Writers Reviewing Writers

Recently, we stumbled across several old book reviews of now-classic books. That’s not unusual, of course; thousands of books are reviewed every year in newspapers and magazines across the country. Some of them are bound to become reader favorites. And yet what sets these reviews apart are their authors, bestselling writers in their own right who turned a writerly—or, rather, readerly, as writers tend to be voracious readers—eye to their colleagues’ contributions to the literary realm. Here are a few of our favorite excerpts, with links (when available) to the full review.

Eudora WeltyCharlotte’s Web by E.B. White
Reviewed by Eudora Welty
New York Times, October 19, 1952

“E. B. White has written a book for children, which is nice for us older ones as it calls for big type.…What the book is about is friendship on earth, affection and protection, adventure and miracle, life and death, trust and treachery, pleasure and pain, and the passing of time. As a piece of work it is just about perfect.”

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien
Reviewed by W.H. Auden
New York Times, October 31, 1954

“If one is to take a tale of this kind seriously, one must feel that, however superficially unlike the world we live in its characters and events may be, it nevertheless holds up the mirror to the only nature we know, our own; in this, too, Mr. Tolkien has succeeded superbly, and what happened in the year of the Shire 1418 in the Third Age of Middle Earth is not only fascinating in A. D. 1954 but also a warning and an inspiration. No fiction I have read in the last five years has given me more joy than The Fellowship of the Ring.”

WHAudenThe Return of the King, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Reviewed by W.H. Auden
New York Times, January 22, 1956

“I rarely remember a book about which I have had such violent arguments. Nobody seems to have a moderate opinion: either, like myself, people find it a masterpiece of its genre or they cannot abide it, and among the hostile there are some, I must confess, for whose literary judgment I have great respect…I can only suppose that some people object to Heroic Quests and Imaginary Worlds on principle; such, they feel, cannot be anything but light ‘escapist’ reading.”

(Columbia University English professor Donald Barr covered The Two Towers; one can only presume Mr. Auden was on deadline that week.)

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Reviewed by H.L. Mencken
Baltimore Evening Sun, 1925

“This story is obviously unimportant, and though, as I shall show, it has its place in the Fitzgerald canon, it is certainly not to be put on the same shelf, with, say, This Side of Paradise. What ails it, fundamentally, is the plain fact that it is simply a story—that Fitzgerald seems to be far more interested in maintaining its suspense than in getting under the skins of its people. It is not that they are false; it is that they are taken too much for granted. Only Gatsby himself genuinely lives and breathes. The rest are mere marionettes—often astonishingly lifelike, but nevertheless not quite alive.”

Henry_JamesMiddlemarch by George Eliot
Reviewed by Henry James
Galaxy magazine, March 1873

Middlemarch is at once one of the strongest and one of the weakest of English novels…a treasure-house of details, but…an indifferent whole.”

“Her novel is a picture—vast, swarming, deep-colored, crowded with episodes, with vivid images, with lurking master-strokes, with brilliant passages of expression; and as such we may freely accept it and enjoy it. It is not compact, doubtless; but when was a panorama compact?”

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
Reviewed by John Updike
The New Yorker, December 17, 1973

“Erica Jong’s first novel, Fear of Flying, feels like a winner. It has class and sass, brightness and bite. Containing all the cracked eggs of the feminist litany, her soufflé rises with a poet’s afflatus. She sprinkles on the four-letter words as if women had invented them; her cheerful sexual frankness brings a new flavor to female prose. Mrs. Jong’s heroine, Isadora Wing, surveying the “shy, shrinking, schizoid” array of women writers in English, asks, “Where was the female Chaucer?,” and the Wife of Bath, were she young and gorgeous, neurotic and Jewish, urban and contemporary, might have written like this. Fear of Flying not only stands as a notably luxuriant and glowing bloom in the sometimes thistly garden of “raised” feminine consciousness but belongs to, and hilariously extends, the tradition of Catcher in the Rye and Portnoy’s Complaint—that of the New York voice on the couch, the smart kid’s lament.”

StephenKingHarry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
Reviewed by Stephen King
New York Times, July 23, 2000

“Can anyone wonder at the fabulous sales success of these books? The Harry Potter series is a supernatural version of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, updated and given a hip this-is-how-kids-really-are shine. And Harry is the kid most children feel themselves to be, adrift in a world of unimaginative and often unpleasant adults—Muggles, Rowling calls them—who neither understand them nor care to. Harry is, in fact, a male Cinderella, waiting for someone to invite him to the ball.”

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Reviewed by Norman Mailer
New York Times, December 9, 1984

“May I say it helps to have read Huckleberry Finn so long ago that it feels brand-new on picking it up again. Perhaps I was 11 when I saw it last, maybe 13, but now I only remember that I came to it after Tom Sawyer and was disappointed. I couldn’t really follow The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The character of Tom Sawyer whom I had liked so much in the first book was altered, and did not seem nice any more. Huckleberry Finn was altogether beyond me. Later, I recollect being surprised by the high regard nearly everyone who taught American Lit lavished upon the text, but that didn’t bring me back to it. Obviously, I was waiting for an assignment from The New York Times.
“Let me offer assurances. It may have been worth the wait. I suppose I am the 10-millionth reader to say that Huckleberry Finn is an extraordinary work. Indeed, for all I know, it is a great novel. Flawed, quirky, uneven, not above taking cheap shots and cashing far too many checks (it is rarely above milking its humor)—all the same, what a book we have here!”

2 thoughts on “Writers Reviewing Writers

  1. Bas Bleu, this email was a gift! What a treat to find that Henry James felt as I do about Middlemarch and that Norman Mailer, of all people, shared my experience with Huck Finn!

    This was a great way to start my day. Thank you!

    joan mountford

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