You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would call authors of literary fiction “gangster” or “bad-ass”. Sure, some of them like a drink, and some of them have dabbled with hard drugs and guns, but for the most part they’re a retiring lot, content to sit at home alone with a cup of tea and a typewriter (and maybe a cat, for company). They wouldn’t dream of entering into public feuds, exchanging barbs in the media and in their work, calling out their contemporaries for getting back on their bullshit. Right? Wrong! If you look closely, you’ll find a long literary history of roasts, sassy comebacks, and petty revenge! Here’s a list of five famous literary feuds…
Aldous Huxley vs George Orwell
On the face of it, you’d think that Huxley and Orwell should have been the best of friends. Each penned a novel that has forever changed the way we think about dystopian literature, not to mention the way we think about our own dumpster-fire world. Huxley was even one of Orwell’s teachers at Eton! Comparisons of their work by critics is to be expected, of course, but it turns out that Huxley and Orwell had a sparring match of their own going on…
It all started in 1946. Orwell hadn’t yet written 1984, but he had published a review of We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. In his review, he claimed that:
“Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World must be partially derived from [We]. Both books deal with the rebellion of the primitive human spirit against a rationalised, mechanised, painless world, and both stories are supposed to take place about six hundred years hence.”
OK, fine, by today’s standards it’s hardly a mic-drop, but this is basically the old-timey equivalent of calling out a rapper for using a ghost writer. Huxley, of course, emphatically denied the accusation of plagiarism, claiming not to have even heard of We until after he had completed Brave New World. Everyone let it go for a few years, until…
… in 1949, after the publication of 1984, Orwell received a letter from one Mr Aldous Huxley. Orwell was expecting yet another glowing review (after all, up until that point, he’d been receiving them from all over the world), and Huxley did begin the letter by praising the book as being “profoundly important”. Things then took a turn, though. Huxley’s position can be best summed up as: “Nice try, buddy, but my dystopian future is way more likely to actually happen than yours. Why you gotta be such a Debbie Downer?”
“… whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World.”
As best we know, they never buried the hatchet.
Who won? Well, I think we’ve got to call this one a draw. Orwell gets a point for finding (potential) evidence of shady behaviour, but Huxley at least had the balls to tell him off directly. (And by the way, you can read my review of Brave New World here, if you want to see what all the fuss was about…)
Henry James vs H.G. Wells
This is the first of many tales of great literary friendships gone awry. Henry James and H.G. Wells had a once-amiable relationship, built on a foundation of mutual admiration. That all fell to shit when they disagreed on the primary purpose of literature. Wells accused James of treating “like painting [as] an end”, while to him “literature like architecture is a means”. Oooh, snap!
In 1915, Wells published the satirical novel Boon, lambasting James’ writing style. Not many friendships can survive a parody of the other’s work. James accused Wells of producing “affluents turbid and unrestrained” (a stream of wordy shit, basically), and in response Wells called him a “painful hippopotamus” (which is a lot more pithy). The two traded nasty, wounded letters for a while, then their correspondence stopped altogether.
Who won? I’m calling this one for Wells: firstly, because “painful hippopotamus” is a fantastic roast, and secondly, because he kind of had a point. Wells also gets a bonus point for once referring to George Bernard Shaw (in a separate feud) as “an idiot child screaming in a hospital”.
Mark Twain vs Jane Austen
This wasn’t exactly a fair fight, because Jane Austen died several years before Mark Twain was born. However, he dissed her so brutally and so often that it’s surely one of the greatest literary feuds of our time. For instance, Twain once expressed wonder at the fact that Austen had died of natural causes, when – according to him – she should have faced execution for her “literary crimes”. And he didn’t stop there!
“I haven’t any right to criticise books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but 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.”
As if that wasn’t enough, he also said (a few times):
“Any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book.”
And also possibly his most pithy insult about one of her novels:
“Once you put it down, you simply can’t pick it up.”
Who won? Given Austen’s reputation for biting social satire, I’m sure she could have come up with a few retaliatory zingers of her own, had she lived to see what Twain thought of her. As it stands, though, I’ve got to give this one to him. He was brutal!
Charles Dickens vs Hans Christian Andersen
In the 1850s, Andersen was what we might now call a Dickens fan-boy (and it’s not hard to see why). Andersen wrote: “Dickens is one of the most amiable men that I know, and possesses as much heart as intellect”. Big talk, given that (at the time) he’d never actually met the man.
The love was not mutual. Dickens begrudgingly accepted Andersen’s request to sleep in his spare room when he came to Britain for a visit, but before the poor guy even arrived, Dickens was slagging him off to all his mates: “He speaks no language but his own Danish, and is suspected of not even knowing that.”
Andersen’s stay at Casa de Dickens did not improve their relationship. He committed the cardinal sin of overstaying his welcome; Dickens had offered him the use of the guest room for a week, but he ultimately stayed for five. Upon his departure, Dickens was so pissed off that he taped up a note in the room that read:
“Hans Christian Andersen slept in this room for five weeks – which seems to the family AGES!”
Andersen was never invited back, and eventually Dickens just ghosted him altogether.
Who won? This wasn’t even a contest: Dickens won by KO.
Salman Rushdie vs The World
Salman Rushdie is basically the Kanye West of literature. He never forgets his enemies’ faces, and he has a never-ending supply of sass. He counts among his foes Cat Stevens (whom he called “stupid”), Kalam Siddiqui of the Muslim Institute (a “garden gnome”), broadcaster Mark Lawson (from whom he once stole a cab, the ultimate insult), and literary journalist James Wood (whom he once accused of having altered a review of his novel to appease his U.S. “paymasters”). He’s had so many feuds, I couldn’t possibly pick just one to cover here.
Salman Rushdie vs John Updike
In 2006, Updike reviewed Rushdie’s book Shalimar The Clown and asked the question: “Why, oh why, did Salman Rushdie… call one of his major characters Maximilian Ophuls?”
In response, Rushdie is quoted as saying: “A name is just a name. ‘Why oh why?’ Well, why not? Somewhere in Las Vegas there’s probably a male prostitute called ‘John Updike’.”
He piled on when talking about Updike’s own upcoming novel (Terrorist), calling it “beyond awful”, and suggesting that Updike “should stay in his parochial neighbourhood and write about wife-swapping, because it’s what he can do”. He also referred to the majority of Updike’s work as “garbage”.
When Rushdie was asked to defend his pettiness, he answered the way we all wish we could sometimes: “I’m allowed to say it, because he was really rude about me.”
Salman Rushdie vs John le Carré
This fourteen-year feud began in 1997, with John le Carré having a big old whinge in the letters section of The Guardian. He complained that he had been unfairly attacked for alleged anti-Semitism.
Rushdie did not take kindly to this, and called him out on it:
“It would be easier to sympathise with [le Carré] if he had not been so ready to join in an earlier campaign of vilification against a fellow writer. In 1989… le Carré wrote an article… in which he eagerly, and rather pompously, joined forces with my assailants.”
But Johnny did not back down without a fight!
“Rushdie’s way with the truth is as self-serving as ever. My purpose was not to justify the persecution of Rushdie, which, like any decent person, I deplore, but to sound a less arrogant, less colonialist and less self-righteous note than we were hearing from the safety of his admirers’ camp.”
Shots fucking fired! Rushdie came back:
“I’m grateful to John le Carré for refreshing all our memories about exactly how pompous an ass he can be.”
And he added, later:
“If he wants to win an argument, John le Carré could begin by learning to read… It’s true 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. I wouldn’t dream of removing them… John le Carré appears to believe I would prefer him not to go on abusing me. Let me assure him that I am of precisely the contrary opinion. Every time he opens his mouth, he digs himself into a deeper hole. Keep digging, John, keep digging. Me, I’m going back to work.”
Thank God we got receipts for all of this!
The two publicly made-up in 2011, with Rushdie calling le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy “one of the great novels of postwar Britain”, and le Carré conceding that he, too, regretted the dispute. Something tells me that Rushdie may bury hatchets but he keeps maps of where he put them…
Salman Rushdie vs Peter Carey
In Rushdie’s eyes, Peter Carey made a grave mistake when he pulled out of attending a gala hosted by the Pen American Centre in 2015. Carey stated publicly that he objected to Pen awarding a freedom of expression and courage award to the editor-in-chief and essayist of Charlie Hebdo (the satirical French magazine attacked by extremists after that year publishing cartoons disparaging the prophet Mohammed).
Rushdie saw the award as part of the “battle against fanatical Islam”, and said that Carey – along with the five other writers who withdrew their acceptances and refused to attend the event – had “made themselves fellow travellers of that project [fanatical Islam]”, a “very, very bad move”.
He also called them “pussies”.
Carey maintains to this day that Pen has a “seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognise its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population”.
Chances are it’ll be another fourteen years before they make nice…
Salman Rushdie vs Roald Dahl
It all started when Dahl publicly denounced Rushdie in 1989, arguing that he basically deserved the fatwa that was placed upon him after publication of The Satanic Verses. Dahl called Rushdie “a dangerous opportunist”, and said that his “sensationalism” was a “cheap” way of making it to the top of a bestseller list.
“[Rushdie] must have been totally aware of the deep and violent feelings his book would stir up among devout Muslims. In other words, he knew exactly what he was doing and cannot plead otherwise.”
It was big talk from Dahl, who was – incidentally – also once placed under police protection after death threats were made against him.
And yet, it would seem that the feud was (unusually, for Rushdie!) a bit one sided. Rushdie never responded publicly, and popular opinion seems to be that Dahl was simply jealous of Rushdie’s success, trying to bring him down a peg or two. This is somewhat substantiated by an (admittedly completely unverified) account I once heard of a journalist telling Dahl that he was off to interview Salman Rushdie for a column, and Dahl (allegedly) responded: “Oh, yes? Well, tell him he’s a shit!”
I don’t know if Rushdie ever got that message – he was probably too busy feuding with everybody else.
Bonus Literary Feuds!
I must also give an honourable mention to William Faulkner, who is quoted as saying that Ernest Hemingway “has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary”. Hemingway responded by saying: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”. Hemingway might have won that round, but Vladimir Nabokov got the last word on Hemingway:
“As to Hemingway, I read him for the first time in the early forties, something about bells, balls and bulls, and loathed it.”
And there concludes my argument that authors are the pettiest, sassiest people on the planet. Are you convinced? Have you heard of any other great literary feuds? Tell me all about them in the comments (or share the gossip over at KUWTP on Facebook!).