Although some of these novels may have taken up residence on The New York Times Bestseller list and others have inspired multi-million dollar movie franchises, they still surprisingly failed to impress critics.
These critics don’t hold back either, calling some of the most beloved books “boring,” “improbable,” “ordinary,” “dull,” and “unoriginal.” One novel was even compared to Kraft macaroni and cheese for its inability to inspire.
Keep scrolling to see what critics had to say about some of your favourite books.
“Twilight” series by Stephenie Meyer
The “Fifty Shades of Grey” books were actually first written as fan fiction to another popular -but controversial series: “Twilight.” The YA series follows a clumsy girl named Bella as she falls in love with a dangerous but charming vampire named Edward. The book became a bestseller and created a successful franchise, but the critics didn’t give it any love.
One Guardian critic called the protagonist a “nincompoop with the charisma of a boiled potato,” while The Washington Post said it was like “reading a young teenage girl’s diary boosted with enough of Meyer’s made-up vampire lore to give it some mild narrative and sexual tension.” The New York Times described the book’s style as “overearnest, amateurish writing.”
“Fifty Shades of Grey” series by E L James
When E.L. James’ novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” hit shelves, it became a cultural phenomenon. Women everywhere were enticed by the dark and brooding Christian Grey as he preyed on clumsy Anna, luring her into his titillating world of BDSM.
But critics weren’t so captivated. One critic at The Telegraph said, “creepy doesn’t even begin to cover it,” describing the writing as “bad throughout.” The reviews didn’t get any better as the series progressed. Business Insider said the last book turned Christian Grey into a pig. “Not even 20 pages in you get the sense Christian is an egotistical, obsessive-compulsive, creepy stalker lusting after a college-aged girl,” per BI.
“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s’ Stone” by J.K. Rowling
In 1997, an unknown writer named Joanne Rowling published the first novel in a seven-part series: “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s’ Stone.” Twenty years later, the series has sold 500 million copies and become one of the most profitable franchises in history. While the beloved character Harry Potter is widely embraced today, critics weren’t that impressed with the world Rowling created.
The Guardian said that the first book has a “pedestrian, ungrammatical prose style, which has left me with a headache and a sense of a wasted opportunity.” The review goes on to to read, “Her characters, unlike life’s, are all black-and-white. Her story-lines are predictable, the suspense minimal, the sentimentality cloying every page.”
Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal published an article titled “Can 35 million book buyers be wrong? Yes.” In it, the critic describes the book as “not well written” and writes, “One can reasonably doubt that ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ is going to prove a classic of children’s literature.”
“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt
Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” is a bestseller that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, yet was poorly received by some critics. The story follows a 13-year-old boy whose entire world changes when his mother is killed in a terrorist attack during a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
New Yorker critic James Wood said the book’s “tone, language, and story belongs to children’s literature.” Meanwhile, The Paris Review said that the book consists of overused clichés, writing that “nowadays, even The New York Times Book Review is afraid to say when a popular book is crap.”
“Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger
“Catcher in The Rye” by J.D. Salinger is one of the most beloved novels among high schoolers because it accurately portrays teen angst and rebellion. When the book was first released in the ’50s though, critics weren’t as interested in the novel as youngsters are today.
At the time of its release, The New Republic wrote that the book is “disappointing,” drawing specific problems with the protagonist, Holden Caufield, writing, “there is too much of him.” The review goes on to read, “And the reader at least suffered from an irritated feeling that Holden was not quite so sensitive and perceptive as he, and his creator, thought he was.”
“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
When “The Great Gatsby” was released in 1925, the book was perceived as anything but great. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s now-famous novel tells the story of a man who will do just about anything to earn the attention of a former lover. With a dazzling backdrop of the roaring ’20s, “The Great Gatsby” has been considered a work of great American literature and even sparked a recent Hollywood movie of the same name, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
But critics weren’t impressed when it was first published.The Chicago Tribune called the book “unimportant,” and said it should be cast out of the famous Fitzgerald canon. The Evening World said it was “painfully forced” and “a valiant effort to be ironical.”
“On the Road” by Jack Kerouac
With “On the Road,” Jack Kerouac was able to capture the beatnik generation and tell one of the most popular road trip stories in literature. Not only is the book a classic, but it’s still popular amongst Americans 60 years later.
It wasn’t so popular, however, with critics. For instance,The New York Times wrote: “It is not so much a novel as a long affectionate lark inspired by the so-called ‘beat’ generation, and an example of the degree to which some of the most original work being done in this country has come to depend upon the bizarre and the offbeat for its creative stimulus.”
“Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn
“Gone Girl” helped put Gillian Flynn on the map after the novel became a bestseller and successful Hollywood movie starring Ben Affleck. Audiences gravitated towards the seemingly simple plot about a husband who is dealing with his wife’s disappearance while all fingers are pointed at him. But nothing is as it seems in this suspenseful thriller.
However, critics don’t love the book as much as most readers do. For example, Book Forum’s Mary Gaitskill said she was repulsed by the title itself. “I found it as irritating as imagined, populated by snarky-cute, pop-culturally twisted voices coming out of characters who seem constructed entirely of ‘referents’ and ‘signifies,” she wrote. On the other hand, The Guardian wrote a kinder review but still said that they weren’t “blown away.”
“The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown
Dan Brown’s breakthrough novel “The Da Vinci Code” was not only a bestseller, but it also became a cultural juggernaut. The story follows Brown’s famous protagonist, Robert Langdon, as he unravels a mystery centuries in the making. The book became extremely controversial as it challenges the Catholic church and the story of Jesus Christ. The Vatican even called for a boycott.
Critics weren’t kind to the novel either, taking issue mostly with Brown’s conversational writing style. The BBC wrote that the novel was “the literary equivalent of painting by numbers, by an artist who can’t even stay within the lines.” The Guardian said it was “450 pages of irritatingly griping tosh.”
The Washington Post took most issue with Brown’s latest novel, “Origin,” which also stars Robert Langdon. The critic wrote that the novel is “so moronic you can feel your IQ points flaking away like dandruff.”
“A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara
While some are hailing “A Little Life” as the “the great gay novel” and a literary achievement, others are questioning the book as a piece of literature. The book follows a group of boys who meet in college and grow up to be struggling adults. The lengthy novel tackles subjects of race, sexual abuse, sexual orientation, and friendship.
One critic at the New York Review of Books wrote, “the abuse that Yanagihara heaps on her protagonist is neither just from a human point of view nor necessary from an artistic one,” and that “Yanagihara’s novel has duped many into confusing anguish and ecstasy, pleasure and pain.” Most critique that the devastating nature of the novel exists solely to be devastating.
“Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen
Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” is a mammoth of a novel that tackles the notions of love, marriage, and middle age in our modern world. The book – along with his other successful novel, “The Corrections” – made him the next “Great American Novelist” according to Time magazine.
Not everyone agrees.
“A 576-page monument to insignificance,” one critic from The Atlantic wrote. They even go on to call the writing “juvenile” and “directionless.” The review even goes as far as to say, “The result is boredom.”
“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood
Although “The Handmaid’s Tale” was released in 1986, the past couple of years have revived a new interest in the novel after Hulu turned it into an Emmy-award winning TV show. Set in a world where women have no power or say in politics, the novel acts as a cautionary tale and a fearful symbol for what could happen under the wrong leadership.
Critics originally didn’t see the same importance in the novel as readers do today. The New York Times wrote that the book “is powerless to scare.” The review goes on to accuse the book of being “ordinary” and “unpardonable.” Likewise,Time Magazine wrote, “Atwood’s novel lacks the direct, chilling plausibility of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and ‘Brave New World.'”
“Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut
“Slaughterhouse-Five” is widely considered one of Kurt Vonnegut’s best and most successful works. Known for turning the American novel on its head, Vonnegut focused this sci-fi story on an alien/soldier’s journey through war. While readers devour the novel for its irony and sarcasm, critics don’t love its brashness.
The New Yorker wrote that the book had “short, flat sentences,” that the “deliberate simplicity is as hazardous as the grand style,” and that “Vonnegut occasionally skids into fatuousness.” The New Republic took a stab at the author, writing, “Vonnegut is too cute, Vonnegut is precious, Vonnegut is silly.”
“The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins
Suzanne Collins’ YA series “The Hunger Games” is a favourite among teenagers and even skyrocketed as a successful film franchise starring Jennifer Lawrence. But it didn’t receive the best critical reviews. One Guardian critic wrote, “I found it predictable, dull, unoriginal, and riddled with errors. Unfortunately, I cannot think of a single reason to recommend it.”
The plot – which is described as “very weak and monotonous” – follows a girl growing up in a dystopian society that pits children against each other for entertainment.
“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson
Although Stieg Larsson’s novel “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” skyrocketed to the bestseller’s list and inspired a mildly successful movie of the same name, critics weren’t so receptive to the crime and action novel.
The New York Times called the book “improbable,” and said it will not “win any awards for characterization,” despite the iconic, lawless protagonist Lisbeth Salander. Likewise, one critic named Susan Cohen said, “This is easily one of the worst books I’ve ever read.”
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