Words hurt. No one knows this more than a writer. The power that a malicious comment can have is exponentially stronger than any punch to the face. Cruel words worm their way into your psyche, establish themselves deep inside, and remain hidden, lying in wait should you ever doubt yourself again, then striking at your confidence over and over until you are utterly defeated. The potential for damage that words contain is immeasurable. But the damage of a fist is finite. Bruises heal. Split lips mend. Maybe this is why so many writers have been been notoriously pugilistic, even if only when drunk. After all, writers, more than anyone know that a punch can land but not linger, whereas words last forever. Or maybe writers the reason writers are so prone to fisticuffs is just the alcohol. Anyway. None of that is to say that writers don't insult each other through words. They do. Obviously they do. And when they do? The insults are of such a singular and cutting nature that it would be a shame not to honor the perverse cruelty of the author-to-author insult. Here are ten of my favorites.
Ayn Rand to C.S. Lewis
Rand, author of The Fountainhead detested Lewis, author of the Narnia Chronicles, and felt that he was a "cheap, awful, miserable, touchy, social-metaphysical mediocrity.” Which, sure. It makes sense that Rand would hate Lewis, whose philosophies on religion and politics were antithetical toward her own. But it was a pleasant surprise to see that Rand—whose talent as a writer is questionable at best—could come up with the perfectly worded insults that she did. It was hard to choose just one, but the following is my favorite.
"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!"
William Faulkner to Ernest Hemingway
These two authors couldn't have had more disparate backgrounds, proclivities, temperaments, or writing styles, so you'd think that maybe, rather than disparaging each other, they could just accept the fact that, well, different strokes for different folks. You'd be wrong though, because, just like everyone else, writers like to pick on those who are different from them and yet wildly successful. While there was a great deal of enmity between the two men, though, they did have a grudging admiration for one another, Hemingway once wrote of Faulkner, "How beautifully he can write and as simple and as complicated as autumn or as spring." But enough with the compliments! On to the insults. The following is a barbed exchange between Faulkner and Hemingway. I like to imagine that each insult was followed by one of their friends exclaiming "Oh snap!" but that probably didn't happen.
Faulkner wrote of Hemingway: "He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary."
And the response? "Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?"
Vladimir Nabokov to Ernest Hemingway
Everybody loved to tear down Hemingway. Actually, Nabokov was famous for tearing apart lots of writers that others canonized. On Dostoevsky: "Dostoevsky is not a great writer, but a rather mediocre one-with flashes of excellent humor, but, alas, with wastelands of literary platitudes in between." I mean, the man had strong opinions, you know? But his put-down of Hemingway is harsh and dismissive. The perfect, stinging criticism.
"As to Hemingway, I read him for the first time in the early 'forties, something about bells, balls and bulls, and loathed it."
Gore Vidal to Norman Mailer
Vidal and Mailer both had feuds with lots of people. Mailer's feuds frequently descended into physical altercations, and, in fact, it was following one such altercation that Vidal got in the perfect insult. Vidal had frequently insulted Mailer, even comparing him to Charles Manson, and they came to blows on more than one occasion, but it was after Mailer had punched Vidal in the face at a party that VIdal, from the floor mind you, came up with this zinger.
"As usual, words fail him."
Charlotte Brontë to Jane Austen
This is a literary feud that I wouldn't have necessarily realized existed. I mean, who thinks of Charlotte Brontë when the topic of witty insults comes up? I had no idea until recently that she was basically the Dorothy Parker of the Victorian era. But she is. Well, ok, maybe not Dorothy Parker at all, but still. Way harsh, Char. Here she is on the topic of Jane Austen.
"Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point. What induced you to say that you would rather have written 'Pride and Prejudice'...than any of the Waverly novels? I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses."
Norman Mailer to Tom Wolfe
It would be wrong to think of Mailer as being combative only with his fists. He also wielded a penknife with a pretty sure hand. But, of course, he was also incisive with his insults, as you can clearly see below.
Mailer said reading A Man In Full was like having sex with an obese woman: "At certain points, reading the work can even be said to resemble the act of making love to a three-hundred pound woman. Once she gets on top, it's over. Fall in love, or be asphyxiated. So you read and you grab and you even find delight in some of these mounds of material. Yet all the while you resist — how you resist! — letting three hundred pounds take you over."
Mary McCarthy to JD Salinger
McCarthy was known for her lacerating takedowns. Perhaps her most famous is this one about author Lillian Hellman: "every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'." But this cutting criticism of JD Salinger is particularly harsh because it narrows in on every author's greatest fear, namely, that they are not only egomaniacal, but also that they have nothing to be vain about. Ouch.
"I don't like Salinger, not at all. That last thing [ Franny and Zooey] isn't a novel anyway, whatever it is. I don't like it. Not at all. It suffers from this terrible sort of metropolitan sentimentality and it's so narcissistic. And to me, also, it seemed so false, so calculated. Combining the plain man with an absolutely megalomaniac egotism. I simply can't stand it."
Virginia Woolf to James Joyce
There are some authors, and some books, that seem completely untouchable. James Joyce might not quite fall under that category as a writer (even Nabokov, who adored "Ulysses" found "Finnegan's Wake" unreadable) but his novel "Ulysses" is one of the most highly praised works of fiction of all time. However, that wasn't good enough for Virginia Woolf, who had this to say on the topic.
"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."
Salman Rushdie to John Updike
Neither of these writers is unfamiliar with being critiqued, but, my did Rushdie get all worked up when Updike didn't like his novel "Shalimar the Clown." Rushdie lashed out at Updike in a way that was, I'm sure, gratifying for everyone who loathes Updike for the exact reasons that Rushdie points out, but it was also probably confusing because, generally, those who dislike Updike don't feel too warmly toward Rushdie either. Anyway, here's what was said:
"Somewhere in Las Vegas there's probably a male prostitute called ‘John Updike’... [Updike should] stay in his parochial neighborhood and write about wife-swapping, because it's what he can do."
Bret Easton Ellis to David Foster Wallace
Does it really count as an insult if the intended recipient is dead? I guess so. It seems like somewhat of a Pyrrhic victory, though, to insult the dead. Or, rather, the opposite of a Pyrrhic victory, because Ellis has already won, by virtue of still being alive. But then also maybe he's lost by virtue of being Bret Easton Ellis? Hard to say. Anyway, here's a barb that he threw at David Foster Wallace last year via twitter.
"David Foster Wallace was so needy, so conservative, so in need of fans—that I find the halo of sentimentality surrounding him embarrassing."
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen