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Artillery Row

The death of the literary feud

When writers become fighters

We live in a culture defined by public confrontation: the age of the Twitter spat, the diss track and the celebrity cage fight. Demand for an undignified scrap is at an all-time high. The literary world has enjoyed a distinguished tradition of disgraceful public exchanges, but now it is bucking the trend. These days, writers shy away from conflict. It wasn’t so long ago that writers got into fights with each other — when the personal was literary, and the literary was personal.

Literary feuds were a regular and entertaining occurrence in the British literary scene. When writers argued, the reading public looked on with the grin of schadenfreude. We all know the canonical examples. John le Carré and Salman Rushdie’s 1997 shouting match in the letters section of The Guardian over The Satanic Verses controversy is always wheeled out whenever literary feuds are discussed.

Rushdie called le Carré a “pompous ass”. le Carré called Rushdie “self-serving”, “arrogant” and “self-righteous”. Then, the portly figure of Christopher Hitchens swung in on a chandelier. Hitchens likened le Carré to “a man who, having relieved himself in his own hat, makes haste to clamp the brimming chapeau on his head”, cementing the feud’s place in the public memory.

Around the same time, there was the bust up between A.S. Byatt and Martin Amis. It revolved around Amis’ demand for an admittedly mountainous advance for his novel The Information. “I am told that my own sales are considerably larger than his,” said Byatt. “I am not wandering around saying, ‘May I please have 500,000 pounds.’” Amis later wrote about the exchange in his memoir Experience: “A.S. Byatt, justly famous for her novels, her short stories and her inability to get off the telephone.”

Literary reviews are anodyne, devoid of writerly disagreement

All this took place a quarter of a century ago, but that is easily forgotten. We no longer live in the roaring eighties. Martin Amis has since died, as have Christopher Hitchens and John le Carré. The current generation of novelists is not nearly so swashbuckling as the last. Where it once resembled a riotous pub near chucking out time, the British literary scene is now as languid and uneventful as a coffee shop on Hackney Road. The literary reviews are anodyne, devoid of writerly disagreement. Literary events are suffused with a pervasive sense of orchestrated “niceness”. It seems the tradition of literary feuding has fallen into a state of disuse.

Part of the reason why is doubtless that literature no longer occupies the same space in the culture. It’s possible people simply don’t want writers to be opinionated anymore — that the public doesn’t want literary scoundrels. When a writer does stick their head above the parapet, they are liable to have it blown off by the blunderbuss of online opinion.

When Sally Rooney decided against selling the Hebrew translation rights for her most recent novel to an Israeli publisher, the media response was swift and mainly negative. Many of her fellow writers came to her aid, but none criticised her. In the past, the boycotting of a publisher for political reasons would have been the starting gun for a debate, row or scrap. There would’ve been cries of “get over yourself” and “cry me a river” from the gallery. This time, no feud materialised.

Some regard the loss of literary feuds as a loss to literary culture. After all, everyone enjoys a face off, and it isn’t difficult to understand why. Writers, like all artists, take themselves seriously — if anything, too seriously. Part of the joy of literary feuds is witnessing an unseemly showdown between respectable people. In recent decades, literary feuds have served a serious purpose, too. They provided a window into the political, moral and social machinery of the literary world.

The public personae of many writers are largely manufactured. They are marketing themselves in the same way as corporations. When writers roll up their sleeves to savage one another in the press, the mask slips. They cease to be who they are pretending to be and become — albeit briefly — real people. For readers, it’s refreshing when this happens, partly because it’s entertaining, but also because it reminds them that writers are not above the society in which they write. In other words, they’re just as spiteful and jealous as everyone else.

The question remains: why are writers so averse to conflict these days? I decided to ask several prominent British novelists for their opinions on why literary feuds have disappeared. They all agreed with the premise that feuds have virtually vanished from the culture.

The risk of permanent reputational damage could become very real, very quickly

For the writer Will Self, the decline of the literary feud is symptomatic of the broader decline of “serious literature” in our culture at large. “Feuds aren’t happening because literature isn’t important,” he remarked down the phone. He explained that the decline of literary feuds is a result of what he called “the neoliberal commodification of the literary product”. Publishing houses now care only about book sales because they’re aware that the reading public is both shrinking and oversaturated. He pointed out that this results in “banalisation” of literature.

Self said, “Writers have become too craven to get into disagreements with each other. They’re all competing for a dwindling pool of readers, and are afraid of alienating their audience.”

This sentiment was at least partly echoed by the novelist Derek Owusu, who emphasised the withering impact of social media on the literary landscape:

You could tweet about how much a book offended you, or how much of a doughnut an author was in an interview, and maybe your critique is valid, but all it takes in one person to tweet against your opinion in a way that goes viral and everyone will follow and suddenly your book is being bombed on Goodreads. That’s an extreme example but it happens …

In Owusu’s view, it’s the stakes that’ve changed. The level or reputational risk is higher nowadays because of the tendency of social media to convert a civilised disagreement into a fight to the death.

I think he’s right. If literary feuds were to take place today, they’d likely take place on Twitter, rather than in the controlled environment of a national newspaper’s letters section. All manner of people would involve themselves and take a side, and the risk of permanent reputational damage could become very real, very quickly. This is a risk which, understandably, most writers are unwilling to take. They’re far happier playing it safe by speaking positively about the work of fellow writers.

Meanwhile, the novelist Adam Thirlwell made it clear there are multiple factors at work. “There are multiple and competing answers to this,” he began. Alongside Self and Owusu, he agreed that public discourse is a much more threatening place for writers nowadays:

The public sphere is now so much more public than it ever was before, and everyone, not just writers, is far more aware of the horrors of the public … Is it also possible that writers are simply more therapised, more self-aware? So that even a writer may be able to see that their feelings of hatred or irritation may not be as objectively justified as they initially thought …

Thirlwell’s point about writers becoming more therapised was echoed by Derek Owusu: “I think, thankfully, the bravado and bitchiness seems to have vanished and been replaced by insecurity, empathy, fear and understanding.”

The common theme is that writers have lost their desire to get into public disagreements. Could it be that writers are simply nicer nowadays, less vindictive than their predecessors?

Not so, apparently. All of the writers I interviewed agreed on one point: that deep down, writers continue to hate each other. As Thirlwell remarked:

I think it’s universally true that in private all writers are critically exercised by other writers, sometimes by the way they write, sometimes by what they write: writerly minute hatred will continue forever.

Owusu concurred, remarking that “people are still having their beefs, behind the stage curtain”. It seems there is still hope for a resurgence of literary feuds, for those who miss them.

It might be perverse to argue for the return of literary feuds. History cuts its own path, but I can’t help but mourn the levelling effect that writerly disagreement once had on literary culture. Feuds reminded us that writers are not sacred beings, but people: fragile, vain, just as harried by sour emotion as the rest of us. As long-time columnist “The Loafer” observed in the Guardian:

Novelists are expected to be guardians of culture and civilization, so when you see them rolling up their sleeves and thumping each other in print, it gives a kind of vicarious thrill and proves they’re just as short-tempered and vain as everyone else.

I can’t really say I miss literary feuds. After all, I’m too young to remember any. I do mourn the higher purpose such disputes once fulfilled, though. Feuds gave ordinary readers a sense of participation and fellow-feeling with the otherwise cloistered world of literary fiction.

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