Thursday, February 19, 2015

YA Guy Discusses... Reviews, Then and Now!

When it comes to book reviews, the conventional wisdom is that the internet and social media have opened up a Pandora's box of nasty, vicious, knee-jerk responses. Back in the day, some believe, when book reviews were published only in newspapers and such, book reviewing was so much more polite and reasoned; but today, with anyone who has access to the internet able to broadcast their reviews, the craft has sunk straight into the gutter.

YA Guy says: nonsense.

Book reviewing has always lent itself to nastiness, pettiness, and spite. Take the case of Herman Melville. His early novels, including the adventure stories Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), were widely read and positively reviewed (except in the powerful Protestant press, which raged against Melville's attacks on South Seas missionaries). But then along came Moby-Dick (1851), the book most people today agree is his greatest novel--indeed, some will argue, the greatest novel in the English language. Here's a sample of what reviewers said about it:

This is an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact. . . . The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English. . . . Our author must be henceforth numbered in the company of the incorrigibles who occasionally tantalize us with indications of genius, while they constantly summon us to endure monstrosities, carelessnesses, and other such harassing manifestations of bad taste as daring or disordered ingenuity can devise. . . . Mr. Melville has to thank himself only if his horrors and his heroics are flung aside by the general reader, as so much trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature,--since he seems not so much unable to learn as disdainful of learning the craft of an artist.

[Melville's novel] is phantasmal--an attempted description of what is impossible in nature and without probability in art; it repels the reader instead of attracting him.

There is no method in his madness; and we must needs pronounce the chief feature of the volume a perfect failure, and the work itself inartistic.

Both the story and the style are sufficiently absurd.

[The novel reveals Melville's] old extravagance, running a perfect muck throughout the three volumes, raving and rhapsodizing in chapter after chapter--unchecked, as it would appear, by the very slightest remembrance of judgment or common sense, and occasionally soaring into such absolute clouds of phantasmal unreason, that we seriously and sorrowfully ask ourselves whether this can be anything other than sheer moonstruck lunacy.

The book is sad stuff, dull and dreary, or ridiculous. . . . [Captain Ahab's] ravings, and the ravings of some of the tributary characters, and the ravings of Mr. Melville himself, meant for eloquent declamation, are such as would justify a writ de lunatico against all the parties.

Had enough?

Though the above reviews differ in degree of vehemence, they all point toward one end: accusing Melville of insanity. How's that for the polite literary culture of days gone by?

Now, in point of fact, Melville probably did suffer from mental illness (likely bipolar disorder), and he probably did produce parts of Moby-Dick during periods of mania. He also suffered from alcohol abuse, possibly an attempt to medicate himself in the days before effective treatments for mental illness were available.

But come on! These reviews absolutely crushed Melville, and they effectively killed his career; he produced a couple more novels, but the critical bandwagon had decreed him a lunatic, and his increasingly metafictional prose met no favor there. He more or less retired from writing, though he did produce some good Civil War poems (which no one read) and one great novella, Billy Budd, which was published posthumously. The vitriol of the reviewers, in other words, was one factor that deprived generations of readers of experiencing Melville's existing works, and deprived all of us of the works he might have written had his career flourished.

This is one reason that, as a writer, I review only those books I can heartily recommend. (Occasionally, with a classic work where my review can't possibly harm the author's reputation or career, I'll indulge in polite critique.) I don't want to play any part in harming a fellow writer, a fellow human being. We're told as writers to develop thick skins, and we do try--but we're people too, and reviews like the ones Melville received really, really hurt.

On the other hand, if you're suffering the sting of a negative review at the moment, you can perhaps be thankful you didn't receive this one:

The Judgment Day will hold him liable for not turning his talents to better account. . . . The book-maker and the book-publisher had better do their work with a view to the trial it must undergo at the bar of God.

Yes, that's a reviewer condemning Herman Melville to eternal damnation for writing Moby-Dick. Compared to that, today's innuendo and f-bombs seem positively polite.


  1. Holy cow! Eternal damnation. Yep. That is one passionate reviewer. Poor Melville.

    1. I guess, with the rise of his reputation in our own time, he had the last laugh, though!

  2. HAHAHA, when I was a high school student forced to read Moby Dick TWICE in consecutive years, I wanted to condemn him to eternal damnation, too!

    But oh yes, I have seen scathing rejections and reviews of classic novels that prove people were NOT more polite in the past. They just couched their nastiness in more floral language. ;)

    1. TWICE? I didn't read it until graduate school (once for a class, then again for our comprehensive exams), and by that time I was ready for it. If you haven't already read it, try his novel "The Confidence-Man" next. A great if difficult book, easily one hundred years ahead of its time.