5 of the Best Literary Frenemy Pairings


Writers can be fickle and strange. One day they’re blurbing a book, the next night they’re off at some party talking trash about the author they endorsed. Some will spend their days teaching new writers, then turn around and talk about how literature is dying. Some publicly denounce writers they consider good friends, then have dinner with them the next night. The literary frenemy is a very real thing, and it’s existed for as long as what we call the “literary world.”

When two writers meet, love, hate, sex, and professional jealousy can all get mixed into a potent stew, leaving observers — and even, often, the writers themselves — to wonder whether they like or hate each other. Since this weekend brings the birthdays of two great writers who knew a thing or two about literary frenemies, Mary McCarthy and Jean-Paul Sartre, we figured we’d take a look at a few of our favorite poisonous writer pals.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus

Two of the most well-known European post-war intellectuals, Camus and Sartre would both write plays and novels, win Nobel Prizes, and go on to have their names mispronounced by American college students long after their deaths. They were friends who always considered each other rivals, but Spiegel explains why they parted ways in 1952:

Sartre or Camus? Should we hope for a better world in the distant future at the price of accepting state terror? The revolutionary mass politics espoused by Sartre in the name of Marxism would seem to contain this tradeoff. Or should we refuse to sacrifice people for an ideal, as Camus’ humanist principles required?

But as it often happens, Sartre ended up missing his old frenemy after he perished in a car accident in 1960:

Fifteen years later, and five years before his death, Sartre, 70, was asked again in an interview for Les Temps Modernes about his relationship to Camus. His answer: Camus was “probably my last good friend.

Mary McCarthy and Dwight Macdonald

McCarthy could have made this list with, really, any of the public intellectuals she parodied in The Oasis. But unlike her former lover and Partisan Review founder Philip Rahv, Dwight “Masscult and Midcult” Macdonald didn’t threaten to sue her for the book, and was probably far more affable when they bumped into each other at cocktail parties.

Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald

Looking back on it, these two American literary titans from the first half of the 20th century didn’t have all that much in common. Hemingway always seemed like the bullying type, while Fitzgerald was the more talented of the two, possibly a little drunker, and less combative. That’s probably why Hemingway would go on to paint a less-than-flattering image of Jay Gatsby’s creator in A Moveable Feast.

Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis

It’s such a shock that Hitchens and Amis — two of England’s best-known and most controversial writers and public intellectuals — would have a public spat. It began when Amis, in his book Koba the Dread, accused many on the British left of turning a blind eye to the crimes of Joseph Stalin. Not surprisingly, the whole thing spilled over into the pages of newspapers. The two eventually hugged it out.

Norman Mailer and just about everybody

Here’s the thing about the great genius/moron/often great/sometimes awful/misogynist/blowhard who had a pretty long list public altercations: you just know he was bumping into some of these people away from the public eye. There was a good 40 years when you couldn’t attend a big New York literary function and not run into Mailer. All you could do was be polite and hope for the best.