“. . . We do not, however, recommend the book to the fastidious reader, or the one who clings to “old-fashioned ideas.” It is a book one can very well get along without reading.”
The above quote is part of a May 25, 1907 New York Times review of Theodore Dreiser’s first novel Sister Carrie. When Doubleday, Page and Co. considered publishing the novel in 1900, Mrs. Doubleday strongly objected because Carrie, a woman who lived in sin with two men at different times, was rewarded with material success instead of getting what she so richly deserved – death or social disgrace. Despite Mrs. Doubleday’s objections, Doubleday published the book, but only about 500 copies were sold. However, the book was popular in Europe, so in 1907 Doubleday republished it and it sold quite well – and still sells well – despite the negative review by the New York Times. Occasionally the critics are wrong, and that includes the venerable New York Times.
Below are some additional New York Times book reviews that turned out to be wrong or at least out of touch with the public’s taste. Note that some of these negatively reviewed books have been in print for over 100 years.
“The scientific machinery is not very delicately constructed, and the imagination of the reader is decidedly overtaxed.” – Review of The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells; December 25, 1897
“Mr. James, the prolix, the inconsequent, the incoherent, the indecisive; it is of this Mr. James that we carry away an impression from The Golden Bowl.” – Review of The Golden Bowl by Henry James; November 26, 1904
“The author’s probable intention was to exhibit a unique development in this little asylum waif, but there is no difference between the girl at the end of the story and the one at the beginning of it. All other characters in the book are human enough.” – Review of Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery; July 18, 1908
“As a social philosopher, evidently, Mr. Edward M. Forster has not yet arrived at any very positive convictions. He evinces neither power nor inclination to come to grips with any vital human problem.” – Review of Howards End by E. M. Forster; February 19, 1911
“Possibly some might call it a feminist novel, for the two heroines are stronger, cleverer and better balanced than their husbands and brothers – but we are sure Miss Cather had nothing so inartistic in mind.” – Review of O Pioneer! by Willa Cather; September 14, 1913
“If the short story is merely a character in a crisis, Mr. Cheever’s attempts fulfill the definition. This is not intended as a churlish comment; his talent is fine and incisive, he is definitely a writer to watch. But the crisis in any story, once it is stated, must be resolved in a way that touches off emotional responses in the reader, and this Mr. Cheever, for the most part, obstinately refuses to do. His people are seldom really angry, and almost never gay. When disaster impends, they usually run away from it. Mix another Manhattan, or keep their reactions hidden from both the reader and themselves.” – Review of The Way Some People Live by John Cheever; March 28, 1943
“This Salinger, he’s a short-story guy. And he knows how to write about kids. This book though, it’s too long. Gets kind of monotonous. And he should’ve cut out a lot about these jerks and all that crumby school. They depress me.” – Review of The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger; July 15, 1951
“Catch-22 has much passion, comic and fervent, but it gasps for want of craft and sensibility. If Catch-22 were intended as a commentary novel, such sideswiping of character and action might be taken care of by thematic control. It fails here because half its incidents are farcical and fantastic.” – Review of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller; Octoer 22, 1961
“Sweeping generalities, in which this book necessarily abounds, may hold a certain amount of truth but often obscure the deeper issues. It is superficial to blame the ‘culture’ and its handmaidens, the women’s magazines, as she does. What is to stop a woman who is interested in national and international affairs from reading magazines that deal with those subjects? – Review of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan; April 7, 1963
“A satirical horror novel by one of Britain’s most talented observers of the social scene. In Mr. Burgess’s Slav-oriented state of the future, the Lower Orders are in ascendance and happy hooligans roam the London streets, bashing senior citizens in the eyes with bicycle chains. The protagonist is a 15-year old psychopath named Alex who undergoes a corrective brainwashing that makes him allergic to violence. With his tongue popping in and out of his cheek, Mr. Burgess satirizes both the sociological and the penal approach to juvenile crime, literary proletarianism, and anything else in his path. Written in a pseudo-criminal cant, A Clockwork Orange is an interesting tour-de-force, though not up to the level of the author’s two previous novels.” – Review of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess; April 7, 1963
In case you think I’m unfairly picking on the New York Times, rest assured that in future posts I will point out a number of other sources that similarly missed the mark when reviewing books that have stood the test of time. There is no shortage of material.