I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
It seems that there are some very fragile egos among the men and women of letters. Many have launched into wars of words, using their favourite ammunition skillfully to take down other writers. It’s not very edifying, but it can be fun to watch.
In 2007, New York Magazine published what it called an abbreviated list of the pugnacious Norman Mailer’s enemies: William Styron, Truman Capote, Peter Manso, Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe, and Michiko Kakutani were just the writers who fell afoul of Mailer’s pen.
His wife, Adele Morales, called Mailer a “faggot” when he was drunk and stoned at a party. She suffered two penknife stab wounds but refused to testify against him.
Mailer’s most famous feud was with Gore Vidal; it has been called Ali vs. Frazier of letters.
The whole thing started in the early 1970s when Gore Vidal wrote a scathing review of Mailer’s book, The Prisoner of Sex. Following this, the two met in the green room prior to an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, and Mailer took the opportunity to head butt Vidal.
At a party few years later, Mailer was still seething so he threw a drink in Vidal’s face and then punched him. Lying on the ground, Gore Vidal uttered one of the greatest comeback lines ever: “As usual, words fail him.”
Of course, the British-Indian novelist had the ultimate feud with Islam when Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini placed a fatwa on Rushdie claiming his book The Satanic Verses was blasphemous against the religion. That was in 1988 and Rushdie still lives under threat of death.
However, the novelist has issues with far less divine figures than Mohammed.
In 1997, he took up his pen and levelled an attack on John le Carré, claiming the spy novelist had sided with Muslims bent on killing Rushdie. Not so said le Carré, “Rushdie’s way with the truth is as self-serving as ever.”
Rushdie fired a return volley: “I’m grateful to John le Carré for refreshing all our memories about exactly how pompous an ass he can be.”
More verbal bullets labelled “ignorant,” “semi-literate” were fired before the two patched up the feud in 2011.
In 2006, Rushdie took offence at a review of his book Shalimar the Clown written by John Updike. That brought a nasty response in which Updike’s work was called “garbage” and his latest book “is beyond awful.”
In a schoolyard he-started-it-first defence Rushdie added, “I’m allowed to say it, because he was really rude about me.”
Women as Literary Scrappers
A.S. (Sue) Byatt and Margaret Drabble brought an added dimension to their literary squabble, because they are sisters.
The rivalry started in childhood and their mother is to blame because she encouraged them to be fiercely competitive with each other. (Well of course, it’s always the fault of parents).
Byatt was always passionate about her desire to write, but Drabble was the first to publish. She said “I didn’t want to. I just happened to write a novel when I was pregnant and had nothing to do.” A massive put-down of her older sister’s devotion to the craft.
The sisters hardly talk to each other and never read the other’s books. There’s some sniping through thinly disguised characters in their novels. Drabble says the rift is “irresoluble now. It’s sad, but beyond repair, and I don’t think about it much any more.”
Mary McCarthy started the battle with Lillian Hellman by saying “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ ” On another occasion, she opined that Hellman “is tremendously overrated, a bad writer, and a dishonest writer, but she really belongs to the past.” Ouch.
Norman Mailer would have invited such an insulter to step outside and settle the matter in the street, in this case, he appealed to the two women to apologize and bury the hatchet. Hellman went to see her lawyer and a demand for more than $2 million in damages was made. The matter was only resolved by Lillian Hellman’s death five years later.
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Some Old Battles among Wordsmiths
The sordid little Garrick Club Affair led to a split between two Victorian writing friends, William Thackeray and Charles Dickens.
In 1858, Dickens walked out on his wife and Thackeray told his pals in the Garrick Club, to which Dickens was also a member, that the author of David Copperfield was romping about with a teenaged actress named Ellen Ternan. Not the sort of thing a gentleman does; mention a lady’s name in the club, romping with said lady was perfectly acceptable.
Dickens unleashed a surrogate in the form of Edward Yates, a protégé of the master novelist. In the publication Household Words Yates wrote a critique of Thackeray’s work: “Our own opinion is, that his success is on the wane; his writings never were understood or appreciated even by the middle classes … there is a want of heart in all he writes, which is not to be balanced by the most brilliant sarcasm, and the most perfect knowledge of the workings of the human heart.”
What really ticked off Thackeray was that Yates broke the sacrosanct rule that anything said in the club stayed in the club. “Allow me to inform you,” responded Thackeray, “that the talk which you have heard there is not intended for newspaper remark; and to beg – as I have a right to do – that you will refrain from printing comments upon my private conversations.”
Okay. So it’s not the kind of bare-knuckle, head-butting aggression that Norman Mailer engaged in, but it was enough to cause the two friends to sever relations.
Yates was kicked out of the Garrick Club.
- Benjamin Franklin observed that “Guests and fish stink after three days;” a truism available to Hans Christian Andersen but not heeded by him. In 1857, Andersen arrived at the home of his friend Charles Dickens for a short visit; it was a stay that lasted five weeks. Andersen was a difficult guest who was demanding and prone to tantrums. When he left, Dickens wrote a note and displayed it in the guest room: “Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks — which seemed to the family AGES!” The friendship between the two literary giants was over.
- Alice Hoffman wrote a critical review of one of Richard Ford’s books. He was so irked by Ms. Hoffman’s appraisal that he took one of her novels and shot holes through it before mailing it back to the author.
- Marcel Proust and Jean Lorrain took shooting to the next level. Lorrain, who was gay, accused Proust of being gay, which he was. Proust demanded satisfaction and a duel with pistols was arranged to take place on February 5, 1897. Both men fired and missed, and it was agreed that Proust’s honour had been preserved. The two gay men continued to hate each other.
- “Mr. Tendentious.” Boris Kachka, New York Magazine, January 4, 2007.
- “Rushdie vs. Updike, 10 Rounds for the Heavyweight Title.” Jim Concannon, Boston.com, October 4, 2006.
- “A S Byatt’s ‘Bruising’ Feud with Margaret Drabble Is a ‘Tragedy’, Says Michael Holroyd.” Tim Walker, The Telegraph, January 23, 2013.
- “25 Legendary Literary Feuds, Ranked.” Emily Temple, Literary Hub, February 16, 2018.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on August 26, 2019:
Yes, words can hurt. Don't know if it is allowed to laugh on account of rude remarks, but it was hard not to, on reading some of these. Good read!
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on August 23, 2019:
Rupert, thank you for sharing these literary feuds. I found it extremely interesting. Though I have never experienced it personally there can be a lot of jealously between writers. Another example was between Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner: "Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don't know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use." .. Hemingway's response to a comment by Faulkner criticising his writing style.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on August 23, 2019:
Sorry to hear that Tessa. In a long career in journalism I have largely escaped the kind of vituperative personal comments you describe. I was once taken to task by an associate of the junk-bond king Michael Milken over a piece I wrote about his nefarious swindles, but as the article was accurate nothing came of it. There have been other angry people. The kind of writing in which I trade does not lend itself to ad hominem attacks, although I am a proud member of the “disgusting fake news media.”
Of course, fiction is another matter. I would not venture into that world largely because of a self-recognized lack of skill with the genre.
Tessa Schlesinger on August 23, 2019:
You have no idea. The degree of malicious remarks I have had in my life from wannabe writers.
Repeatedly I tested just how ''competent'so many of these writers were in writing groups. Repeatedly I would submit pieces that had won prizes or had been published in pretty decent magazines. They would come back torn to pieces with remarks like "You have no idea how to write,"or "Nobody would publish this."
If I bite off the heads of other writers these days, that is partially the reason.