Outing overrated writers is a favorite pastime of critics everywhere, and this summer particularly so.
First there was Gabriel Josipivici’s attack in The Guardian on Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes. They exhibit a “petty-bourgeois uptightness,” a “terror of not being in control,” and a “schoolboy desire to boast and to shock,” Josipivici is reported to have said. Reading them, he continues, “leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner.” Clearly.
This was followed by Anis Shivani’s list of the fifteen most overrated American writers at The Huffington Post. Shivani didn’t go for broke like Josipivici or like B.R. Myers did way back in 2001 when he took down the likes of Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Don Delillo and Paul Auster, though he did have the courage to name Billy Collins, John Ashbery and Amy Tan.
And not to be outdone by their fellow anglophones, Alex Good and Steven W. Beattie gave us the ten most overrated Canadian writers in The National Post–you know, people like the Erin Moure and Joseph Boyden.
Anyway, I like these lists as much as the next person and agree that, overall, literature in the West is in a sad state of decline. But to give our poor contemporary writers some respite, here are a couple of the most outrageously blunt critical statements ever made, listed in no particular order, some more justified than others:
1. T.S. Eliot on Milton: “Milton is unsatisfactory” as a human being, “writes English like a dead language” and was a “bad influence” on later poets.
2. An anonymous reviewer (1807) of William Wordsworth’s Poetical Works: “Than the volumes now before us we never saw any thing better calculated to excite disgust and anger in a lover of poetry. The drivelling nonsense of some of Mr. Wordsworth’s poems is insufferable, and it is equally insufferable that such nonsense should have been written by a man capable, as he is, of writing well.”
3. The Earl of Rochester on John Dryden: “Five hundred Verses, ev’ry Morning writ, / Proves you no more a Poet, than a Wit.”
4. Raymond M. Weaver on T.S. Eliot’s Poems (1920): “The Poems—ironically so-called—of T.S. Eliot, if not heavy and pedantic parodies of the ‘new poetry’, are documents that would find sympathetic readers in the waiting-room of a private sanatorium. Clinically analyzed they suggest in conclusion one of Mr. Eliot’s lines: ‘Afer such knowledge, what forgiveness?’ As a parodist, Mr. Eliot is lacking in good taste, invention, and wit. Compared with Rudyard Kipling, Thackerary, and Phoebe Cary (among the most accomplished parodists in the language) Mr. Eliot is prodigiously labored and dull. General incomprehensibility and sordidness of detail (defects not difficult to imitate, but excessively difficult to parody) are Mr. Eliot’s distinguishing traits. He is usually intelligible only when he is nasty.”
5. Edgar Allan Poe on Nathaniel Hawthorne: “The fact is, that if Mr. Hawthorne were really original, he could not fail of making himself felt by the public. But the fact is, he is not original in any sense.”
6. Charles Eliot Norton on Walt Whitman’s 1855 Leaves of Grass: “The poems, twelve in number, are neither in rhyme nor blank verse, but in a sort of excited prose broken into lines without any attempt at measure or regularity, and, as many readers will perhaps think, without any idea of sense or reason. The writer’s scorn for the wonted usages of good writing extends to the vocabulary he adopts; words usually banished from polite society are here employed without reserve and with perfect indifference to their effect on the reader’s mind; and not only is the book one not to be read aloud to a mixed audience, but the introduction of terms, never before heard or seen, and of slang expressions, often renders an otherwise striking passage altogether laughable.”
7. George Meredith on Charles Dickens: “Not much of Dickens will live, because it has so little correspondence to life. He was the incarnation of cockneydom, a caricaturist who aped the moralist; he should have kept to short stories. If his novels are read at all in the future, people will wonder what we saw in them.”
8. Oscar Wilde on George Meredith: “Ah! Meredith! Who can define him? His style is chaos illumined by flashes of lightning. As a writer he has mastered everything except language: as a novelist he can do anything, except tell a story: as an artist he is everything, except articulate.”
Feel free to add your own favorite zingers in the comments below.