Good reviews, bad reviews

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King Arthur meets Merlin disguised as a child; London, British Library, Additional 10292 (France, 1316)

A good review keeps a good work on track. A bad review makes a good work even better or at least more popular.

The Roman poet Virgil was accused in his own time of plagiarism. His detractors berated him for having stolen material from Homer. In dong this, they minimised the originality and value of the Aeneid, one of the founding epics of European literature.

In the Middle Ages, the mytographer Geoffrey of Monmouth was castigated by his contemporaries for having mistaken fact for fiction. His History of the Kings of Britain, which establishes King Arthur as a historical figure, was furiously censored by another, more fact-sensitive historian William of Newburgh, who dismissed Geoffrey as a hack. Another English historian saw Geoffrey’s book as a work of the devil.

It didn’t matter. Virgil’s Aeneid as well as Geoffrey’s History became bestsellers and extremely influential for centuries. They are still with us today, though in different ways.

The bad reviews we know are those of works which turned out to be immensely popular. Bad and inconsequential texts crashed and burned leaving no trace, not even a bad review.

As a reader, it’s always worth to read the bad reviews together with the good ones. As a writer, it’s always better to start with the bad – they point the way forward and teach more than the good.

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