October 15, 2010

The fine art of literary revenge


John Betjeman, getting the last laugh

John Betjeman, getting the last laugh

There must be something about all the alone time of being a writer, says Andy McSmith, “that makes authors so very prickly at times.” An adjective more barbed than “prickly” seems in order for the cases he cites to prove his point in a commentary for the Independent

For example, he observes, you would think that mega-bestselling author Jilly Cooper “could surely afford to overlook a mildly critical review of her novel, Rivals, published in 1988, in which rich people get in and out bed with each other, which concluded with the comment: ‘The interminable randiness, drunkenness and the salacious, schoolgirlish innuendoes become tedious and distasteful.'”

But you would think wrong. Twenty-two years later, Cooper has proudly revealed that she named a goat in her newest novel after the critic who wrote that long-ago review.

Still, as McSmith observes, “Cooper is not by any means the only author to resent a slight or carry on a feud.” He goes on to list some really terrific examples of some really infantile behavior from some leading writers throughout literary history. My favorite is the most artful:

A N Wilson vs Bevis Hillier

This feud began with a hurtful book review, though the revenge was more elaborate and mischievous. Bevis Hillier is an art historian, who spent 25 years working on a three-volume biography of the poet John Betjeman. Wilson reviewed the second volume in 2002, and described it as “a hopeless mishmash”. Then he set to work on his own book on Betjeman, which one newspaper forecast would be “the big one”.

Hillier has denied any involvement in the following hoax, but the story told is that the predicted success was too much for Hillier, who composed a fake love letter from Betjeman to a woman named Honor Tracy, and sent it to Wilson, with a cover letter purportedly coming from a woman named Eve de Harben. It was later revealed that the letter was not just a fake, but an acrostic in which the first letter of each sentence spelt “A N Wilson is a shit” — while Eve de Harben is an anagram of “ever been had”.

The fake letter A.N. Wilson included in his Betjeman biography contained a secret message

McSmith actually has a few things wrong there, and leaves a few important details out.

For one thing, Hillier did admit later that he wrote the fake letter, but after Wilson had attacked him rather viciously and on more than one occasion, as this Guardian story from 2006 reports. And as McSmith neglects to note, but a New York Times story does, Wilson did indeed fall for Hillier’s ruse, and use the letter in his own biography of Betjeman, giving the victory to Hillier.

As the Times puts it, “To be duped into printing a made-up love letter in your latest biography is bad enough. But to discover that the ersatz document is actually a very rude insult aimed specifically at you: that is a rare kind of humiliation.”

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives