Recently, we stumbled upon an article over at Open Letters Monthly that asked, “Is Cormac McCarthy a Terrible Writer?” The author, Rohan Maitzen, discusses McCarthy’s particular prose style in The Road, which has been celebrated by some and roundly reviled by others. We’ve always been interested in the idea that many of the greatest writers also seem to have the greatest detractors, so to explore further, we’ve rounded up a few of the most divisive authors in recent history — whether they’re controversial for their ideas, their prose style, or their topics. Dive into the fray after the jump, and continue the conversation in the comments.
Maitzen’s piece republishes several critical opinions both for and against the proposition that McCarthy’s prose, specifically in The Road, is skillful. The pool of people that this reviewer has spoken to about the novel are equally split. Similarly, we’d guess that for every person who claims Blood Meridian to be one of the greatest contemporary novels, there’s another who thinks it a barren wasteland of boring scalping. Is this just a hallmark of interesting prose, or is it a sign of general misguidedness? Our money’s on the former, but we’ll hear you out.
In our experience, nothing blows up a comments section more than a mention of Ayn Rand — those who love her, love her, and assume that anyone who doesn’t has either skipped or misread her books. Those who despise her, despise her with equal fervor. If you need help figuring out where you stand, consider this: Ayn Rand is the reason Paul Ryan got into politics, and Obama thinks she’s only really appropriate for teens who feel misunderstood. For the record, we’re officially in the latter camp.
L. Ron Hubbard
Some might consider the fact that a sci-fi pulp novelist founded a religion to be a red flag — others apparently do not think that one has any bearing on the other. Hubbard, author of some 500 fantasy and sci-fi novels and short stories, sparked a never-ending worldwide controversy with his creation of Scientology, a religion that posits that the human soul is in fact an immortal alien trapped in flesh. Hey, at least his work is thematically consistent.
New York magazine recently described Roth as “possibly the most prolific, probably the most distinguished, and certainly the most debated career in postwar American fiction. Roth was never just a novelist to readers but an iconoclast and narcissist, a Jewish cultural hero (villain to some), a (probable) misogynist, a literary celebrity who folded his own life into novels like they were tabloids (or metafictions?)…” Indeed, not only can we not stop arguing about Roth, we can’t stop talking about why we can’t stop arguing about him. That’s what happens when you throw political correctness out the window.
Stephen King may be a popular book-world darling, but that’s exactly why some people can’t stomach him. After all, as Oscar Wilde said, “everything popular is wrong.” Or at least that’s how some critics feel. Last year, a small whirlwind of controversy emerged over various critical perspectives on the horror writer, neatly summed up by Scott Beauchamp in the article “Should You Feel Bad About Reading Stephen King?” It’s all part of the larger and ongoing tug-of-war of literary standards — who’s a snob, who isn’t, and what does it all mean?
The recently deceased political and cultural essayist Christopher Hitchens had very pointed opinions and a very strong way of wording things. Confrontational, even. Willing to viciously attack Mother Teresa. Not everyone appreciated this about him. This writer has had numerous arguments with a close friend who balked at Hitchens because he found him to be “too much of a dick to listen to, even if I agree.” Then there are those who revel in Hitchens’s strong language, ourselves included. As for the people on the other side of the issue, well, we think that whole dynamic probably speaks for itself.
Sheila Heti’s semi-autobiographical semi-novel How Should a Person Be? was one of the most talked-about books of last year — both for good and for ill, with its detractors bemoaning it as a herald of disintegrating culture at large and its adherents holding it up as a new art form. Of particular interest: Michelle Dean’s article at Slate about “Why smart, serious men have misunderstood Sheila Heti’s new book,” which probably drummed up close to as much discussion as the book itself. At least no one felt lukewarm about it.
As you probably know, Rushdie is divisive on a global scale — after all, as celebrated as he might be in some parts of the world, there is that entire country with a death warrant on his head. And lest you imagine that the fatwa danger has calmed and that the real impetus of Rushdie’s controversy is his sordid, Twitter-driven affairs with beautiful women, don’t forget that the reward for Rushdie’s death was raised by $500,000 last year. That’s some serious divisiveness.
It seems that the same things that attract fans to Chuck Palahniuk — his penchant for satirical horror, his relish for the taboo, his full-throttle graphic gross outs — also alienate people in droves. Are you a Palahniuk person or aren’t you? It’s something everyone has to decide for themselves.
Oh, Kerouac. You either love him or you hate him (this distinction may have something to do with whether you’re a teenager — but not reliably). Capote, famously, hated him (“That’s not writing, that’s typing,” etc.) The 1957 New York Times loved him (“its publication is a historic occasion in so far as the exposure of an authentic work of art is of any great moment in an age in which the attention is fragmented and the sensibilities are blunted by the superlatives of fashion”), and though On the Road has become a classic, no one’s been able to come to any consensus since.