Modern writers are always plagued with feelings of inadequacy: “If only I were Robert Louis Stevenson or Nathaniel Hawthorne or Herman Melville! Then I could write like a genius!”
Now, suppose I told you that those authors have some serious gaps in their literary brilliance.
Mark Twain was not one to ignore such errors. He wrote James Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses as a scathing criticism of Cooper’s Deerslayer and Last of the Mohicans.
Cooper's art has some defects. In one place in "Deerslayer," and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.
Twain’s lengthy observations were so memorable that the original story can now hardly be read without its accompanying criticism.
I won’t be quite as vicious as Twain, but I believe in recognizing the flaws of past writers, not so that we can despise them and think ourselves so much wiser (a dangerous supposition), but so that we can learn from their mistakes.
Robert Louis Stevenson's Main Mistake
His endings stink.
After a story packed with action, wit, and colorful characters, his endings are like running out of gas in the middle of nowhere.
Observe the ending of Kidnapped: Alan and David part ways rather awkwardly, and then The hand of Providence brought me [David] in my drifting to the very doors of the British Linen Company’s bank.
The tale of swashbuckling, kidnapping, shipwrecks, and perilous journeys ends at a bank. Whoopee.
As for Treasure Island, although the ending sentence is beyond reproach, the final chapter leaves Long John Silver marooned on the island with the rest of the mutineers. I far prefer Disney’s version: Long John Silver, destined for hanging, escapes the Hispanolia. His last interaction with Jim is one of strange courtesy between enemies, which I feel does better credit to Silver’s complex character than simply abandoning him on an island.
Nathaniel Hawthorne's Main Mistake
He isn’t a novelist.
Yes, I know The Scarlet Letter is a classic, but honestly, if abridged to a short story, it wouldn’t lose much of its integrity. In fact, it would be infinitely more readable.
The House of Seven Gables was exquisitely painful for me. In the audio version, Miss Hepzibah wasted a half hour sighing in front of the mirror and descending the stairs. I gave up at that point and never finished the story, though I may return someday out of sheer stubbornness.
Put simply, Hawthorne wrote too much (a failing shared by Victor Hugo, by the way), and it’s overwhelming for the modern reader.
However, Hawthorne’s short stories are very enjoyable, with all the supernatural mystery, spiritual undertones, and brilliant imagery that we most love about him. If you want to read Hawthorne at his best, I’d try The Minister’s Black Veil or Roger Malvin’s Burial.
Herman Melville's main mistake
He doesn’t stick to the story.
One of my blog posts focused on Biblical symbolism in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I introduced the story as “an exciting story of 19th century whaling.” I received this comment from a reader: I take issue with your first sentence - I am sorry to report that I found Moby Dick far from exciting. You proved it yourself: an entire chapter about the fact that the whale is white?! You have got to be kidding me! I love reading but that's a little much, if you ask me ... which you didn't, but whatever! : )
I admitted that the story did go awry with its “parenthetical monologues about seemingly peripheral subjects.” Melville periodically interrupts the story to give lessons on cetology (the science of whales), the symbolic nature of the whale’s whiteness, how Jonah from the Bible was historically regarded, the anatomy and measurements of the whale, the enduring appeal of the whale… On the one hand, some of the information was useful in helping me to understand the story, but it could have been more creatively woven throughout the story, rather than BAM! an essay about whale fossils disguised as a chapter in a fiction novel.
Overall, I enjoy each one of these authors. But are they perfect? No. That should be encouraging for every writer who follows in their footsteps: Even imperfect writers can produce stories of lasting appeal!
Herman Melville's Main Mistake