The Art of the Bad Review

I’m not really planning to see the new film about Grace Kelly, but it’s been rather amusing reading the reviews. This line, in particular, has been repeatedly quoted as a gem of criticism: “It is a film so awe-inspiringly wooden that it is basically a fire-risk.” (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian)

Yet I have to admit, I didn’t think the line was that scathing. Perhaps it’s because recently, I’ve been looking at earlier reviews and criticism.

Take the first reviews for Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (see The Telegraph for a handy reference).

“How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.” (Graham’s Lady Magazine, 1848)

“There is not in the entire dramatis persona, a single character which is not utterly hateful or thoroughly contemptible.” (Atlas, 1848)

I also discovered some absolute gems while working on my Cold Comfort Farm lecture. On Sheila Kaye-Smith’s Sussex Gorse, The North American Review had this to say: “It also no doubt deserves the dispraise which is implied in the equally uncritical terms monotonous and depressing.” (1916) Stella Gibbons, author of Cold Comfort Farm, wrote book reviews too. She obviously didn’t really like Mary Webb’s The Golden Arrow: “The large agonised faces in Mary Webb’s book annoyed me… they were over life-size (no blame to her for that; she was writing fiction) but they were also silly, and I did not believe people were any more despairing and passionate in Herefordshire than they were in Camden Town.” (Punch, 1966)

There is an odd comfort in reading bad reviews. Sending one’s own work out into the world to be critiqued is rather terrifying. Knowing that others have suffered the withering scorn of critics and survived is reassuring.


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