The Quick 10: 10 Literary Smack-Downs, Quips, and Squabbles


There's an adage they give you when you receive your name badge at the door of Writer Land: "You only compete with yourself." While most authors hold true to this (at least in public), there are those who make time to spend bashing their fellow wordslingers. Here are ten cringe-worthy examples.

1. Mark Twain vs. Ambrose Bierce
When they asked Samuel Clemens to read and review long-time friend Ambrose Bierce's not-so-bestseller, Nuggets and Dust Panned Out in California by Dod Grile, publishers Chatto & Windus had no idea they'd get such a scathing report back. Twain calls Nuggets and Dust "the vilest book that exists in print" and ends with what might be the most simultaneously hilarious and hurtful review of all time:

"There is humor in Dod Grile, but for every laugh that is in his book there are five blushes, ten shudders and a vomit. The laugh is too expensive."

2. James Frey vs. Dave Eggers
Before his tearful apology on Oprah for passing off as a memoir his best-selling tale of addiction and redemption, and even before the book had been released, James Frey took aim at Dave Eggers and his much-hailed A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Here's what Frey said in an interview in New York Observer:

"The Eggers book pissed me off. Because a book that I thought was mediocre was being hailed as the best book written by the best writer of my generation. F**k that. And f**k him and f**k anybody who says that."

3. Ernest Hemingway vs. Ford Madox Ford.
In a letter sent to Ezra Pound in 1925, Papa Hemingway compares contemporary Ford Madox Ford to a bull in a less-than-complimentary tirade:

"Bulls at least are not the greatest stylists in English – no bull has ever been a political exile. Bulls don't run reviews. Bulls of 25 don't marry old women of 55 and expect to be invited to dinner... Bulls do not borrow money... Bulls are edible after they have been killed."

4. Stephen King vs. Stephenie Meyer
In early 2009, hot on the heels of the Twilight film's debut, Stephen King did an exclusive interview with USA Weekend in which he compared JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyer:

"The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can't write worth a damn. She's not very good."

Teenage girls 'round the world used their collective angst to... um, buy more movie tickets, I guess.

5. Salman Rushdie vs. John Updike
Bad reviews make for some cranky authors. John Updike reviewed Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown in 2005. Updike took issue with Rushdie's recycling of the name Maximilian Ophuls for his main character (the real Ophuls was an actor and director in the 1940s and 50s). In response, Rushdie quipped:

"Well, why not? Somewhere in Las Vegas there's probably a male prostitute called 'John Updike'... He should stay in his parochial neighbourhood and write about wife-swapping, because it's what he can do."

6. Tom Wolfe vs. "The Three Stooges"
Norman Mailer, John Irving, and John Updike were all less than impressed with Tom Wolfe's 1998 novel, A Man in Full. They each voiced their various issues with the book in typical rival-author fashion, with Mailer comparing the work to "sex with a 300-pound woman," Irving calling the work "journalistic hyperbole described as fiction," and Updike giving what seems to be a diplomatic, if not positive, review with a piece in the New Yorker: "A Man in Full still amounts to entertainment, not literature, even literature in a modest aspirant form. Like a movie desperate to recoup its bankers' investment, the novel tries too hard to please us."

Wolfe wasted no time lashing back, claiming the three were "panicked" and "frightened," then compared them to slapstick comedians:

"I think of the three of them now – because there are now three – as Larry, Curly and Moe. It must gall them a bit that everyone – even them – is talking about me."

7. Mario Vargas Llosa vs. Gabriel García Márquez
Nobel laureates don't mess around. Before 1976, the two were close friends; García Márquez was the godfather and namesake for Vargas Llosa's second son. Then, at a movie premier in Mexico City, Vargas Llosa caught García Márquez in the eye with a nasty right hook on the red carpet. Though neither has officially commented on why, it is rumored that when Vargas Llosa cheated on his wife and moved to live with his mistress in Stockholm, she turned to García Márquez for "consolation" — and he advised her to divorce his friend. After the shiner incident, the two literary giants didn't speak for 31 years.

8. Oscar Wilde vs. George Meredith
In his essay, The Decay of Living, Wilde took aim at George Meredith's style, saying, "as a writer, he has mastered everything except language; as a novelist, he can do everything except tell a story; as an artist, he is everything except articulate... I would say that he is a child of realism who is not on speaking terms with his father."

9. Gore Vidal vs. Truman Capote
The two hyper-famous New York authors were once friends, but after their affection for one another wore off, neither wasted any time going for the throat. Vidal claimed to have sat on Capote at a party, mistaking him for a stool. Capote falsely said Vidal had been kicked out of the White House for insulting Jackie Kennedy's mother. Vidal claimed Capote had "raised lying to an art. A minor art." When asked about the friendship gone bad, Capote said, "I'm always sad about Gore—very sad that he has to breathe every day." The back-and-forth carried on after Capote's death, when Vidal got the last word:

"Capote I truly loathed. The way you might loathe an animal. A filthy animal that has found its way into the house."

10. Mary McCarthy vs. Lillian Hellman
No feudal arena is complete without a cat fight, and these two ladies did their best not to disappoint. As a guest on the Dick Cavett show, Mary McCarthy was asked with writers she considered overrated. Among the handful was Lillian Hellman, who McCarthy said was "tremendously overrated, a bad writer, a dishonest writer, but she really belongs to the past." When urged to explain her opinion, McCarthy offered this burning blow:

"[E]very word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'"

Enter the lawsuit, a messy social tangle of writers taking sides, and, perhaps most bizarrely, Norman Mailer in his new role as mediator. Mailer urged Hellman to drop the lawsuit, but four years later she died before resolving or dropping the complaint.