15 Cruelest Author-To-Author Insults

Oct. 9, 2013
Cody Delistraty is a writer who lives in Paris and New York. Follow him on Twitter.

Writers are too polite these days. They seem to be trying to channel a prim-and-proper Henry James character or reflect with a Joyce-level seriousness before they act. I, for one, miss the glory days. The days of author-to-author zingers that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are no doubt still shaking their heads about to this day. The days where Flaubert would call George Sand, “a great cow full of ink” or Gore Vidal would refer to Truman Capote as “a full-fledged housewife from Kansas.” Everyone has an opinion. It’s just that authors are particularly well-equipped to provide theirs.

Recently, Harold Bloom got a jab in on J.K. Rowling, rhetorically asking, “How to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? Why, very quickly, to begin with, and perhaps also to make an end. Why read it? Presumably, if you cannot be persuaded to read anything better, Rowling will have to do.” Now, that’s not too cool (who hates on J.K.?). But what it does show is that unnecessary, cruel literary criticism isn’t yet dead. I couldn’t imagine authors one day deciding to become nice people. They’re much too entertaining.

1. Ernest Hemingway on William Faulkner

“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”

2. Elizabeth Bishop on J.D. Salinger

“I hated [Catcher in the Rye]. It took me days to go through it, gingerly, a page at a time, and blushing with embarrassment for him every ridiculous sentence of the way. How can they let him do it?”

3. Truman Capote on Jack Kerouac

“That’s not writing, that’s typing.”

4. Lord Byron on John Keats

“Here are Johnny Keats’ piss-a-bed poetry, and three novels by God knows whom… No more Keats, I entreat: flay him alive; if some of you don’t I must skin him myself: there is no bearing the driveling idiotism of the Mankin.”

5. Vladimir Nabokov on Joseph Conrad

“I cannot abide Conrad’s souvenir shop style and bottled ships and shell necklaces of romanticist clichés.”

6. Ralph Waldo Emerson on Jane Austen

“Miss Austen’s novels… seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow. The one problem in the mind of the writer… is marriageableness.”

7. Mark Twain on Jane Austen

“I haven’t any right to criticize books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

8. Oscar Wilde on Alexander Pope

“There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope.”

9. W. H. Auden on Robert Browning

“I don’t think Robert Browning was very good in bed. His wife probably didn’t care for him very much. He snored and had fantasies about twelve-year-old girls.”

10. Martin Amis on Miguel Cervantes

“Reading Don Quixote can be compared to an indefinite visit from your most impossible senior relative, with all his pranks, dirty habits, unstoppable reminiscences, and terrible cronies. When the experience is over, and the old boy checks out at last, you will shed tears all right; not tears of relief or regret but tears of pride. You made it, despite all that Don Quixote could do.”

11. D.H. Lawrence on Herman Melville (1923)

“Nobody can be more clownish, more clumsy and sententiously in bad taste, than Herman Melville, even in a great book like Moby Dick… One wearies of the grand serieux. There’s something false about it. And that’s Melville. Oh dear, when the solemn ass brays! brays! brays!”

12. Ayn Rand on C.S. Lewis

“The lousy bastard who is a pickpocket of concepts, not a thief, which is too big a word for him…This monstrosity is not opposed to science — oh no! — not to pure science, only to applied science, only to anything that improves man’s life on earth!”

13. Henry James on Edgar Allan Poe

“An enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.”

14. Samuel Butler on Goethe

“I have been reading a translation of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister. Is it good? To me it seems perhaps the very worst book I ever read. No Englishman could have written such a book. I cannot remember a single good page or idea… I am glad I have never taken the trouble to learn German.”

15. Virginia Woolf to James Joyce

“I dislike Ulysses more and more — that is, I think it more and more unimportant; and don’t even trouble conscientiously to make out its meanings. Thank God, I need not write about it.” TC mark

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