Rotten Reviews: Proust, Voltaire, and Carroll

On Friday afternoons I like to spend a little time in used bookstores poking around; it's a tradition I started in grad school, and I guess it helps me remind myself that there are still lots of possibilities out there. Despite the limits imposed by period specialization, and the exhaustion produced by studying some authors too seriously, there's always new stuff to read. My attitude on these Friday afternoon missions is not so much "aggressively pursue books I must read," but "glance at things I might want to learn sometime." It's also a nice way to stop and have an unhurried cup of coffee.

Yesterday I didn't find anything that exciting, but I did come across a little thing called Rotten Reviews: A Literary Companion, edited by Bill Henderson. It's a compilation of excerpts from 'hatchet jobs' of books we now think of as masterpieces.

The best one isn't a review, but an editor's rejection letter:

"I may perhaps be dead from the neck up, but rack my brains as I may I can't see why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep." (Marc Humblot, French editor, rejection letter to Proust 1912)

Some of the reviews make me laugh because they are, in some way, true after all. Like this one of Voltaire's Candide:

It seems to have been written by a creature of a nature wholly different from our own, indifferent to our lot, rejoicing in our sufferings, and laughing like a demon or an ape at the misery of this human race with which he has nothing in common. (Madame de Stael, De L'Allemagne)

Well, I do admire Candide, but Voltaire is a bit of a hysterical ape, isn't he?

And some just make me cringe, which is what is probably supposed happen while reading a book called Rotten Reviews. An example of a cringer is this unbelievable review of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland:

We fancy that any real child might be more puzzled than enchanted by this stiff, overwrought story. (from Children's Books)

I'm glad Children's Books always kept real children in mind; maybe the reviewer had an editor standing over his or her head, shouting, "Always keep REAL CHILDREN in mind!" But maybe, in this extreme case, the reviewer should have just refused to notice. Because hordes of fake children, at least, would become very fond of Alice in subsequent years.

Unrelatedly, my current favorite reviewer's synonyms for "nonsense" are "flapdoodle" and "twaddle."