10 Notorious Literary Spats


Patrick Kingsley recently wrote in The Guardian about “poisonous literary feuds” and the peacemakers who could broker a truce. We ran a post on the subject last year, but thought we would do an international list of troublemakers this time around. We’d also like to honor the man who racked up the most hours feuding with his literary colleagues: Norman Mailer. Writers today generally aren’t as venomous toward each other (although maybe Colson Whitehead would disagree after his salivary encounter with Richard Ford). We have to agree with Mailer’s proclamation on The Dick Cavett Show: “I’m going to be the champ until one of you knocks me off.”

Colson Whitehead vs. Richard Ford

In 2002, Whitehead gave us a hilarious and scathing review of A Multitude of Sins in The New York Times. He writes, “The characters’ sense of befuddlement comes to infect, but never to enlighten, the reader.” He later notes, “At the top of the story, the protagonist offers an Awkward Pang of Simmering Dissatisfaction, which sounds suspiciously like the A.P.S.D. offered by the character in the previous story.” For this, Richard Ford spit on him at a Poets & Writers party. Afterward, Whitehead said, “This wasn’t the first time some old coot had drooled on me, and it probably won’t be the last. But I would like to warn the many other people who panned the book that they might want to get a rain poncho, in case of inclement Ford.”

Jennifer Egan vs. Jennifer Weiner

This past April, Egan got into hot water after an interview with Julie Steinberg in the Wall Street Journal where she derides chick lit authors. Egan said, “There was that scandal with the Harvard student who was found to have plagiarized. But she had plagiarized very derivative, banal stuff. This is your big first move? These are your models?” Weiner, author of Best Friends Forever, tweeted, “Agh. Did Egan really have to pause, mid-victory lap, to call Kinsella, McCafferty ‘derivative and banal?'” Egan has since apologized.

Stephen King vs. James Patterson

After accepting a lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Booksellers Association, King said, “I don’t like him, I don’t respect his books because every one is the same.” Patterson later replied, “Recently Stephen King commented that he doesn’t have any respect for me. Doesn’t make too much sense — I’m a good dad, a nice husband — my only crime is I’ve sold millions of books.”

Derek Walcott vs. V.S. Naipaul

In his book, A Writer’s People, Naipaul wrote that Walcott “went stale,” and “exhausted the first flush of his talent.” Walcott then wrote “The Mongoose,” a poem about Naipaul, which begins: “I have been bitten, I must avoid infection/Or else I’ll be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction.” A later part asserts: “The plots are forced, the prose sedate and silly/The anti-hero is a prick named Willie.”

Mary McCarthy vs. Lillian Hellman

In 1979, McCarthy made an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, saying that Hellman was ”tremendously overrated, a bad writer, and a dishonest writer.” She continued, “I said once in some interview that every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.'” For these words, Hellman brought a $2.5 million lawsuit against McCarthy for her slanderous statements, but died before it was brought to trial. Evidently their feud had begun years earlier at a poetry seminar at Sarah Lawrence college.

Dale Peck vs. Rick Moody

In the The New Republic, Peck began his review of The Black Veil: A Memoir With Digressions by stating, “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.” He continues, “I apologize for the abruptness of this declaration, its lack of nuance, of any meaning besides the intuitive; but as I made my way through Moody’s oeuvre during the past few months I was unable to come up with any other starting point for a consideration of his accomplishment.” Years later, Moody hit him in the face with a pie, and presumably all was forgiven.

Salman Rushdie vs. John Updike

When Updike panned Shalimar the Clown in The New Yorker in 2005, Rushdie had had it. Updike asks, “Why, oh why, did Salman Rushdie…call one of his major characters Maxmilian Ophuls?” He continues, “Readers of this review will be spared, as the reviewer was not, the maddening exercise of trying to overlay Rushdie’s Ophuls with the historical one.” Rushdie sardonically replied in The Guardian, “Somewhere in Las Vegas there’s probably a male prostitute called ‘John Updike.’”

The Great Male Novelists vs. Tom Wolfe

John Irving wrote about A Man in Full: “If I were teaching fucking freshman English, I couldn’t read that and not just carve it up.” John Updike reviewed the novel in the New Yorker, writing, “A Man in Full still amounts to entertainment, not literature, even literature in a modest aspirant form.” Norman Mailer wrote about the Southern author: “There is something silly about a man who wears a white suit all the time, especially in New York.” In the New York Review of Books, he began a vicious critique of A Man in Full by first querying, “Is one encountering a major novel or a major best seller?” He continues, “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.”

Wolfe responded by writing a now famous essay on the trio called “My Three Stooges.”

Norman Mailer vs. Gore Vidal

In 1971, Mailer and Vidal duked it out on The Dick Cavett Show, with Janet Flanner (aka Genet) weighing in periodically. Mailer to Vidal: “I’ve had to smell your works from time to time and that has made me an expert in intellectual pollution.” Dick Cavett later asks, “Perhaps you’d like two chairs to contain your giant intellect?”

Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa

These two had an incredibly long-running feud, which even got physical once in a Mexican cinema, but the Colombian and Peruvian novelists were able to patch things up in the end. Vargas Llosa’s prologue will be included in the 40th anniversary edition of García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. There are some happy endings at least, no?