Artillery Row

A Room with a Feud

What happened to robust — and, yes, rude — literary criticism?

Oh, where to find the fabulous spats that used to enliven every writers’ circle? It’s no coincidence that the drab rise of cancel culture has contributed to the demise of colourful literary disagreements. In my own case, my publisher, Doire Press, rescinded their offer to publish my debut novel after I wrote an article contending that Northern Irish authors should focus on contemporary matters rather than the Troubles. As the Sunday Independent rightly questioned in the aftermath, “Is the Irish literary world really so fragile and full of itself that it can’t cope with the odd dose of healthy impertinence?”

Many of the writing greats enhanced their reputations with a critical bon mot. As the poet and critic Dorothy Parker vaunted, “The first thing I do every morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue,” and she knew the value of acting up to expectations with a delicious barb, quipping that actress Katharine Hepburn “ran the gamut of human emotions all the way from A to B”. Such comments weren’t subject to the social media fallout of today, but there was still the danger of litigation. One famous case occurred in 1979 when Mary McCarthy said sweepingly of Lillian Hellman, “Every word she writes is a lie, including “and” and “the’.” Stung, Hellman brought a $2.5 million lawsuit against McCarthy for slander, but died before it was settled.

Tom Murphy dumped a bowl of lamb korma over Colgan’s head

The late twentieth century was the heyday of heavyweight feudsters. Gore Vidal was happy to lock horns with Truman Capote and even continued the pithy jibes after Capote’s death, designating it a “wise career move”. One of Norman Mailer’s most amusing aperçus was that reading Tom Wolfe’s novel, A Man in Full, resembled “making love to a three-hundred-pound woman. Once she gets on top, it’s over. Fall in love, or be asphyxiate”. Tom Wolfe, who was no shrinking violet himself, returned the compliment by calling Mailer and John Updike “two old piles of bones” and, in turn, disparaged Susan Sontag’s prose style for having “a handicapped parking sticker valid at Partisan Review”..

In certain cases, verbal altercations turned physical, making Will Smith’s recent slap look like the epitome of playfulness. Mailer punched Vidal to which Vidal immortally retorted from the carpet, “Once again, words fail Norman Mailer,” while Hemingway gave Wallace Stevens a severe beating for his insults. Richard Ford took such offence to a review by Colson Whitehead that he expectorated into his foe’s face at a party: the literary spat became the literary spit. However, Whitehead had the last word, jocularly warning other reviewers that “they might want to get a rain poncho, in case of inclement Ford.” Ridicule and wit have always been the deadliest weapons in the literary armoury.

One tasty encounter which shall be evermore known as Currygate occurred at Colm Tóibín’s 50th birthday party in Dublin. The director of the Gate Theatre, Michael Colgan, reportedly told playwright Tom Murphy, “You’re only a provincial playwright,” to which Murphy riposted, “And you are the keeper of a museum on Parnell Square,” before dumping a bowl of lamb korma over Colgan’s head. The incident scandalized Dublin, but the only real question was whether it was korma or karma.

Where is the entertainment in a bland anodyne literary world?

Venting in public has its benefits; it’s not only a release for professional jealousy and frustration, but is also an opportunity for writers to showcase their particular talents. Derek Walcott and V. S. Naipaul had a twenty-year feud, most of which was a cold war, culminating in 2008 with Naipaul describing Walcott as “a man whose talent had been all but strangled by his colonial setting.” Walcott stole the show, however, by responding in vitriolic verse. It boasted such comic couplets as, “I have been bitten, I must avoid infection/Or else I’ll be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction”. 

Fast forward to the 2020s where the stylishly withering takedown has virtually vanished. In 2019, Lauren Oyler’s review in London Review of Books of Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror was scathing by today’s standards, but isn’t madly quotable except for this one ad hominem dig, “I get the sense that she must feel overwhelming pity for ugly women, if she has ever met one”. Tolentino must have been angry, but seemed to suggest on Twitter that she welcomed harsh criticism by saying it was “a cleansing, illuminating experience to be read with such open disgust” — was there a soupçon of sarcasm at play here? By contrast, Laurie Penny recently tweeted about suffering PTSD from bad book reviews and was roundly lampooned by Julie Bindel who tweeted back, “have just diagnosed myself with Complex PTSD because a fella has just opened a packet of Cheesy Wotsit”. 

Naturally, no one wants to see hatchet jobs on writers, but one can’t help wondering where the entertainment is in a bland anodyne literary world. Many writers don’t have the robust constitution to engage in the art of the literary skirmish, but the difficulty for the few who do is that those they write about are likely to claim victim status. Contemporary publishers spiral into a state of alarm at Twitterstorms, meaning we have to be increasingly careful; such is the size of our digital footprint, it may come back to kick us. The old saying, “today’s news is tomorrow’s chip paper”, is no longer true as today’s news is forever preserved on our Twitter timelines. 

For now, we should simply admire the theatrical verve of a former era while remembering that Gore Vidal had “the greatest affection” for his adversary, Norman Mailer, in spite of the rhetoric. Let’s, therefore, leave the last word to Vidal who punctured the pompous pretension of his literary milieu by recalling the precise moment of meeting Truman Capote in Anaïs Nin’s apartment: “My first impression — as I wasn’t wearing my glasses — was that it was a colourful ottoman. When I sat down on it, it squealed. It was Truman.”

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