to explore the ascension of powerhouses like Serena Williams, Hillary Clinton, Nicki Minaj, and Kim Kardashian, exploring why the public loves to love (and hate) these controversial figures”.
All About Love by bell hooks
“The word ‘love’ is most often defined as a noun, yet we would all love better if we used it as a verb,” writes bell hooks in All About Love, one of her most widely-read and lauded essay collections. She posits that our society is descending into lovelessness. Not romantic lovelessness – we’re drowning in smooches – but the kind where we lack basic compassion and empathy for each other, and ourselves. We are divided and discontented, due to “society’s failure to provide a model for learning to love”. You’ll want to set aside a lot of time to read and think about this one, to really absorb its message – if you do, it’ll change your life.
Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is Eddo-Lodge’s first essay collection. It started with her blog post of the same name that she published back in 2014, but there’s no need to go trawling the internet for it: Eddo-Lodge reproduces it in full in the preface. It serves as a thesis statement, framing and contextualising everything that is to follow. So, the $64,000 question: why isn’t Eddo-Lodge talking to white people about race? Well, basically, she’s fed up: with white denial, with white self-flagellation, with trying to shake hands with a brick wall. Ironically, this is a collection of essays about race and racism that every white person should absolutely read. Read my full review of Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race here.
Rogues by Patrick Radden Keefe
If you loved Say Nothing and Empire Of Pain (like I did), you’ll be overjoyed (as I was) to get your hands on a copy of Rogues, a collection of Patrick Radden Keefe’s most celebrated essays from The New Yorker. These delightfully detailed investigative pieces focus on his favourite subjects: “crime and corruption, secrets and lies, the permeable membrane separating licit and illicit worlds, the bonds of family, the power of denial”. They’re like delectable bite-sized true crime tales, all meticulously researched and fact-checked so as to ensure they’re completely believable. Each and every one is masterfully crafted, perfectly balanced, and totally gripping. Read my full review of Rogues here.
How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran
The best essay collections combine both sweeping views of the way we live our lives and the minutiae of how the author lives their own. How To Be A Woman is the perfect example. Caitlin Moran interrogates what it means to be a woman in the 21st century, with broad observations as well as deeply personal (not to mention riotously funny) anecdotes. From abortions to Brazilian waxes to pop culture to reproduction, Moran explores the opportunities and constraints for women in all areas of life. She “lays bare the reasons why female rights and empowerment are essential issues not only for women today but also for society itself”.
Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton
When you think about it, essay collections are a medium well suited to the millennial generation, with our attention spans ruined by television and our ingrained narcissism and all. Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love is to our generation what Bridget Jones’s Diary was to the Gen Xers. In it, she writes about contemporary young adulthood and all its essential components: “falling in love, finding a job, getting drunk, getting dumped, realizing that Ivan from the corner shop might just be the only reliable man in her life, and that absolutely no one can ever compare to her best girlfriends”.
Figuring by Maria Popova
If you’ve ever Googled any kind of lofty question – what did Toni Morrison say makes life worth living? is stoicism a solution to anxiety? what the heck is a ‘growth mindset’? – chances are you’ve stumbled upon BrainPickings.org (now renamed The Marginalian). The mind behind the brilliant website is Maria Popova, and while her online archives constitute about a hundred essay collections’ worth of material, she’s condensed her best and made her contribution in the form of Figuring. This one is a must-read for the literary nerds and the philosophy students and the history buffs. It features snippets and essential lessons from the lives of figures like Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman.
Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin
It took Maria Tumarkin nine years to research and write Axiomatic, one of the most powerful essay collections you’ll encounter at your local independent bookstore. She seeks to understand grief, loss, and trauma, and how they inform who we are as people. So, as you can probably already tell, it’s not exactly a light read – but if you’re in the mood to do some deep thinking, it’s an excellent selection. Each of its five sections is based on an axiom about the past and present (like “history repeats itself” or “time heals all wounds”), and examines true stories from Tumarkin’s own life and those around her to illustrate her wider points.
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
The problem with essay collections about successful people is that too many of them are of the “here’s how you can be successful too, invest in this stock and get rich quick!” variety. Outliers is the exception (and you have no idea how hard it was not to call it an ‘outlier’ just now). Malcolm Gladwell takes an intellectual look at the best and the brightest, the shining stars of innovation and industry, with the aim of finding out what exactly makes them different. This isn’t just about waking up early or taking cold showers; there are very specific concoctions of culture, community, and cunning that get people to the very top of the game, and Gladwell lays them out for us.
It’s easy to forget that some iconic books – classics that we were forced to read in high-school, that SparkNotes makes memes about now – weren’t always held up as the pinnacle of literature. Many of the “most loved” books today were woefully underappreciated in their own time. Some of them were downright derided. Here are thirteen classic books that weren’t well received… at first.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley’s now-classic dystopia, complete with sex, drugs, and “feelies” – got some positive press upon its release in 1932. Philosopher Bertrand Russell praised it, saying that Huxley “has shown his usually masterly skill” and Dame Rebecca West called it Huxley’s “most accomplished novel”. But he faced some heavy criticism, too. Fellow sci-fi author H.G. Wells railed against Huxley for “betraying the future as a concept”. A review published in The Guardian was particularly savage: “the title which he gave to one of his earlier books, These Barren Leaves, is applicable to very much that he has written…. This book fails both as a satire and romance…. It is easier to exploit the possibilities of mental death than to meet the demands of creative life.” Read my full review of Brave New World here.
The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
It might surprise you to know that The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn was almost as controversial when it was first released in 1885 as it is today. As recently as 2016, the classic American novel was removed from one Virginia public school district, on the basis that it includes inappropriate language and racial slurs. 130 years prior, the Concord Public Library committee held a very similar view: “the veriest trash… rough, coarse, and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiences not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people,”. They, too, chose to ban the book. Upon hearing that news, Twain is reported to have said “This will sell us another twenty-five thousand copies for sure!”. Read my full review of The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn here.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
The Brontës famously published their works using androgynous pseudonyms (Emily going by “Ellis Bell”), but that didn’t stop reviewers going to town on her only published novel, Wuthering Heights. Graham’s Lady Magazine wrote at the time: “How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors,”. The Examiner said “as a whole, it is wild, confused, disjointed, and improbable; and the people who make up the drama, which is tragic enough in its consequences, are savages”. Emily, being notoriously shy and reluctant to publish at all, probably didn’t read her own press – good thing, too, if those reviews are anything to go by. Read my full review of Wuthering Heights here.
Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Even though Gone With The Wind was wildly popular with readers immediately upon release (it was the best-selling fiction book two years running, in 1936 and 1937), critics didn’t share their enthusiasm. Reviewer for The New York Times, Ralph Thompson, said “I happen to feel that the book would have been infinitely better had it been edited down to say, 500 pages… 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.” That’s a sick burn all on its own, but critics rightly also zeroed in on Mitchell’s deeply problematic and revisionist depictions of slavery, the Civil War, and the Reconstruction. Those (very justified) criticisms have only amplified over time.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I have been very vocal about my own dislike of The Great Gatsby, and I am pleased to report that many early readers and reviewers agreed with me. The novel – now considered one of the classic books of the Jazz Age – was considered a fall from form for Fitzgerald, “an inconsequential performance by a once-promising author who had grown bored and cynical”, and reviewers were “quite convinced after reading The Great Gatsby that Mr. Fitzgerald is not one of the great American writers of today”. The plot was also called “improbable”, and its style “painfully forced”. Fitzgerald was apparently so bummed out by these reviews that he signed off a telegram to his publisher: “Yours in great depression”. Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
One of the (many) funny things about Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is the contrast in its reception on different continents. In the U.K., where newspapers had a huge staff of experienced reviewers and literary critics, they called it “a phenomenal literary work, a philosophical, metaphysical, and poetic romance”, and “one of the cleverest, wittiest, and most amusing of modern books”. Meanwhile, in the New World (U.S.), where experienced critics were few and far between, baffled journalists trying to wade through Melville’s mountain of prose declared it “not worth the money asked for it, either as a literary work or as a mass of printed paper” and “a crazy sort of affair”. Of course, there are exceptions on both sides of the pond, but doesn’t that just prove the rule? Read my full review of Moby Dick here.
Ulysses by James Joyce
Look, examples abound that prove Ulysses should be on any list of classic books that weren’t well received. Even today, respected as a load-bearing pillar in the modernist canon, most readers and reviewers regard it with confusion more so than admiration or anything else. Some of my favourite Ulysses slams include Virginia Woolf writing in her diary that it was: “an illiterate, underbred book it seems to me: the book of a self-taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating,”. See also The Sporting Times, who wrote that it was “written by a perverted lunatic who has made a speciality of the literature of the latrine,”. Read my full review of Ulysses here.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Joseph Heller threw a decades-long tantrum when Catch-22 wasn’t received as well as he thought it should have been. Even though The New York Times initially called it “a dazzling performance that will outrage nearly as many readers as it delights,”, a second review in the same paper said “[it is] repetitive and monotonous. Or one can say that it is too short because none of its many interesting characters and actions is given enough play to become a controlling interest,”. Despite Heller’s big hopes, it didn’t win a single award, not even the much coveted Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and Heller remained bitter about it until the day he died. Read my full review of Catch-22 here.
The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger
Angry teenagers forced to read The Catcher In The Rye in English Lit classes would be thrilled to know how poorly it was received upon its release in 1951. It was called everything from “disappointing”, to “a near miss”, to “wholly repellent”, to “peculiarly offensive”. Most reviewers seemed to take particular issue with the divisive protagonist-narrator, Holden Caulfield, whose adolescent angst was declared “wearisome” by the New Republic. Older wowsers didn’t like that he was running around getting drunk and trying to get it on with sex workers, either – a position that certain school board members still hold today, it would seem. Read my full review of The Catcher In The Rye here.
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Kafka was the very definition of “underappreciated in his own time”, and he knew it, too. His diaries and letters are full of laments about his work and his general malaise, self-deprecation taken to the extreme. Today, The Metamorphosis is his best-known work and widely regarded as one of the most brilliant allegories ever written – but it was barely read when it was first published in 1915, and even Kafka himself didn’t like it in retrospect. He wrote that he “[was] reading The Metamorphosis at home and find[ing] it bad,”, that he felt a “great antipathy” towards it and its “unreadable ending”. The bulk of Kafka’s other work wasn’t published until after his death, and it certainly wasn’t widely read or beloved until many years later.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Long before it was a HBO series, or the symbol of white feminist resistance against the Trump administration, The Handmaid’s Tale was a 1986 novel met with a reaction that could be best summed up as: “meh”. The New York Times said it “lacks imagination” (which is true, technically, given that Atwood has said time and again that everything she included in the book has happened or is happening somewhere in the world). It was also called, by various other outlets, “short on characterisation,” “thinly textured,” and (my personal favourite) “paranoid poppycock”. Read my full review of The Handmaid’s Tale here.
The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Grapes Of Wrath was basically America’s first big Hate Read. In 1939, everyone was reading it and everyone had something to say about it. Steinbeck was attacked from both ends of the political spectrum, believe it or not: both accused him of being a communist, and publishing a book of propaganda. The Associated Farmers of California were particularly vocal in their displeasure, calling Steinbeck’s depiction of the treatment of migrating farm workers as a “pack of lies”. Steinbeck was also revealed to have ripped off the research work of comparatively-unknown writer Sanora Bobb, but that didn’t seem as important to anyone as the fact that he was “trying to make a political point” (that it… sucks to be poor?). Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.
Lord Of The Flies by William Golding
The criticism of Lord Of The Flies began before it even hit the bookstore shelves. More than 20 publishers passed on Golding’s nightmare-fuel story about shipwrecked children turning to savages (I can’t imagine why). One called it “rubbish and dull, pointless,”. Even when he finally found a publisher willing to take a punt on it, they sold only a few thousand copies before it went out of print. The New Yorker called it “completely unpleasant”. How it went from the bargain bin to a Nobel Prize winner assigned reading in every English-speaking classroom around the world is beyond me. Read my full review of Lord Of The Flies here.
Keeping Up With The Penguins operates on the lands of the Gadigal people, of the Eora nation. This land was never ceded or sold. Our First Nations communities have the oldest continuing storytelling tradition in the world, and custodianship of the land always was, always will be, theirs.
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