Who doesn’t love a good book review? And of course by good we mean dreadful, a review that shreds the poor author’s life’s work to pieces leaving them a jellied and quivering wreck, wondering why they ever dreamed of putting pen to paper, or in the modern era, fingers to keys.
You know the sort, the reviewers who wish there was a no star option on Amazon, the ones who wax lyrical for aeons about the dreadful prose and the appalling syntax of the latest freebie they’ve just devoured.
It has become a habit of professional reviewers to be delicate when expressing a dislike for a book, for authors to totter carefully as they desperately search for anything positive in a copy they’ve been given to review in advance of publication, knowing full well of course that the offer will be reciprocated when their next book is ready to be published.
Reviewing literature wasn’t quite so carefully constructed back in the c18th and one reviewer had a rather acerbic attitude to his opinions on the authors of the day.
That man was Tobias Smollett who would head The Critical Review from 1756 to 1763 and in an era when printing was making literature more accessible and writing more popular he could be guaranteed to bring a hopeful soul down a peg or two.
A serious and well thought of author, Smollett’s vicious denigration of many of the books that landed on his desk quickly earned him the nickname of “learned Smelfungus” which was bestowed upon him by fellow author and recipient of one of his less than glowing reviews, Laurence Sterne. One has to wonder, were the books that Smollett loathed with such vehemence really so bad? Or was he just a generally bad tempered grouch who just needed an outlet for his vitriol and found the perfect paying position for his wrath?
Have a read through these scathing reviews by Smollett and let us know what you think.
“A puny, miserable reptile has here crawl’d into existence, happily formed to elude all attack by its utter insignificance: it is indeed no small mortification to our pride that we have been obliged to bestow even so much notice upon it, as this.”
This is a review of The Fair Citizen; or the Real Adventures of Miss Charlotte Bellmour – published by T. Lownds, author unknown.
A review of Memoirs of the Principle Transactions of the Last War between the English and French in North America – Author William Shirley.
“He that thinks he can extract entertainment from an extravagant rhapsody composed of nonsense, treason, and vulgar abuse may lay out two shillings in the purchase of this pamphlet.”
“A spout that flows with a very insipid beverage! The author is very little indebted to the friends, who, he says, encouraged and assisted him in this meagre production; which is as void of spirit, amusement, and contrivance, as any piece we have ever seen offered to the public.”
A brilliantly scathing review of The Spouter; or the Double Revenge – published by Henry Dell.
But what if you dare refute the review? Would you receive a retraction and an apology? Not if it was Smollett who had reviewed your work, just take a look at this response to a rebuttal of his review of The Fortunate Villager; or, Memoirs of Sir Andrew Thompson by Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux.
“The authors of the CRITICAL REVIEW are very sorry to find themselves engaged in a kind of quarrel with a very dull and scurrilous writer, who, like many other grubs, has smarted from their animadversions. A man of any character would avoid such a contest, as carefully as he would shun a scuffle with a chimney-sweeper; for, how severely soever he may chastise his antagonist, the dispute itself is disgraceful, and he may chance to carry off some of the smut that so liberally sticks to his opponent.”
I have one word; ouch!
Not one to mince words Smollett was even convicted of seditious libel, fined £100, and sentence to three months in prison for one particular review, although it doesn’t seem to have mellowed him if his later reviews are anything to go by.
Smollett’s reviews are still around for us to enjoy as they have been digitised and are available from Google Books.