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Literary Rivalries, Feuds, Grudges & Fistfights

Andrew Madigan By Andrew Madigan Published on January 31, 2017
This article was updated on April 7, 2017

Conflict is the basis of art, especially narrative art. You don’t have a story until your character has a problem. It should come as no surprise when some of this conflict—anger, pain, jealousy, bitterness—seeps into the real world. Writers tend to be people with strong feelings and, of course, the ability and the desire to express them. Sometimes the debate is about art or politics; often it’s trivial. And sometimes the dispute evolves into a shouting match or a battle played out in the press, and occasionally words transform into fistfights.

Let’s take a look at 8 of the most vicious and memorable literary feuds:

Martin Amis vs. Julian Barnes

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Martin Amis, like his late father Kingsley, is constantly flirting with controversy. He’s regularly savaged by critics, family, friends and fellow writers, including Terry Eagleton, A S Byatt, and the late Christopher Hitchens. Kingsley Amis violently disliked his son’s early work and eventually stopped reading it. Amis also grappled with supporters of the Soviet Union, taking the “controversial” stance that pogroms, paranoia, genocide and economic collapse didn’t equate to an admirable political system and has been accused of being a racist towards Muslims. He’s perpetually at war with critics, such as Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times as well. They somehow mistake his depraved fictional characters for the author himself or for a tolerance of depravity, completely misunderstanding how literature works. They also sometimes fail to comprehend basic literary technique. When Amis advocated for street-side euthanasia booths where the old and infirm could get “a martini and a medal,” it’s fair to say he was being ironic, but he was taken at face value. Amis’ greatest feud was with his close friend, writer Julian Barnes. In the mid-90’s, Amis wanted a bigger advance for his upcoming novel The Information. He sought out American agent, Andrew Wylie, who could get it for him, and fired Pat Kavanagh, his British agent. At the same time Amis moved to New York, left his wife for a younger woman, and went through extreme dental surgery. Julian Barnes, married to Kavanagh, broke off their friendship in a letter. "Fuck off", was the complimentary close. Kavanagh wrote her own letter, with a similar conclusion. Amis was accused of having cosmetic dental surgery, and of disloyalty to Britain for moving to the US, and (perhaps especially) of becoming successful. Barnes has never forgiven him, though Amis wrote lovingly of Barnes in his memoir Experience. Amis also used Experience to say wonderful things about his father and his father’s books. Kingsley, like Barnes, was probably jealous, afraid of being overthrown by his son’s talent. Very Oedipal.

A S Byatt vs. Margaret Drabble

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Byatt and Drabble are sisters, and they’ve been bickering since they were kids. Byatt has said that her mother liked Drabble, the younger sister, better. Drabble has said that Byatt wasn’t very nice to her. Byatt also admitted that, as a child, she “always felt...somebody...breathing on my heels and whatever I did was not quite good enough.” She’d always wanted to be a writer, while Drabble aspired to act. However, Drabble was the first to publish: “I just happened to write a novel when I was pregnant and had nothing to do.” Ouch. A few years later, Byatt wrote The Game, concerning a vicious sibling relationship. Drabble called the book “mean-spirited” and immediately stopped reading Byatt’s work. The feud grew worse, strangely, when Byatt wanted to write about a tea set from childhood but discovered that Drabble had already addressed the topic. Now in their seventies, the sisters are still having it out in the press. Jealousy, resentment, anger, petty squabbles—typical writers, typical family.

Charles Dickens vs. William Makepeace Thackeray

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Dickens and Thackeray, the preeminent British writers of their day, were also frenemies. They would publicly acknowledge each other’s talent, but in private were bitter rivals. This slowly percolating discord erupted in 1858. Thackeray and John Foster, a friend of Dickens', traded insults in the papers. Foster called Thackeray “false as hell.” One issue was class. Dickens and Foster had grown up in poverty while Thackeray was middle class. The second issue, predictably, was a woman. In 1858 Dickens separated from his wife, Catherine, and was accused of having an affair with his sister-in-law. Thackeray, when asked about this, denied the rumor but claimed Dickens was sleeping with an actress, which was true. Thackeray took Catherine’s side and, as a result, Dickens banned Thackeray from his home and wouldn’t allow his children to associate with Thackeray’s. Even worse, Dickens’ in-laws threatened to sue him. Although this eventually settled down, another storm was brewing—the Yates Affair. Edmund Yates, a young friend of Dickens', attacked Thackeray in Dickens' Household Words magazine. The article was scathing and slanderous. Thackeray claimed that Yates had shared a private conversation that had been held in The Garrick, a swanky London club to which all three belonged. Despite Dickens’ protests, Yates was tossed out of the Garrick. Thackeray and Dickens eventually ran into each other and shook hands, but their friendship never recovered.

Fyodor Dostoevsky vs. Ivan Turgenev

Russia, in the late-19th century, enjoyed a surplus of literary talent and its premier writers were difficult men. Turgenev was a serial feuder, and was once challenged to a duel by Leo Tolstoy. The biggest thorn in his side, however, was Dostoevsky. The relevant issues were both complex and simple—ideology, art and money. Dostoevsky was devoted to Old Russia, Christianity and the simple life, whereas Turgenev was a dandy, enamored with progressive ideas and European culture. Turgenev didn’t care for Dostoevsky’s overt psychologizing and naturalistic ideas; Dostoevsky didn’t like Turgenev’s scientific rationalism or its didactic representation in his novels. Their conflict intensified in Wiesbaden, where Dostoevsky was stranded with gambling debts. Turgenev lent him money with the promise to repay in 30 days. Dostoevsky didn’t. Years later, the two writers met in Baden-Baden and once again Dostoevsky had lost all his money. They argued, escalating to a full-scale shouting match and near-violence. To make matters worse, Dostoevsky lampooned Turgenev in Demons as Karmazinov, a “vain and pretentious literary has-been.” Nonetheless, in 1880, after Dostoevsky spoke at the groundbreaking of the Pushkin Memorial, the crowd was stirred by his heartfelt speech and Turgenev embraced him.

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Ernest Hemingway vs. the World

Hemingway was a world-champion squabbler who often fell out with friends. As a young writer he was deeply influenced by Sherwood Anderson. In later years, he felt awkward about this debt, and wanted to appear self-created, so he denied the influence and bad-mouthed Anderson. This led to a feud with Gertrude Stein that would never be resolved. She portrayed him negatively in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, so he did the same thing in A Moveable Feast. Hemingway claimed that her writing had “repetitions that a more conscientious and less lazy writer would have put in the waste basket.” He also had spats with F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, of whom he said: “Does he really think big emotions come from big words?” One of Hemingway’s favorite tricks was to challenge rivals to a boxing match. He once had a fistfight with Wallace Stevens in Key West. He allegedly beat the poet very badly—Wallace’s hand was broken in two places and he had to spend five days in bed under doctor’s care. Afterward, Hemingway bragged about the incident. His last feud was with a shotgun. He lost.

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Gore Vidal vs. Norman Mailer

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Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer

Vidal and Mailer were two of the most important and popular novelists to emerge from World War II. They were also pugnacious, egomaniacal loudmouths. Naturally, they hated each other. Although Mailer was more hotheaded, and stabbed his second wife, Vidal probably engaged in more feuds. “Capote I truly loathed,” he said. “The way you might loathe an animal. A filthy animal that has found its way into the house.” When Capote died, Vidal argued that it was “a good career move.” In a famous TV debate from 1968, he described William F. Buckley, his opponent, as “Hitler without the charm.” They both threw around the word “Nazi,” Buckley called Vidal “queer” and threatened him with physical violence. Vidal’s most virulent and long-running feud was with Mailer. Vidal gave The Prisoner of Sex a bad review, comparing it to “three days of menstrual flow.” The argument continued on The Dick Cavett Show. Before going on air, Vidal compared Mailer to Charles Manson and Mailer replied with a head-butt. The show itself was a drunken, foul-mouthed rampage. Not long afterward, the writers met at a party. Mailer punched Vidal in the face, knocking him down. From the floor, Vidal said: “Once again, words fail Norman Mailer.” Hard to come back from that one. Mailer may have been handy with a knife, but Vidal was better at one-liners.

Vladimir Nabokov vs. Edmund Wilson

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Sometimes the argument is about a poem. Nabokov and Edmund Wilson, the critic, were friends for many years. When Wilson published his own novel, the semi-steamy Memoirs of Hecate County, Nabokov said: “The reader...derives no kick from the hero’s love-making. I should have as soon tried to open a sardine can with my penis.” Nabokov later became famous for Lolita, a more explicit novel. Wilson both disliked the novel and claimed to have inspired it, which was untrue. They also disagreed about the Soviet Union and the Russian language, arguments Nabokov naturally won because he had first-hand knowledge of both. This made Wilson bitter, as did Nabokov’s success and the public’s tepid response to his own fiction. The feud came to a head after Wilson trashed Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Wilson cited “bald and awkward language” and claimed that Nabokov “seeks to torture...the reader.” Nabokov responded that Wilson was an “artless, average reader with a natural vocabulary of, say, six hundred basic words.” The friendship, as you might’ve guessed, ended here.

Salman Rushdie vs. John le Carré and the Ayatollah

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Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was published in 1988, leading some Muslims to accuse the author of blasphemy. Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa, calling on Muslims to murder the author. Rushdie is still alive, but an editor was murdered, a translator stabbed, Rushdie’s Norwegian publisher shot, hundreds were killed in rioting, and thousands of books were burned. There was great support for Rushdie in the West, and he was under government protection for many years. Not everyone was sympathetic, however. Fellow novelist John Le Carré said: “[T]here is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity.” Of course, he overlooked the fact that freedom of speech is, in many respects, the religion of western society. Their feud was carried on in the press over many years. At one point Le Carré was accused of antisemitism. Rushdie explained in The Guardian that it would be easier to commiserate with Le Carré if he hadn’t already waged a “campaign of vilification” against him. Le Carré shot back that Rushdie’s understanding of truth was “self-serving.” Rushdie called him a “pompous ass.” Christopher Hitchens jumped in, referring to Le Carré as “a man who, having relieved himself in his own hat, makes haste to clamp the brimming chapeau on his head.” Le Carré accused Rushdie of “self-canonization,” to which Rushdie answered: “’I did call him a pompous ass, which I thought pretty mild in the circumstances. ‘Ignorant’ and ‘semi-literate’ are dunces’ caps he has skillfully fitted on his own head.” In later years, subsequent Iranian leaders did not uphold the fatwa, and in that same spirit Rushdie and Le Carré eventually made up. Unusually mature for writers.

Freelance writer (food, drinks, travel, culture) and former professor (creative writing, literature, Islamic studies, US history) and magazine editor who's lived in the UK, New York, Dubai, ... Show More

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