Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Barry Review: "Rotten Reviews: A Literary Companion" edited by Bill Henderson

edited by Bill Henderson

Reviewed by Barry Ergang

How does one review a book of and about negative reviews?

First published by Pushcart Press as Rotten Reviews and Rotten Reviews II in 1986 and 1987 respectively, this two-in-one volume was brought out in 1995 by Barnes & Noble. Each book contains very brief excerpts, usually consisting of only a line or two (though there are some lengthier passages in a few cases) from a full-length review. The first volume, which deals with books that are acknowledged classics or near-classics, appends some brief comments by notable writers about reviews and reviewing; the second, which deals with many well-known books that have yet to attain classic stature, if they ever will, appends excerpts from writers' letters to and about Rotten Reviews.

Each volume is introduced by Anthony Brandt, who in the first discusses the nature of reviewing and its effects, real and potential, on readers, writers, publishers, and the reviewers themselves. He also gives a brief history lesson, pointing out that when newspapers began publishing book reviews in the 1840s, negative remarks were quite rare. This is mainly due to collusion between publishers and newspapers, because the former paid the latter for positive reviews. It was in 1855 when a reviewer for a Boston paper lambasted Longfellow's Hiawatha that negative reviewing began.

In reading a book like this, part of the fun is chuckling over negative comments made about works that have become part of our culture, that are considered classics. One might agree with some of them if one has read and disliked particular titles or authors. When the negativity comes from one famous writer panning another, it's easy to smile. For instance, this comment about Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend: "We are convinced that it is one of the chief conditions of his genius not to see beneath the surface of things...We are aware that this definition confines him to an inferior rank."  The reviewer was Henry James. About Henry James, H.G. Wells wrote--aptly, in my opinion: "James' denatured people are only the equivalent in fiction of those egg-faced, black-haired ladies who sit and sit in the Japanese colour-prints...These people cleared for artistic treatment never make lusty love, never go to angry war, never shout at an election or perspire at poker." Here's Lord Byron in a letter to a friend: "Shakespeare's name, you may depend on it, stands absurdly too high and will go down. He had no invention as to stories, none whatever. He took all his plots from old novels, and threw their stories into a dramatic shape, at as little expense of thought as you or I could turn his plays back again into prose tales."  

In his preface to Rotten Reviews II, Brandt discusses some of the ethical issues that come into play. Does one give a favorable review to a book one knows is inferior because money has changed hands, or perhaps because of one's relationship to the author? Does one write an unfavorable review not because a book is poor but because one has been personally aggrieved by the author? Does one not write a review if one dislikes a book?

A number of the reviews in Rotten Reviews II, Brandt explains, were submitted by the authors whose own books were the targets of critical darts. I use the term darts  deliberately, because many of these reviews verged on the vicious, if not altogether malicious. E.g., about Lillian Hellman's Toys in the Attic, Richard Findlater wrote: "It is curious how incest, impotence, nymphomania, religious mania and real estate speculation can be so dull." About her Scoundrel Time, Dwight MacDonald said: "Scoundrel Time is historically a fraud, artistically a put-up job and emotionally packed with meanness." The reviewer for Out had this to say about May Sarton's The Magnificent Spinster: "The experience of the book, personally speaking, was like a long hike home in wet socks and gym shoes, uncomfortable and unnecessary."

It's all quite a lot of fun to read, but it will also have readers thinking about reviews and reviewing in ways they probably haven't before. They may be stimulated to read some books they haven't, and to reassess their opinions, for better or worse, of books they have.

Let me end by citing one final rotten review--a reversal of positions in which novelist Nelson Algren takes aim at Contemporaries by the noted literary critic Alfred Kazin: "This critic is a man who knows all there is to know about literature except how to enjoy it..."

So how does one review a book of and about negative reviews? You just read how.

Barry Ergang © 2011

Former Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine and First Senior Editor of Mysterical-E, Derringer winner Barry Ergang's work has appeared in numerous publications, print and electronic. His website is  From a need to reduce clutter, he's selling many of the books he's accumulated over the years--including Rotten Reviews. You can find the titles and cover scans, along with purchasing information, at

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