Books Quarterly: Liar! Swine! Pervert! And Other Terms of Endearment

This season's literary brawls extend a proud tradition.

Maybe it's just that their words are more memorable, their lives command greater scrutiny, their arguments resonate more deeply than those of ordinary people—but writers do seem to expend an inordinate amount of time and energy fighting, especially with each other. Think of Alexander Pope devoting years of his career to an epic of venom, The Dunciad, in honor of forgotten poet laureate and archdunce Colley Cibber: "Nonsense precipitate, like running lead, slipp'd thro' cracks and zigzags of the head." Keats, according to a nasty rumor spread by Byron, died of a bad review. Even the sainted Eudora Welty dreamed of poisoning the young, annoyingly successful Carson McCullers. In the literary season just past, the fights have been far more interesting than the books. First, Paul Theroux publishes a volume-length hate letter to his old friend and mentor V.S. Naipaul. Then the avuncular John Updike punctures the media bubble surrounding Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full ("entertainment, not literature, even literature in a modest aspirant form"). Finally, neo conservative editor and pundit Norman Podhoretz brings out the enchantingly titled Ex-Friends and recounts with grave relish how he "fell out" with such eminent liberal cronies as Lionel Trilling, Norman Mailer, and Hannah Arendt. What a winter for bile! But if our current crop strikes you as cantankerous, consider these great literary brawls from decades past: On February 19, 1936, the 57-year-old poet/insurance company executive Wallace Stevens, on vacation in Key West, found himself at the same party as Ernest Hemingway. Gray, portly, distinguished looking, and also quite drunk, Stevens swaggered over to the alpha male novelist, 20 years his junior, and demanded, "You think you're Ernest Hemingway?"—just the kind of interrogative one would expect from a poet obsessed all his life with the relationship between reality and the imagination. Hemingway chose the most obvious interpretation and squared himself for combat. Stevens threw a punch. Hemingway told him to go sober up. Stevens refused. And there ensued a good old-fashioned bare-handed fistfight on a nearby dock. Considering his age and lack of pugilistic practice, Stevens gave Hemingway a run for his money—but the novelist prevailed. Stevens broke his hand in two places on the great granite jaw and limped back to his hotel with a black eye and a bruised face, which he later claimed, in a supreme fiction, had resulted from a fall down the stairs. The two writers subsequently shook hands and agreed to forget the whole affair, but it bothered Hemingway that Stevens asked him to go along with the story about the stairs. According to Hemingway biographer Jeffrey Meyers, this lie was the inspiration for a similar bit of deception in the story "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" that Hemingway wrote around this time. Edmund Wilson, who styled himself America's last great man of letters, and Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov fell out, naturally enough, over words. The intense, and intensely cerebral, friendship between the two multilingual polymaths commenced soon after Nabokov's arrival in the United States in 1940 and flowed along smoothly for a couple of decades. They shared a love of Russian literature, and they delighted in each other's quirks—Nabokov's passion for lepidoptery, Wilson's talent for magician's tricks. "Edmund was always in a state of joy when Vladimir appeared," declared Mary McCarthy, who was married to Wilson when the friendship began; "he loved him." (McCarthy precipitated a celebrated literary feud of her own when she declared on the Dick Cavett show in 1980 that Lillian Hellman was a "dishonest writer" and that "every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'") But even in the first flush there was a wary, competitive edge to the Wilson-Nabokov friendship. Wilson couldn't abide Nabokov's habit of reviling renowned writers—Balzac, Dostoevsky, Mann—while celebrating his own incomparable genius. In 1945 Wilson wrote Nabokov a letter accusing him of "insatiable and narcissistic vanity," and a decade later he couldn't bother to finish reading Lolita in manuscript, much less comment on it. Then, in 1965, Wilson took his mounting peevishness public in the New York Review of Books with an all-out assault on Nabokov's eccentric translation of Eugene Onegin. Wilson criticized his old friend for perversity, obscurity, awkwardness, cruelty ("he seeks to torture both the reader and himself"), and most unforgivably, accused him of faulty command of Russian grammar and vocabulary. Nabokov was thunderstruck, and there ensued the ritual exchange of outraged letters to the editor, counterletters, and nervous gossip. Though Nabokov wrote off Wilson as "an envious ass," Wilson, who loved a good brawl, sent the Russian a Christmas card in 1966 insisting that he had "rarely enjoyed anything so much" as "our controversy." But Nabokov was not mollified. The friendship was over. The ever-provocative Norman Mailer knew that "women's libbers" would go after him in 1971 when he published his snarling broadside at feminists and feminism, The Prisoner of Sex, but he didn't expect to be slapped by Gore Vidal as well. Germaine Greer (The Female Eunuch) led the feminist charge in a debate with Mailer held in New York City's Town Hall in May. Arriving in a slinky black dress and trailing a BBC television crew, Greer turned up the heat by making it known that she wanted to go to bed with Mailer afterwards. The debate itself degenerated into a kind of sniping, public foreplay. Greer attacked the "masculine artist in our society" as "a killer," and Mailer dismissed her remarks as "diaper Marxism." Greer got more applause, Mailer bigger laughs. Later they repaired to a party but apparently never made it into bed. Four months later, Vidal and Mailer tangled on the Dick Cavett show. Vidal had already savaged The Prisoner of Sex in the New York Review of Books ("Mailer's thoughts on sex read like three days of menstrual flow"), and Mailer was itching for revenge. The two writers came to blows, literally, in the green room: when Vidal placed a hand gently on Mailer's neck, Mailer, who admits he was drunk, tapped Vidal's cheek, whereupon Vidal slapped Mailer's face, which incited Mailer to deliver one of his trademark head butts. The televised segment of the fight was basically a pissing contest—Mailer: "You pollute the intellectual rivers"; Vidal: "What I detest in you [is] your love of murder." Mailer came off looking like a blustering idiot, Vidal like a clever snob. The media fanned the flames for months afterwards, but in 1991 the two agreed (for a price) to make up in a joint interview published in Esquire. "It was a stupid feud in a lot of ways," Mailer conceded. Ishmael Reed and Alice Walker also fell out over gender issues. Their feud began when Reed went on the Today show in 1986 to lash out at the portrayal of black men in The Color Purple (he was talking about the Steven Spielberg movie based on Walker's novel, though the distinction got lost in the heat of the fray). Reed, a wicked satirist (Mumbo Jumbo, Reckless Eyeballing), subsequently published an essay called "Steven Spielberg Plays Howard Beach" in which he vented his spleen at Walker for her description of black men as "evil" and at feminists and "womanists" in general. "My problem is with this cult around Alice Walker," Reed told an interviewer. "It's dangerous because it gives her immunity from criticism." Walker, perhaps unwisely, left the rebuttal to members of her "cult," who promptly organized a boycott of Reed's books. But eventually, they, too, kissed and made up—sort of—at a dinner honoring Salman Rushdie. Reed, though publicly respectful of Walker, remains unrepentant about what he calls the "Men Stink" writing churned out by contemporary feminists. The fighting spirit of Alexander Pope lives on. David Laskin has also written about literary friendship, in A Common Life: Four Generations of American Literary Friendship and Influence.

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow