'Tolstoy blows': the internet's verdict on classic literature

After reading Pride and Prejudice Mark Twain said the novel made him want to dig up Jane Austen and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone. Austen's books made him so mad, he said, he was unable to control his frenzy.

Twain's scathing response was notable not only because it is so out of step with public opinion – Pride and Prejudice being a frequent flyer at the top of lists with titles like "Best Loved Books" and "Greatest Reads of All Time" – but also for its sheer brutality.

Poor, dear Ms Austen was denied the right of reply, having died almost 20 years before Twain's birth. But the meanness of suggesting she should be beaten about the brow with her own bone is something she would surely say would be universally acknowledged.

The comment became famous. Not just because it was Mark Twain who said it, but because it was so venomous.

A venomous age

In the age of the internet, you don't need to be a celebrated icon to publicly brutalise the world's best-loved literary works. All you need is a laptop and a Wi-Fi connection.

Disgusting, revolting book that makes me physically sick even thinking about it.

In damp corners of the internet there exists a certain type of book reviewer who loses all sense of perspective when they read a novel they don't like. Picture Grandpa Simpson sitting at his typewriter writing to the president to say there are too many states, and can he please eliminate three. Crossed with Gollum. On places like Amazon, Apple and GoodReads, unreflective reviewers merrily trash history's most treasured novels.

Take, for example, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, the masterpiece that earned its author the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982. On GoodReads it is repeatedly dismissed by reviewers as "one hundred years of torture" or "one hundred years of my life I will never get back".

It is dense and understandably not everyone's cup of Darjeeling, but one reviewer says it is "f---in' dumb" while another says it is a "disgusting, revolting book that makes me physically sick even thinking about it", which seems a little melodramatic.

Over-written jerk-offs

This is restrained compared to what you will find if you plumb the depths consumer reviews.

The Great Gatsby is apparently "an over-written essay about the rich jerk-offs of the past". One reviewer who sat down with Tolstoy's Anna Karenina succinctly declared: "This book blows." Some elements in this vocal corner of the net agree with Twain, saying Austen's most famous is akin to badly translated Eastern European porn and soap operas.

Pride and Prejudice fares slightly better than Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, which is deemed "vastly overrated hysterical nonsense" and "the equivalent of watching [celebrity gossip website] TMZ".

Austen's book Emma earns the paradoxical complaint of being "numbingly un-poetical".

"She is the 19th century John Grisham. You know there's a good story line in there somewhere, and if you could edit out 60 per cent of the words it would be fantastic," a reviewer writes about the story of Emma Woodhouse.

Great expectations

Of course, they're not all on Mr Twain's side. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is described as "poop on pages".  Another says, "This was the worst book I've ever read, and I've read Twilight, so that's saying something."

Twain fares slightly better than Charles Dickens. One reader is so outraged by Great Expectations he writes: "The author is a jerk. Nobody likes his stuff, they're just afraid to say it because he's supposed to be classy."

Another said it was "like watchin' someone take 20 minutes to eat a biscuit", which doesn't really make sense. I think they were trying to convey that they found it slow. Much like the author of this eight-word review, "War and Peace? More like Bore and Peace."

Genevieve Gannon is a journalist and author of Husband Hunters and Chasing Chris Campbell published digitally by HarperCollins Australia.

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