Thursday, June 03, 2010

Authors behaving badly

by Jessica
Abandon all high-mindedness all ye who enter here.

This week the Daily Beast has a gallery of literary feuds, which is as appalling as it is entertaining. How did I miss that Richard Ford spat on Colson Whitehead at a 2004 Poets & Writers event in retaliation for a bad review? That the always pugnacious Norman Mailer head-butted Gore Vidal in the green room of the Dick Cavett show may not be too surprising, but whenever events allow us to spy that (sometimes significant) gulf between an artist and his or her creation, I cannot help but marvel: how is it that the same people who possess such extraordinary insight into human behavior can acquit themselves so poorly? On one hand, given that most of these featured feuds took place before digital media existed to fan the flames, I suppose it’s reassuring to see that people were petty and peevish even before they had recourse to blogs or tweets.

Interestingly, there are those who complain that the current literary landscape has become too genteel and booster-ish, that punches are pulled for fear of censure. (Dale Peck, apparently, missed this memo. So too Paul Berman). In a 2006 article in the NYT Book Review, columnist Rachel Donadio wrote about the literary feud as an endangered species “To some, the paucity of feuds is connected to the larger state of literary culture. ‘It’s not because we no longer have feuds,’ said Fran Lebowitz, the writer. ‘It’s because we no longer have literature.’ "  This strikes me as somewhat dire—I’m not convinced that there is clear and direct relationship between literary merit and public sniping. What do you think?

Have you any favorite literary feuds?


  1. Not strictly "literary", my favorite fistfight is the one between Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa in the seventies: politics and women both. A picture of Garcia Marquez's black eye here:

    And Wallace Stevens slugged Hemingway: a rousing account--how factual I don't know--is in Modern Drunkard Magazine.

  2. Interesting to know it happened way back when. The infighting does seem more pronounced and in your face these days. Maybe there was something to this solitary business where so many slots and competitiveness surely existed, just not to the massive public forum we see today.

  3. I'm not sure we're anymore genteel these days. I think authors today risk ticking off fan bases of popular writers if they comment negatively on each other. I'm thinking of the backlash Stephen King got for slamming the popular YA writer Stephanie Meyer. Saul Bellow said, "Writers seldom wish other writers well." I wonder if he had anyone specific in mind.

  4. Funny, why can't we see lack of feuds as PROGRESS OF CIVILIZATION instead of some sign of the Death of Literature? But, also agree with other commenters that with the internet it's so easy to piss off mass quantities of people in one stroke, and when your behavior is immortalized on google or YouTube it's not so charming. The old feuds had a great quality of "rumor has it..." You could choose to say, "No, I really doubt he HEAD-BUTTED him, surely that's an exaggeration!" There was a little mystery about it. Now: no mystery.

  5. I don't know. I think that being polite about fellow writers' work and/or a reviewer's opinion is only good manners. After all, everyone is entitled to a opinion (as in the case of a reviewer) and sometimes those opinions are better off kept quiet if that's not what your job involves (as in the case of writers sniping at other writers).

    That said, I don't think honesty should be viewed so harshly. Why shouldn't we say 'yes, that review upset me, but I'll move on' instead of ignoring it publicly? We're allowed to have feelings, right? Similarly, if Stephen King didn't like Stephenie Meyer's writing, that's his opinion and it isn't fair that he gets ripped for it. Maybe it wasn't polite of him to be so critical, but I genuinely think writers should be allowed to say 'no, I have to admit I didn't like this book' and not be torn apart for it. We're readers too!

    Just my two cents!

    Personally, I love reading about literary feuds, they're often funny!

  6. I'm a big fan of the civil feud between Brandon Sanderson and John Scalzi--mostly because Scalzi is highly unaware of it, and also because Sanderson gets his fans involved in taking on his "evil archnemesis."

  7. You should see the hub-bub going on on Joe Konrath's blog if you want to see some pissed off authors, editors, and publishers. I'm eating it up.

  8. What Sara Z said.

    If writers have to slug it out, I'd far rather they did it with words. And why does gentility have to be associated with a lack of verve, or wimpiness?

  9. I'm not sure if it's a feud (yet) but Stephen King's comment that Stephanie Meyer "Can't write worth a darn. She's not very good" made me laugh and is a little feudish.

    Personally I see no reason for being nasty to people, so I like the current trend.

  10. Ah, freedom of opinion ... so long as the opinion is politely phrased and appropriately positive in tone.

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