9 Epic Literary Burns
By Will McGough
History's most popular authors weren't just great at writing books—they also came up with some lyrical and devastating burns. Here are a few of our favorites.
1. Ernest Hemingway to William Faulkner
It’s not much of a surprise that these two writers of such differing styles would butt heads. This tiff in particular began with Faulkner accusing Hemingway of never using a word that would send a reader to the dictionary. Hemingway’s classic response still serves as sound advice to writers today. “Poor Faulkner,” Hemingway said, “Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”
2. Truman Capote to Jack Kerouac
In an attempt to undermine the success of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which had overshadowed his own recent release, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote took a shot at the budding author when he was asked for his thoughts about the up-and-coming Beat Generation. “None of these people have anything interesting to say and none of them can write, not even Mr. Kerouac,” he said. “That isn’t writing. It’s typing.” In the end, Kerouac got the last laugh, as his “typing” style of “spontaneous writing” turned out to be quite popular.
3. Mark Twain on Jane Austen
Twain's hatred for Austen’s writing seemingly knew no limits. He once said that “Her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”
4. George Bernard Shaw on William Shakespeare
Whether he was jealous of the great playwright or simply hated his swagger, Shaw made his dislike of Shakespeare very clear:
“I have striven hard to open English eyes to the emptiness of Shakespeare’s philosophy, to the superficiality and second-handedness of his morality, to his weakness and incoherence as a thinker, to his snobbery, his vulgar prejudices, his ignorance, his disqualifications of all sorts for the philosophic eminence claimed for him.”
He even made a puppet play, Shakes versus Shav, that featured a quarrel between himself and the Bard.
5. William Faulkner on Mark Twain
Faulkner would eventually praise Twain as “the Father of American literature,” but as a young writer and student at Ole Miss, he apparently wasn’t impressed, calling him “a hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe, who tricked out a few of the old proven sure fire literary skeletons with sufficient local color to intrigue the superficial and the lazy.”
6. Ernest Hemingway to Gertrude Stein
Hemingway and Stein were good friends after their initial introduction, but a feud grew between the two that would last the remainder of their lives and careers. The initial conflict began over the work of Sherwood Anderson, about which Hemingway was very critical. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein painted an unflattering picture of Hemingway. Hemingway struck back in A Moveable Feast, in which he criticized both Stein and her prose, saying that her work contained “repetitions that a more conscientious and less lazy writer would have put in the waste basket.”
7. Mary McCarthy to Lillian Hellman
This female duel is particularly noteworthy due to its tongue-in-cheek mediation by Norman Mailer, a quote that still draws a smile today in the presence of literary quarrels.
When McCarthy was a guest on The Dick Cavett Show on PBS in 1980, she blasted Hellman, calling her “a dishonest writer” and saying that “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” Hellman responded with a $2.25 million lawsuit against McCarthy, Cavett, and PBS.
Mailer, who had been following the feud, told Hellman to drop the case, saying that if she won, “then every American writer will have to feel that much more tongue-tied at daring to criticize another American writer without qualification.”
8. Ernest Hemingway to Wallace Stevens
It seemed that Hemingway always had his hand in the cookie jar, and it was this cockiness that made him so interesting beyond the page. While he can typically be counted on for a good one-liner, words weren’t enough to solve his problem with Wallace Stevens. Hemingway had heard that Stevens had said “By God I wish I had that Hemingway here now. I'd knock him out with a single punch.” They got into a fight on the streets in Florida, a confrontation during which Stevens broke his hand. Given Hemingway’s love for the sport of boxing, the fight was, we’re sure, Hemingway at his best.
9. Stephen King to James Patterson
In 2007, Stephen King criticized James Patterson. “I don't like him,” King said. “I don't respect his books because every one is the same.”
Taking the high road, James Patterson replied: “Recently Stephen King commented that he doesn't have any respect for me. Doesn't make too much sense—I'm a good dad, a nice husband—my only crime is I've sold millions of books.” Fair enough, James.
A version of this story ran in 2013; it has been updated for 2021.