f the reason academic arguments are waged at a pitch of such high intensity is that the stakes are so low, the reason writers are so disputatious with other writers is that they cannot abide rivals. The famously ill-tempered Evelyn Waugh set out some of the reasons for this when he wrote: “Humility is not a virtue propitious to the artist. It is often pride, emulation, avarice, malice—all the odious qualities—which drive a man to complete, elaborate, refine, destroy, renew, his work until he has made something that gratifies his pride and envy and greed.”
In the realm of reputation, no writer feels justice has been done him, while he is equally certain many of his contemporaries have been unjustly praised and rewarded. A black day it is for most writers when prizes, grants, awards are announced and they are not among the recipients. “Don’t call Saul [Bellow] this morning,” my friend Edward Shils said to me one day. “The Nobel Prize for literature has been announced this morning, and he didn’t win it a second time.” Clive James’s most memorable poem, “The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered,” nicely captures the spirit of schadenfreude prevalent among writers.
Physicians, scientists, lawyers, businessmen may be as rivalrous as writers—classical musicians, I’m told, are even more so—but they usually do not possess the particular skills that make malice memorable. Writers have at their disposal the resources of language, which, when on the attack against rivals, lends an added sharp aftertaste to their innuendos, imprecations, invective, rancor, animosity, and simple viciousness.
Free-floating hostility is the ether in which most writers cavort. Often, though, this hostility neither floats nor is free, but is anchored and nicely aimed at a particular rival. Sometimes the rival is located across centuries, causing bad feeling to run one way only. Vladimir Nabokov never passed up a chance to speak ill of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, on the grounds of both his style and his ideas. Leo Tolstoy failed to understand what the fuss was about William Shakespeare, whose writing, unlike his own, had no unified vision nor sought any. Henri Troyat, one of Tolstoy’s biographers, recounts an afternoon when the grand old man was strolling on his estate Yasnaya Polyana with Anton Chekhov. He turned to the younger writer and said: “Anton Pavlovich, I admire your stories. No one admires your stories more than I. Write more stories, wonderful stories, imperishable stories. But your plays, Anton Pavlovich, really, your plays are worse even than Shakespeare.”
Saul Bellow was keenly aware of literary rivals and once told me he thought he was winning the literary public-relations derby over Norman Mailer and Robert Lowell.
For some writers, vengeance is a dish best served not cold but in print. Phillip Roth wrote an entire novel, The Anatomy Lesson, to repay a withering criticism of him in Commentary by Irving Howe; in the novel Howe is called Milton Appel and is described as “President of the Rabbinical Society for the Suppression of Laughter in the Interest of Loftier Values.” In yet another novel, I Married a Communist, Roth attempted to repay, with interest added, his former wife Claire Bloom for a memoir the actress wrote in which she accused him of hitting on her adolescent daughter’s girlfriends. W. Somerset Maugham took time out to trash his ex-wife, Syrie, and his stepdaughter, in his memoir Looking Back.
Saul Bellow never attacked fellow writers in his novels, saving his contumely for ex-wives—he was a veritable literary Bluebeard—and old friends he felt had let him down. Bellow was keenly aware of literary rivals and once, in the late 1970s, told me he thought he was winning the literary public-relations derby over Norman Mailer and Robert Lowell by steering clear of political pronunciamentos and keeping his own counsel. But he neither forgot nor forgave anyone who wrote critically about his novels.
In 1959 in Esquire, Mailer published an essay called “The Talent in the Room,” a catalogue of his fellow contemporary novelists. The gist of the essay is that there wasn’t much talent in that room. William Styron had “compromised himself.” Bellow wrote “in a style I find self-willed….I cannot take him seriously.” Jack Kerouac lacked “discipline, intelligence, honesty.” James Baldwin was “incapable of saying ‘F— you’ to the reader.” Mailer’s chief charge was that none of these writers had the literary panache of, yes, you will have guessed it, Norman Mailer. Many years later, Mailer told an interviewer that novelists were “as competitive as star athletes. Particularly the ones who break through into public renown.”
Richard Bradford, previously the author of a biography of Martin Amis, has taken up the subject of writerly combat in its various ramifications in a new book: Literary Rivals.1 Bradford holds that the difference between British and American literary rivalries is “the former often involved skulking and latent motives implied in writing, while, from behind the books, the author fomented politely in the real world. The vociferous nature of American writing, meanwhile, was reflected in the unrestrained virulence of its authors’ feuds.”
The British Bradford turns out to be better—more knowledgeable, subtler, smarter generally—on English than American literary rivalries. His book begins with several misbegotten pages on the post–World War II generation of American novelists, chiefly Mailer, Gore Vidal, and Truman Capote. Bradford believes that what put the pepper in their personalities was the failure of any of them to achieve that elusive holy grail, the Great American Novel. “No one,” he writes, “is agreed on what this epic behemoth involves, but it can best be regarded as an avenue for collective narcissism.” That all failed at this endeavor, he feels, bred an “all-pervasive spirit of rancor and animosity.”
Closer to the truth, I believe, to say that this generation of writers had men of belligerence and maliciousness who had the first access to television, and hence to celebrity. Mailer’s bumptiousness, with a slight threat of violence behind it, often made for good television; Capote, frequently appearing half in the tank on late-night television talk shows, was expert at attracting attention through scandalous gossip; and Vidal was sheer poison, with outdated snobbery added, and, given the chance, would have devised a put-down for a blind orphan. Immodest and ungenerous, none of these writers required failure at writing the Great American Novel to stoke his malice.
Bradford’s book contains chapters, some quite brief, on the bad feeling between Coleridge and Wordsworth, Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis, F.R. Leavis and C.P. Snow, the biographer Bevis Hillier and the novelist and critic A.N. Wilson, and (descending downward) McCarthy and Hellman. A chapter on Hemingway’s betrayals in print of Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson provide a portrait of poisoned feeling on the part of a writer who had achieved greater acclaim than those he attacked. In fact, in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway betrayed nearly everyone who ever helped him as a young man (Ezra Pound only excepted)—most cruelly F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose virility he mocked.
Not whole chapters but pages, sometimes a few paragraphs, are given over to the attacks of Mark Twain on Bret Harte, Tom Wolfe on John Irving, Norman Mailer on John Updike, Anthony Burgess on Somerset Maugham, Paul Theroux on V.S. Naipaul, and others. The book ends on a nugatory chapter on the row in the Islamic world over Salman Rushdie’s novel Satanic Verses.
Between chapters Bradford supplies examples, some famous, of writers casting aspersions—or asparagus, as I once heard a politician in Chicago’s City Council say—on one another. “Remarks are not literature,” Gertrude Stein once told Hemingway, though she neglected to add that they can be devastating nonetheless. Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, “that’s not writing, that’s typing.” Cyril Connolly remarked of Vita Sackville-West that “she looked like Lady Chatterley above the waist and the gamekeeper below.” Ruth Rendell commented that “to say that Agatha Christie’s characters are cardboard cut-outs is an insult to cardboard cut-outs.” In response to a harsh review by Tibor Fischer of his memoir Experience, Martin Amis said: “Tibor Fischer is a creep and a wretch. Oh yeah, and a fat arse.”
Bradford’s chapter on dueling among writers is centered on English figures, and thus misses what would have been the most consequential duel in all of literary history: the one that almost took place between Turgenev and Tolstoy. Their falling-out began with Tolstoy’s falling asleep while Turgenev read the manuscript pages of Fathers and Sons to him. Things heated up when Tolstoy insulted Turgenev’s method of raising his illegitimate daughter. They proceeded further when Turgenev, a large man, threatened to punch Tolstoy in the face. Tolstoy challenged Turgenev to a duel to the death, with pistols, which was only averted when days later both men calmed down. These events occurred in 1861, which means that if the duel had in fact taken place and Tolstoy were killed, the world would have been deprived of both War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877).
Thackeray quoted his daughter saying, ‘I like Mr. Dickens’s books much better than your books, Papa.’ The kid had it right, of course, and poor Thackeray, alas, knew it.
Between Richardson and Fielding personal rivalry was not at stake; they quarreled instead over the question of how best to depict human nature in literature. For Richardson, as set out in such novels as Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded (1740–41) and Clarissa (1747–48), moral instruction ought to be the primary concern of the novelist. For Fielding, as set out in Shamela (his novel-length parody of Richardson), Joseph Andrews (1742), Tom Jones (1749), and Amelia (1752), the rich variety, contradictoriness, and comedy of human emotions and motives ought to be the novel’s primary concern. Literary men divided on the question. Samuel Johnson was in the Richardson camp, James Boswell in Fielding’s. Fielding and Richardson, Bradford notes, never met. But Richardson harbored malevolent feelings toward Fielding, claiming that his portraits of whoremongerers and scenes of low life were purely autobiographical. Fielding, a cooler hand, wrote to congratulate Richardson on the artistic success of Clarissa and even recommended the book in the Jacobite’s Journal.
A more intense, because more personal, rivalry was the one between Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray. Here, Bradford reports, rivalrousness was less the cause than simple bad feeling on Dickens’s part for Thackeray. The feeling was generated by Dickens’s not entirely well-founded belief that Thackeray was helping to spread gossip about Dickens’s love affair with the young actress Ellen Ternan. Decades earlier, in 1836, Dickens had turned down Thackeray as an illustrator for The Pickwick Papers. Added to this, the two writers operated under the same differences of literary worldview separating Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding. Dickens, for all his dazzling brilliance, his comic genius, was a writer intent on reform. Thackeray was a writer more in the tradition of Fielding, one who, in Richard Bradford’s words, held that “the world in which we exist and apprehend can never be explained in terms of abstractions or ideals.” Bradford quotes a striking letter from Thackeray that in part reads: “He [Dickens] doesn’t like me—He knows that my books are a protest against his—that if the one set are true, the other must be false.” Thackeray himself, in a lecture, quoted his then 10-year-old daughter saying, “I like Mr. Dickens’s books much better than your books, Papa.” The kid had it right, of course, and poor Thackeray, alas, knew it.
Richard Bradford’s most interesting chapter is devoted to the public falling-out of Edmund Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov, ostensibly the result of Wilson’s 1965 attack in the New York Review of Books on Nabokov’s translation from the Russian of Alexander Pushkin’s 1825 novel-poem Eugene Onegin. Wilson’s friendship-ending sentence in that review read thus: “Since Mr. Nabokov is in the habit of introducing any job of this kind which he undertakes by an announcement that he is unique and incomparable and that everybody else who has attempted it is an oaf and an ignoramus, incompetent as a linguist and scholar, usually with the implication that he is also a low-class person and ridiculous personality, Nabokov ought not to complain if the reviewer, though trying not to imitate his bad literary manners, does not hesitate to underline his weaknesses.”
The argument between the two was presumably over Russian prosody, but the falling out, as Bradford recounts it, ran much deeper. “There was, I believe,” he writes, “another reason for the feud, one that neither of them referred to explicitly, but which lurks beneath the surface of their otherwise apparently trivial disagreements.” It was a fundamental disagreement between Wilson and Nabokov about Communism. Wilson wrote approvingly of Communism in To the Finland Station, his history of socialism with its happy ending provided by Lenin’s arriving at the Finland Station to lead the Bolshevik revolution. Nabokov suffered from Communism, personally and drastically, its cruelties having forced him, a Russian aristocrat, into permanent exile. Nabokov wasn’t above lecturing Wilson on the hollowness of Marxism and demeaning his portrait of Lenin (“No not even the magic of your style has made me like him…”) and pointing out the dangers of inflating the monstrous Lenin and his murderous career.
Seven years later, Wilson came back with an excoriating criticism of Nabokov’s political novel Bend Sinister. “You aren’t good at this kind of subject,” he wrote, “because you are totally uninterested in these matters and have never taken the trouble to understand them.” Wilson, who praised Leon Trotsky’s literary acumen, seems to have overlooked Trotsky’s cavalier denunciation of Nabokov’s beloved father in his History of the Russian Revolution, where he refers to the elder Nabokov (a liberal democrat in pre-revolutionary Russia) as “almost symbolic in his self-satisfied correctness and dry egotism.” The other possibility is that Wilson, who knew about this, was seeking revenge for Nabokov’s own animadversions about his politics.
Nabokov returned this volley with the high condescension of explaining to Wilson the difference between the czars’ unjust and inept government and the utterly crushing tactics of totalitarianism under the Bolsheviks. Difficult to imagine, as Bradford notes, that Edmund Wilson took kindly to being lectured to by a recent immigrant, especially one he had aided substantially when he first arrived in America by finding publishers and making other literary connections for him.
More than politics was entailed in the breakdown of this friendship. Wilson and Nabokov also had fundamental literary differences. A crucial element in this disagreement Bradford finds in one of the stories in Wilson’s Memoirs of Hecate County, “The Princess with the Golden Hair,” which has some of the most cringe-inducing writing about sex on record. The story also has a narrator of extravagant cultural pretensions. Nabokov called Wilson’s descriptions of sex anti-aphrodisiacal: “I should as soon have tried to open a sardine can with my penis.” However perverse its theme, in Lolita, Nabokov, Bradford reminds us, never describes the sex between Humbert Humbert and the nymphet who is the name of his desire. As for Humbert himself, he is, by dint of his cosmopolitan elegance, the reverse of the clunky narrator of Wilson’s story. Wilson, meanwhile, criticized Lolita, not in print but in a letter to its author, in which he referred to the novel’s “nasty subject,” adding, “I don’t feel you have got away with it.”
Resentment fed on resentment, and friendship dissolved into enmity between the most powerful critic and subtlest novelist of their time. “From the moment Nabokov and Wilson first began to see in each other the apotheosis of everything they privately despised,” Bradford writes, “it was clear that civilized tolerance would not be a limitless resource.” Correspondence between the two writers began to sputter, and they met only once more, in Switzerland, at Nabokov’s home in Montreux, with neither expressing regret over their lost friendship. Another rainy day, one might say, in the Republic of Letters.
Bradford is especially good in his portrayal of the ultimately false friendship between Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. Amis was a lady killer, in more than the usual sense. He was movie-star handsome as a young man, and women fell into his bed as readily as smelt into fishing nets. He also killed them in his novels. Among his victims was Monica Jones, who (off and mostly on) was Philip Larkin’s friend and lover, and on whom Amis modeled the wretched character Margaret Peel in his career-making satirical novel Lucky Jim, portraying her as a deeply neurotic woman very much in business for herself. Bradford claims that Amis did this out of jealousy of her intimate friendship with Larkin, thinking it would break up the relationship.
Writers, one comes away from Literary Rivals feeling, often operate under the same low motives, feel the same unpleasant emotions, as everyone else.
The general effect of Literary Rivals is to detract not from the grandeur of literature but from the people who compose it. Writers, one comes away from this book feeling, often operate under the same low motives, feel the same unpleasant emotions, as everyone else. Their literary struggles with truth and beauty seem not to have done much to improve their characters.
Lest my attempt at a magisterial tone here has fooled anyone into believing I am myself above all this, let me assure him that I have felt many of the same unpleasantly contentious authorial emotions described in Bradford’s book. I have felt anger and puzzlement at what I take to be the unearned success of fellow writers, enjoyed holding on to grudges against some among them, delighted in learning of the personal failures of others. After a career as a writer of more than 50 years, it could scarcely be otherwise. Examples abound. Allow me to present merely a few.
As a writer of short stories, I do not understand the vaunting of Alice Munro, who in 2013 won the Nobel Prize. Her stories all seem to me one and the same: A woman of middle years in provincial Ontario is having a love affair, or has recently had a love affair, or long ago had a love affair, with a man not worthy of her, and has been, or soon will be, plunged back into the doldrums of provincial life. Neither dazzling in the telling nor satisfying in their endings, Munro’s stories, all washing into one, are not in the least memorable. Yet they command attention and respect that is beyond my comprehension—the kind of attention and respect, not to put too fine a point on it, I should like to have for my own stories.
Some years ago, in the 1990s, Joyce Carol Oates wrote a letter to the New York Times insisting that I be fired, for reasons of political incorrectness, from my job as editor of the American Scholar. Since that time I have kept a cold spot in my heart for Ms. Oates, whose dark and unrewarding novels I gave up reading long before that letter appeared. So imagine my pleasure when not long ago I read that Gore Vidal said that the three most depressing words in the English language are Joyce Carol Oates. Little as I normally care for Vidal’s toad-tongued wit, this time the old scold, our cut-rate Voltaire, scored heavily with me.
A critic I much disliked, though he never criticized any of my writing, was Alfred Kazin. One day I learned that he had had a heart attack. I remember telling my wife that I genuinely detested Kazin, his schmaltziness, his phony virtuousness, the meanness that was the other side of his literary and political sentimentality, but that, nevertheless, I didn’t want him to die. My wife replied that she quite understood. “You merely want him to have more stress in his life,” she said. Yes, I thought, exactly, I hoped that Kazin had had painful divorces, children who despised him, a plethora of professional and personal disappointments. When Alfred Kazin’s Journal was posthumously published, it turned out all my hopes had come true. Kazin’s life was a one-man domestic dystopia: He paid heavy alimony, was charged with wife-beating, had children who found him impossible—the full catastrophe. I read his Journal with a little marimba band gaily playing in my heart.
Competitiveness, envy, schadenfreude—you and me, I fear, will never be quits. Why, after all, should we? I am, after all, a writer.
1 Robson Press, 288 pp