In 1998, the Modern Library polled its editorial board to determine the 100 best novels published that century. While these classics are adored with the benefit of time and hindsight, they weren't universally loved when they were first published. Here are 20 harsh reviews of some of the best novels of the 20th century.

1. Ulysses // James Joyce

Joyce’s magnum opus redefined literature and was a major event upon its release in 1922. Some bought into its radical structure, but others didn’t—including fellow modernist Virginia Woolf. In her diary she called Ulysses “an illiterate, underbred book it seems to me: the book of a self-taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating ... never did any book so bore me.”

2. The Great Gatsby // F. Scott Fitzgerald

Cited by many as the Great American Novel, Fitzgerald’s inimitable The Great Gatsby remains a staple in classrooms and on bookshelves the world over. Critic and journalist H.L. Mencken, however, called it “no more than a glorified anecdote,” and that “it is certainly not to be put on the same shelf, with, say, This Side of Paradise [Fitzgerald’s debut novel].” In her review for the New York Evening World, critic Ruth Snyder said, “We are quite convinced after reading The Great Gatsby that Mr. Fitzgerald is not one of the great American writers of to-day.”

3. Lolita // Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov’s novel about a literature professor who becomes obsessed with a 12-year-old girl wasn’t without controversy when it was published in 1958. Orville Prescott’s review in The New York Times listed two reasons why Lolita “isn't worth any adult reader's attention.” “The first,” he said, “is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive.” Later in the same review, he called Nabokov’s writing “highbrow pornography.”

4. Brave New World // Aldous Huxley

The ritualistic and drug-filled dystopian world created by writer called Aldous Huxley may have been too much for some when it was first published in 1931, but the New York Herald Tribune may have missed the point of the book altogether when their review called Brave New World “A lugubrious and heavy-handed piece of propaganda.”

5. Catch-22 // Joseph Heller

Heller’s satirical novel about World War II is so popular that the phrase Catch-22 has become a ubiquitous modern idiom meaning a type of no-win situation. Heller was in a no-win situation, according to critic Richard Stern, whose New York Times review called the book “an emotional hodgepodge.” He added, “No mood is sustained long enough to register for more than a chapter.”

6. Under the Volcano // Malcolm Lowry

Lowry’s novel—about an alcoholic British consul in Mexico during the Day of the Dead celebration on the eve of World War II—has both dazzled and frustrated readers since its debut in 1947. The New Yorker only reviewed it in its “Briefly Noted” section, saying, “for all [Lowry’s] earnestness he has succeeded only in writing a rather good imitation of an important novel.”

7. To the Lighthouse // Virginia Woolf

The New York Evening Post’s cleverly snide review of Woolf’s highly abstract Modernist masterpiece, published in 1927, managed to praise her and shoot her down all in the same sentence: “Her work is poetry; it must be judged as poetry, and all the weaknesses of poetry are inherent in it.”

8. An American Tragedy // Theodore Dreiser

This sprawling tale of love and deceit's influence has been made into an opera, a musical, a radio program, and more. When the novel was first published in 1925, the Boston Evening Transcript called its main character, Clyde Griffiths, “one of the most despicable creations of humanity that ever emerged from a novelist’s brain,” and called Dreiser “a fearsome manipulator of the English language” with a style that “is offensively colloquial, commonplace and vulgar.”

9. Invisible Man // Ralph Ellison

Invisible Man won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953, cementing its reputation as one of the most important books about race and identity ever written. In its 1952 review, however, The Atlantic Monthly thought it suffered from “occasional overwriting, stretches of fuzzy thinking, and a tendency to waver, confusingly, between realism and surrealism.”

10. Native Son // Richard Wright

Richard Wright’s Native Son, published in 1940, is another classic American novel about the African American experience, but The New Statesman and Nation found the book to be “unimpressive and silly, not even as much fun as a thriller.”

11. Henderson the Rain King // Saul Bellow

Bellow’s 1959 novel about an American millionaire who unwittingly becomes the king of an African tribe was the author's personal favorite. But it wasn’t a favorite for critic Reed Whittemore. In his review for The New Republic, Whittemore posed this question to himself: “The reviewer looks at the evidence and wonders if he should damn the author and praise the book, or praise the author and damn the book. And is it possible, somehow or other to praise or damn, both? He isn’t sure.”

12. Winesburg, Ohio // Sherwood Anderson

The interlaced short stories that take place in the fictional Ohio town that gives this 1919 book its name were based off of author Sherwood Anderson’s recollections from his childhood hometown of Clyde, Ohio. The veracity of those memories and the town were called into question in The Nation’s review of the book: “We sympathize with Mr. Anderson and what he is trying to do. He tries to find honest mid-American gods. Yet either he never does quite find them or he can never precisely set forth what he has found. It seems probably that he caricatures even Winesburg, Ohio.”

13. Lord of the Flies // William Golding

Another book that will most likely be forever a part of high school and college literature class curriculum, Lord of the Flies is William Golding’s tale of the savage hearts of man told through the story of a group of British school children stranded on an uninhabited island. To some, it's a brutally honest portrayal of the depth of the human spirit—but to The New Yorker it was just “completely unpleasant.”

14. The Sun Also Rises // Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway’s debut novel about masculinity and the Lost Generation typifies the sparse and powerful writing style that his subsequent work would become known for. Some critics still believe it is his most important work. His mother Grace, on the other hand, did not. In a letter she wrote that Hemingway kept all his life, his mother said, “What is the matter? Have you ceased to be interested in loyalty, nobility, honor and fineness in life … surely you have other words in your vocabulary besides ‘damn’ and ‘b**ch’—Every page fills me with a sick loathing—if I should pick up a book by any other writer with such words in it, I should read no more—but pitch it in the fire.” It would seem that mother, in fact, may not know best.

15. Tropic of Cancer // Henry Miller

Miller’s Modernist touchstone is known mostly for its candid portrayal of sexuality and the obscenity trial it stirred up in the U.S. decades after its first publication in Paris in 1934. While writers like George Orwell praised Miller and his book (Orwell said he was “the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years”), TIME described Miller and the book’s autobiographical main character as “a gadfly with delusions of grandeur.”

16. The Naked and the Dead // Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer's debut novel, The Naked and the Dead, was based on his experiences with the 112th Cavalry Regiment in the Philippines during World War II. It made many readers feel like they were actually there, but other readers, like the New Republic's critic, didn’t agree: “For the most part, the novel is a transcription of soldiers’ talk, lusterless griping and ironed-out obscenities, too detailed and monotonous to have been imaginatively conceived for any larger purpose but too exact and literal to have been merely guessed at … This doesn’t mean to deny Mailer his achievement. If he has a taste for transcribing banalities, he also has a talent for it.”

17. Portnoy’s Complaint // Philip Roth

Ask someone for a list of the greatest American writers of the past few decades and chances are you’re going to hear the name Philip Roth pop up. His 1969 novel Portnoy’s Complaint—a continuous sex-filled inner monologue told to a psychoanalyst by the book’s protagonist, Alexander Portnoy—put him on the map. America magazine turned their noses up at it, though, saying, “it is finally a definitive something or other. I regret that it is not a definitive something.”

18. On the Road // Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation have inspired countless writers since they galvanized American literature in the '50s and '60s. Many loved the hedonistic spontaneity of Kerouac's On the Road, but Ben Ray Redman of the Chicago Tribune chided the freewheeling hipster, saying, “He can slip from magniloquent hysteria into sentimental bathos, and at his worst he merely slobbers words. His best, however, makes it clear that he is a writer to watch. But if this watching is to be rewarded, he must begin to watch himself.”

19. Catcher in the Rye // J.D. Salinger

Salinger tapped into just what it’s like to be a confused and volatile teenager with his protagonist Holden Caulfield, cementing his novel’s place in the pantheon of important American literature. But such honesty rubbed some people the wrong way, especially the prudish reviewers at the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, who said, “Recent war novels have accustomed us all to ugly words and images, but from the mouths of the very young and protected they sound peculiarly offensive … the ear refuses to believe.”

20. To Kill a Mockingbird // Harper Lee

Author Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is an undeniable classic. You think you'd be hard pressed to find negative comments about such a ubiquitous and beloved book, but oh how wrong you’d be. In a letter she sent to writer Caroline Ivey, novelist Flannery O’Connor said of Lee’s Mockingbird, “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they’re reading a child’s book. Somebody ought to say what it is.”