So recently I was browsing through Goodreads, no reason, just to kill time. While logging in, I was asked to cast vote in Goodreads awards. Most of the books (okay, all the books) nominated there I haven’t read yet. Only because in Bangladesh they’ll come a year or two later and at an affordable price.
Anyway, I clicked to the previous years’ awards and found many many winner books who were and are bashed by readers for being clichéd or bad writing or just plain stupid. Some were given plenty of one and two starred reviews.
So that got me thinking. Are good writing always put under mortar and pestle to be classified as “good books”? I mean how is it that some books manage to win awards based on readers’ votes yet also get one/two starred reviews from the same readers?
This took me back to Robert Browning, one of the poets I’m currently studying about. He was, throughout his entire life, been subjected to censure and controversies. He married Elizabeth Barrett Browning after famously eloping with her to Italy, then living there almost pennilessly. Then he also published a poetry book, Sordello in 1840, that was put under sooooo much censure, out of shame he almost forsook writing. Even later in life he didn’t want to take credit for writing it, had it not been under the threat of copyright issues.
One of his contemporaries, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, said that (quoting from critic Daniel Karlin) “there were only two lines in it that he understood, the first- ‘Who will, may hear Sordello’s story told’- and the last line- ‘Who would, has heard Sordello’s story told’- and that both were lies.”
Thomas Carlyle said that (again quoting Daniel Karlin) “his wife had read throughout the poem without being able to discover whether Sordello was a man, a city or a book.”
Whoa! What an insult!
Another author who faced such harsh criticism was Emily Bronte. Her one and only novel, Wuthering Height, met some brutal brutal censure. Some are given below:
01) Paterson’s Magazine (USA), February 1848
“We rise from the perusal of Wuthering Heights as if we had come fresh from a pest-house. Read Jane Eyre is our advice, but burn Wuthering Heights.”
02) Graham’s Lady Magazine (USA), July 1848
“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.”
Eesh! Talk about harsh. Same almost happened with Moby Dick but in publication process. According to Wikipedia,
“Within a year after Melville’s death, Moby-Dick, along with Typee, Omoo, and Mardi, was reprinted by Harper & Brothers, giving it a chance to be rediscovered. However, only New York’s literary underground seemed to take much interest, just enough to keep Melville’s name circulating for the next 25 years in the capital of American publishing. During this time, a few critics were willing to devote time, space, and a modicum of praise to Melville and his works, or at least those that could still be fairly easily obtained or remembered. Other works, especially the poetry, went largely forgotten.”
Wow! A classic was forgotten?
But this shows that sometimes classics are mistreated and misunderstood by their contemporary audience and critics. But that is not always the case. Not even most of the case. A lot of classics were instant bestsellers, such as Jane Eyre, all of Jane Austen’s works, Charles Dickens, Jules Verne, etc. to name a few. Hell, Shakespeare was pretty popular during his days.
So why did those classics face such backlash?
If you notice the pattern, all the classics that faced backlash were way way way before their time. During Shakespeare’s time, people weren’t used to villainous women like Lady Macbeth. They were accustomed to soft, submissive women like Bianca or Miranda. During Victorian era, people weren’t used to revenge romance like Wuthering Heights, rather everlasting romance like Jane and Rochester. People weren’t used to reading book about a man’s obsession with whales. Heck, people in England and America weren’t too excited about whales like the Norwegians or the Finnish.
So does that mean books currently facing backlash will be classics in future?
Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. Only time can tell.
There were plenty of books published in the last millennium. Not all survived and lasted in the readers’ minds. Same will apply here. Nobody from the Victorian era thought people would love a book from a pedophile’s point of view, or that there would be rape romance or even erotica. You can never tell what might emerge as literary trend or most importantly, as literary movement.
Literature, like life, is unpredictable. And that’s what makes its appeal so much more timelessly cool.