August 28, 2012
SLIDE SHOW: When writers attack … other writers
by Dennis Johnson
Wordsmiths, obviously, should know how to sting other writers. But some have proven especially good at it. Herewith, the ten historic barbs we think the most notable and the story behind them, plus a bonus …
1. Mary McCarthy vs. Lillian Hellman
Back when television talk shows had writers on and actually asked them interesting questions — in January 1980, to be precise — Mary McCarthy appeared on the Dick Cavett Show and he asked her what writers she thought were overrated. McCarthy cited John Steinbeck and Pearl S. Buck, but saved her most biting remarks for Lillian Hellman, “who,” she said, “I think is tremendously overrated, a bad writer, a dishonest writer, but she really belongs to the past.” Pressed by Cavett to explain what about Hellman’s work, exactly, was overrated, McCarthy said, “Everything … every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.'”
The wealthy Hellman promptly sued the barely-solvent McCarthy for defamation. As some have noted, “It was clear that Hellman’s intention was to bankrupt McCarthy.” And she almost did, taking a toll on McCarthy’s health too as the case dragged on until Hellman’s death five years later. Nonetheless, when Hellman’s executors decided to drop the suit, McCarthy said she was disappointed not to have her day in court to point out what many other have observed since — that Hellman’s books such as Scoundrel Time and Pentimento were riddled with disprovable and unprovable claims. “If someone had told me, don’t say anything about Lillian Hellman because she’ll sue you, it wouldn’t have stopped me,” she said. “It might have spurred me on.”
2. Truman Capote vs Jack Kerouac
In January of 1959, Truman Capote’s 1958 novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s was a waning bestseller, but Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, published a year earlier, had slowly stolen the limelight as a bigger literary sensation.
Capote seemed annoyed about it when he went on David Susskind’s television talk show, Open End, and was asked about the Beat writers. “None of these people have anything interesting to say and none of them can write, not even Mr. Kerouac,” he said. And then he said the words that would be pegged to Kerouac for the rest of his life: “That isn’t writing. It’s typing.”
3. Gertrude Stein vs. Ezra Pound
Gertrude Stein once joked that when Ezra Pound visited her famous Parisian salon, well, things happened: “All he has to do is come in and sit down for half an hour. When he leaves, the chair’s broken, the lamp’s broken. Ez is fine, but I can’t afford to have him in the house. ”
His comment on her, though, was a far more vicious lapse into anti-Semitism: “Gertie Stein is supposed to haff a stdyle pecause she writes yittish wit englisch wordts. This is not the way to did it but it shows how effektif it iss yess.”
But there was no Yiddish in her devastatingly clear riposte, in which she called Pound “A village explainer. Excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.”
4. Mark Twain vs. Jane Austen
There’s no way around it: Mark Twain really hated Jane Austen’s guts. “Any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book,” he once said — a comment he repeated with some variation several times.
In a letter to William Dean Howells he once wrote in reference to another writer, “To me his prose is unreadable — like Jane Austen’s. No there is a difference. I could read his prose on salary, but not Jane’s. Jane is entirely impossible. It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.”
Then there’s this: “They say she draws her characters with sharp discrimination and a sure touch. I believe that is true, as long as the characters she is drawing are odious.”
The most outrageous may be, “Her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”
Why did he hate her so much? Scholar Emily Auerbach has posited that Twain was “a closet Janeite, a fake who read and appreciated far more of Jane Austen than he admitted.”
But that seems unlikely. After all, he did say the ultimate, most insulting thing about her books that a writer can say: “Once you put it down, you simply can’t pick it up.”
5. George Bernard Shaw vs. William Shakespeare
Maybe it’s not so surprising that one of the world’s great playwrights did not like another of the world’s great playwrights … but the vehemence with which George Bernard Shaw hated the greatest playwright of them all, William Shakespeare, is nonetheless startling.
“With the exception of Homer,” he said, “there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his. The intensity of my impatience with him occasionally reaches such a pitch, that it would positively be a relief to me to dig him up and throw stones at him, knowing as I do how incapable he and his worshippers are of understanding any less obvious form of indignity.”
There’s been great debate about why Shaw hated Shakespeare so — the “measure my mind against his” comment may support the jealousy charge — but at least Shaw did try to detail what, exactly, he didn’t like about Shakespeare: “I have striven hard to open English eyes to the emptiness of Shakespeare’s philosophy, to the superficiality and second-handedness of his morality, to his weakness and incoherence as a thinker, to his snobbery, his vulgar prejudices, his ignorance, his disqualifications of all sorts for the philosophic eminence claimed for him.”
But whatever the reason, Shaw was so irked by Shakespeare’s status that words ultimately failed him and he had to invent a new one to express his irritation, dubbing the over-appreciation of Shakespeare, which he felt was universal, Bardolatry.
6. William Faulkner vs. Mark Twain
While William Faulkner would seem in many ways to be a literary descendent of Mark Twain, and while he even praised Twain as “the Father of American literature,” and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as “the great American novel,” it seems that when he started out, Faulkner had nothing good to say about his literary forebear …
As a student at Ole Miss Faulkner referred to Twain as, “A hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe, who tricked out a few of the old proven sure fire literary skeletons with sufficient local color to intrigue the superficial and the lazy.”
7. Elizabeth Bishop vs. J.D. Salinger
Elizabeth Bishop’s oft-quoted put-down of J.D. Salinger — make that oft-mis-quoted — may be all the more withering for being made privately and off-hand. In a letter to Robert Lowell, she made a passing comment on Seymour: An Introduction (not Catcher in the Rye, as is usually claimed): “I HATED the Salinger story. It took me days to go through it, gingerly, a page at a time, and blushing with embarrassment for him every ridiculous sentence of the way. How can they let him do it?”
What is it she disliked so much about it? Perhaps it was that Salinger had his character write poetry. As is rarely quoted, Bishop’s comment went on: “Perhaps Seymour isn’t supposed to be anything out of the ordinary, nor his poems either, so that all that writhing and reeling is to show the average man trying to express his love for his brother, or brotherly love? Well, Henry James did it much better in one or two long sentences.”
8. T.S. Eliot vs. Henry James
Nothing can quite fuel literary insult so much as youthful ageism. But there’s nothing like youth to make an insult seem so uniformed, either. Thus, T.S. Eliot’s snobbish dismissal of Henry James has, over the years, reflected back on him as much as his subject.
The comment? In an attack on James that ran in the Little Review in August, 1918 (barely two years after James’ death), Eliot said of him, “He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.”
Scholars and critics have debated the comment to the point that one would think its meaning wasn’t apparent on the surface. But no less than Mary McCarthy — in an essay for the London Review of Books— decried the “lofty assumptions calmly towering behind” the comment more than the comment itself.
McCarthy also astutely noted that “The young Eliot’s epigram summed up with cutting brevity a creed that for Modernists appeared beyond dispute. Implicit in it is the snubbing notion, radical at the time but by now canon doctrine, of the novel as a fine art and of the novelist as an intelligence superior to mere intellect. In this patronising view, the intellect’s crude apparatus was capable only of formulating concepts, which then underwent the process of diffusion, so that by dint of repetition they fell within anybody’s reach.”
It’s hard not to think that the older Eliot might not have made the comment, though. He would have had time by then to consider that it wasn’t so original after all. While it seems crazy to criticize Henry James, of all writers, as a novelist of something other than ideas, it’s not crazy to simply find his ideas uninteresting to you as an individual — to feel, in other words, exactly as Shakespeare felt three hundred years earlier, when he had Hamlet say, “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!”
9. Ernest Hemingway vs. William Faulkner
Ernest Hemingway’s comments about great writers are sometimes sufficient to promote the idea that good novelists are not necessarily good critics. For example, he once said that “Chekhov wrote about 6 good stories. But he was an amateur writer.”
Indeed, Hemingway, the famous feuder, often seemed his own best critic (such as when he advised, “Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.”)
However, his feud with William Faulkner seems not really of his own devising. In fact, it seems to have been prompted by Faulkner cracking that Hemingway “has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”
Hemingway’s response was, in all fairness, right on the money: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”
10. Norman Mailer vs Gore Vidal
Norman Mailer wasn’t exactly shy about criticizing other writers — or literary critics, for that matter. (“What put the hair up her immortal Japanese ass is beyond me,” he once said of New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani.)
But his feud with Gore Vidal was legendary, and went on for decades — all, apparently, inspired by a negative review of Mailer’s Prisoner of Sex that Vidal wrote for the New York Review of Books, and in which he called the book “three days of menstrual flow,” compared Mailer to Charles Manson, and reminded readers that Mailer had ten years earlier stabbed his wife.
One of the first public confrontations afterwards was on the Dick Cavett television show in December of 1971. The on-air badinage between the two was vicious (you can watch it here), but some reports say it was even worse backstage, where Mailer reportedly “headbutted” Vidal.
It would all culminate in further violence when, in 1977, Mailer encountered Vidal at a party thrown by socialite Lally Weymouth and promptly flattened him with a punch.
At which point Vidal, still on the floor, uttered what is perhaps the most immortally apt literary criticism ever: “Once again, words have failed Norman Mailer.”
Bonus: Dorothy Parker vs. the world
No list of literary insults should end without a Dorothy Parker quote, and the one quoted most regularly is a beaut: “This is not a novel that should be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” But try finding what book she said it about; alas, the remark seems to be apocryphal.
But there are plenty that aren’t. Her review of Andre Gide’s The Counterfeiters, for example, was real — it appeared in her “Constant Reader” column that ran for years in the New Yorker. “The Counterfeiters,” she wrote, “is too tremendous a thing for praises. To say of it, ‘Here is a magnificent novel’ is rather like gazing into the Grand Canyon and remarking, ‘Well, well, well; quite a slice.’ Doubtless you have heard that this book is not pleasant. Neither, for that matter, is the Atlantic Ocean.”
In fact, the Constant Reader column was a treasure trove of gems.
Of a novel by Will Durant she wrote that Durant “says of his book, Transition, which has a sub-title ‘A Sentimental Story of One Mind and One Era,’ that he just dashed it off by way of a holiday. Dr. Will Durant should stick to business.”
And of Sinclair Lewis’ Dodsworth she wrote, “I can not, with the slightest sureness, tell you if it will sweep the country, like ‘Main Street,’ or bring forth yards of printed praise…My guess would be that it will not. Other guesses which I have made in the past half-year have been that Al Smith would carry New York state, that St. John Ervine would be a great dramatic critic for an American newspaper, and that I would have more than twenty-six dollars in the bank on March 1st. So you see my confidence in my judgment is scarcely what it used to be.”
Then there was her review of a book called Happiness. It was, she wrote, “second only to a rubber duck as the ideal bathtub companion … It may be held in the hand without causing muscular fatigue or nerve strain, it may be neatly balanced back of the faucets, and it may be read through before the water has cooled. And if it slips down the drain pipe, all right, it slips down the drain pipe.”
But her review of A.A. Milne’s House on Pooh Corner may have been her masterpiece, and it was triggered by one, telling word. “And it is that word ‘hummy,’ my darlings,” she explained, “that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up.”
Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him at @mobylives