The 10 Grumpiest Authors in Literary History


The new art issue of The Believer features, among many treats, an excellent interview with the late Maurice Sendak by author Emma Brockes, who visited him in his home. His “legendary crossness,” she writes “was really just impatience with artifice… ‘I refuse to lie to children,’ [Sendak] said. ‘I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.’ There was no roughness in his delivery. It was spiked with merriment.” Indeed, the best grumps are the ones who take some joy at their own crotchety-ness, or who at least have a sense of humor about it. Inspired (again, always) by Sendak’s joyful curmudgeonry, and since we’ve already given you the rundown on our grumpiest living writers, we’ve rounded up a list of the all-time grumpiest authors who are no longer with us. Read about them after the jump, and add any we’ve missed in the comments!

Maurice Sendak

The gloriously grumpy Sendak made our list of the grumpiest living writers back in April, but since then, he has alas achieved his “yummy death” and left us to our own devices. The entire Believer interview shows off his honest, particular worldview, but just for a taste, here’s what he said about Terry Gross after her NPR interview with him: “The only thing she said wrong was that her favorite interviews had been me and that stupid fucking writer. Salman Rushdie, that flaccid fuckhead. He reviewed me on a full page in the New York Times, my book Dear Mili. He hated it. He is detestable. I called up the Ayatollah, nobody knows that. What else shall we talk about?” So very many things.

Gore Vidal

“Speaking as his current book editor of record,” Gerald Howard commented on our original post, “I’m sorry not to see Gore Vidal and his magnificent and murderously witty spleen in this round-up.” Well, he was right: a gross oversight. We now include him here, another great writer recently lost, and another deliciously acerbic wit bubbling over with opinions on everything. For an excellent example of Vidal’s grumpiness in action, just watch this video.

Norman Mailer

Speaking of Gore Vidal, here’s what fellow grump Norman Mailer had to say to him on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971: “I’ve had to smell your works from time to time and that has made me an expert in intellectual pollution.” That’s separate from the time Mailer punched him at a party. Yipes. Pugnacious as all get-out and smarter than everyone else to boot, you really know you’re at the top of the grumpy old man list when magazines are putting together your All-Time Enemies List and you can only barely count the entrants on both hands.

Gertrude Stein

“If you can’t say anything nice about anyone else, come sit next to me,” Stein famously quipped. This we would very much like to do. More important as a tastemaker and artistic gatekeeper than as a writer in her own right, she labelled herself a genius, dominated every room, and stared down Ernest Hemingway in more ways than one.

Thomas Bernhard

Berhard is a famous ranter, constantly raising his voice against his country, the culture, life, the universe and everything. Upon being presented with an Austrian national award in 1968, Berhard shrugged, “Everything is ridiculous, when one thinks of Death,” causing some minor public outrage. In his memoir, he wrote, “I did not want to be anything, and naturally I did not want to turn myself into a mere profession: all I ever wanted was to be myself.” That, at least, he was in spades.

Dorothy Parker

These days, Parker is known primarily for her acerbic wit and willingness to use it against anyone and everyone. “And it is that word ‘hummy,’ my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up,” ran her “Constant Reader” review of A.A. Milne’s classic. But she was as likely to turn her ever-raised eyebrow at herself. When asked by the Paris Review if she drew on her past for material she scoffed, “All those writers who write about their childhood! Gentle God, if I wrote about mine you wouldn’t sit in the same room with me.” When pressed on the “source of most of [her] work,” she shrugged, “Need of money, dear.” We can picture the frustrated interviewer now.

Vladimir Nabokov

Like Sendak, Nabokov is a grump in the most charming of ways. He was quick to disparage the works of contemporary writers he didn’t care for (“Many accepted authors simply do not exist for me. Their names are engraved on empty graves, their books are dummies, they are complete nonentities insofar as my taste in reading is concerned.”), but less free with his praise of authors he enjoyed (“There are several such writers, but I shall not name them. Anonymous pleasure hurts nobody.”). Perhaps our favorite grumpy quote of his comes from the same Paris Review interview as the previous two, when the interviewer asked if an editor ever had valuable advice to offer him: “By ‘editor’ I suppose you mean proofreader. Among these I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honor — which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to ‘make suggestions’ which I countered with a thunderous ‘stet!'”

Patricia Highsmith

The prolific author of some of the best psychological thrillers ever was, perhaps not surprisingly, a rather misanthropic sort. “My imagination functions much better when I don’t have to speak to people,” she famously remarked, and from what we’ve read, it seems as though other people functioned better when they didn’t have to speak to her. She also kept pet snails, which strikes us somehow as a wonderfully grumpy pursuit.

Charles Bukowski

Like any professional grump, Bukowski called everything as he saw it — no filter attached. He was an expert at both celebrating his culture and disparaging it, poking holes in his fellow men but then reassuring them in was basically okay. In a letter to Steven Richmond he once wrote, “LSD, yeah, the big parade – everybody’s doin’ it now. Take LSD, then you are a poet, an intellectual. What a sick mob. I am building a machine gun in my closet now to take out as many of them as I can before they get me.”

Christopher Hitchens

As much or more than anyone else on this list, Hitchens made a living on his grumpiness (and his striking intelligence, of course). In 1993, he wrote, “For a lot of people, their first love is what they’ll always remember. For me it’s always been the first hate, and I think that hatred, though it provides often rather junky energy, is a terrific way of getting you out of bed in the morning and keeping you going. If you don’t let it get out of hand, it can be canalized into writing. In this country where people love to be nonjudgmental when they can be, which translates as, on the whole, lenient, there are an awful lot of bubble reputations floating around that one wouldn’t be doing one’s job if one didn’t itch to prick.” Well, we’re glad someone did it.