Literature

Literary Insult Comics

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The poison pen

Book Examiner Michelle Kerns compiles a list of the 50 best writer-against-writer insults.

There are some good ones. Ernest Hemingway on William Faulkner: "Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked? You're thinking of Faulkner. He does sometimes—and I can tell right in the middle of a page when he's had his first one." Norman Mailer on Tom Wolfe: ""At certain points, reading the work can even be said to resemble the act of making love to a three-hundred pound woman. Once she gets on top, it's over."

But there are plenty of slackers. Of the many complaints Virginia Woolf made against Ulysses, Kerns misses both the snobbiest (An "illiterate, underbred book … of a self taught working man") and the most pungent ("Ulysses is the work of a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples"). The greatest anti-Ulysses quote, however, came from Amazon commenter nebber1214, and you can read it here; I'd repeat it but after that article came out, nebber1214 emailed me threatening to sue for quoting him or her without permission. While nebber1214 may be disqualified for not being a professional author, the great literary putdown artist Vladmir Nabokov (cited here with a pretty tame dig at Fyodor Dostoevsky) scored the greatest James Joyce insult when he described Finnegans Wake (with uncanny accuracy) as "a persistent snore in the next room."

There are also some misleading ones. D.H. Lawrence may have expressed some misgivings about Moby Dick, but he was a big fan who played a major role in reviving interest in that book in the 20th century. Similarly, while Samuel Johnson, quoted here denigrating Paradise Lost, did object to John Milton's republican politics, he called Milton's writing "unquestionably great." Johnson's best insult concerned an unnamed poet: "I used to be sadly plagued with a man who wrote verses, but who literally had no other notion of a verse, but that it consisted of ten syllables. Lay your knife and your fork, across your plate, was to him a verse… As he wrote a great number of verses, he sometimes by chance made good ones, though he did not know it."

Glaring omissions: Ben Jonson on William Shakespeare: "I remember, the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare that in his writing (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, would he had blotted a thousand." Oscar Wilde on The Old Curiosity Shop: "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing."

And since we're cataloguing catty bitchiness, and this is a pretty male-dominated list, note that the greatest literary insult of all time was Mary McCarthy's lawsuit-provoking diss of Lillian Hellman: "Every word she writes is a lie—including 'and' and 'the.'" That one deserves inclusion not only for being witty but because of the two personalities involved. Hellman was a Stalin-loving commie, while McCarthy was the sister of beloved Invasion of the Body Snatchers star Kevin McCarthy. Good insults are good for freedom.

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  1. Mark Twain on Jane Austen:

    Whenever I take up “Pride and Prejudice” or “Sense and Sensibility,” I feel like a barkeeper entering the Kingdom of Heaven. I mean, I feel as he would probably feel, would almost certainly feel. I am quite sure I know what his sensations would be — and his private comments. He would be certain to curl his lip, as those ultra-good Presbyterians went filing self-complacently along. …

    She makes me detest all her people, without reserve. Is that her intention? It is not believable. Then is it her purpose to make the reader detest her people up to the middle of the book and like them in the rest of the chapters? That could be. That would be high art. It would be worth while, too. Some day I will examine the other end of her books and see.
    – “Jane Austen,” published in 2009 in Who Is Mark Twain?

    Jane Austen? Why I go so far as to say that any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book.
    – quoted in Remembered Yesterdays, Robert Underwood Johnson

    To me his prose is unreadable — like Jane Austin’s [sic]. No there is a difference. I could read his prose on salary, but not Jane’s. Jane is entirely impossible. It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.
    – Letter to W. D. Howells, 18 January 1909

    Jane Austen’s books, too, are absent from this library. Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it.
    – Following the Equator

    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. Everytime I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.
    – Letter to Joseph Twichell, 13 September 1898

    1. A man who understands Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, is qualified to make love to a woman, body and soul.
      http://www.timeshighereducatio…..ioncode=26
      Robert Underwood Johnson = diplomat. Need I say more?

  2. Everytime I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.

    I haven’t laughed so hard in a while.

    Thank you Warty.

    1. If Twain hated it so much, why did he read it more than once?

      1. Syd, your simple observation is illuminative.

  3. How can you not mention Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses by Mark Twain??

    It is five pages of genius

    1. Pah, I now see it made #47, and only quotes a single sentence.

  4. Not well known outside of Germany (and maybe France) but Jules Am?d?e Barbey d’Aurevilly’s Contre Goethe is brilliant.

  5. The Mailer one on Tom Wolfe is a good one, and pretty accurate, but Wolfe got his revenge on him and Updike and Irving. The essay is called “My 3 Stooges”. It’s a delight if you like snarky put-downs, an essay-length diss.

  6. I feel vindicated from many years of English class in seeing these other authors find similar problems with books that I hated. And I was also happy to see that two of my favorite “classics,” Catch 22 and To Kill a Mockingbird escaped the fire (or at least the top 50.

  7. That list is unreadable. I stopped at #17 and forgot why I started reading.

    Garbage all of it.

    1. That’s going in next year’s list.

  8. Chandler’s take-down of Hemingway in… Farewell My Lovely? Too early

    Detective: Why do you keep calling me Hemingway
    Marlowe: Because you think that if you repeat yourself often enough it becomes important

  9. Nebber1214 threatened to sue you over that? His comment was okay, chuckle worthy even, but not so great as you made it out to be.

    But, suing, jeesh. If you so care to quote my greatest literary creation, the phrase, ‘flap jacky man titties’, or any other craptastical or fetid smackable phrases from the oeuvre, I couldn’t be bothered to give a certain mammal’s curly tail. Some people and their silly egos.

    1. Not to mention that such a suit would not stand a snowball’s chance in an atheist’s hell (= a Pentecostal service) of making it anywhere.

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  11. I’d bring Woolf back to life to watch her kill herself again.

  12. So glad to see others share my loathing of Jane Austen. We had to read Pride and Prejudice in high school. I still think it was punishment for some unnamed bad behavior.

    1. Austen is reprehensible.

      1. Y’all are philistines.

        Woolf, however, really does suck. Not nearly so bad as Eliot, but she sucks nonetheless.

        I majored in English. Read the first chapter of Middlemarch, swore I’d never read another word of Eliot’s, and I never did. Did a final essay exam question on Middlemarch, professor knew I hadn’t read it, gave me an A anyway. Impressed with my powers of bullshit, he was.

  13. I was just a leetle kid when she was around, but wasn’t Mary McCarthy something of a leftie herself?

    1. More of a left-liberal from the fifties until her death, and a horrible person in many ways. (Also somebody whose writing seems to be on the slow fade.) But a reliable anti-communist after the show trials of the mid-thirties, which cured all but the most firebreathing commies (and U.S. Ambassador to the USSR Joe Davies) of their delusions.

  14. Truman Capote (on Jack Kerouac): “That’s not writing, that’s typing“.

    And I suppose Parker’s insult of Atlas Shrugged was omitted because Cavanaugh didn’t want the Objectivists to descend like locusts on the thread.

    1. He doesn’t want traffic? That’s odd.

      1. True, perhaps he just didn’t think it was that funny.

    2. It wasn’t literary, it was TV.

  15. Tom Stoppard’s Tristan Tzara on reading Ulysses: “Like being locked in a cell with a madman in search of a mania.”

  16. I don’t know if this is on the list:

    One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing. Oscar Wilde.

  17. I’ve tried to read Ulysses several times (to show how classy I am). I get about hour into it then think “WTF?”

    1. Ironically, the first fifty pages are the cogent ones. The packet of soap singing opera arias is still well off.

  18. I’m not sure Nabokov is being insulting (to Joyce). Or, not only.

    I don’t know the context, but Nabokov usually means everything his words could possibly mean. “A persistent snore in the next room” is a plot summary, and a description of the owned-but-not-read way Finnegans Wake lives in the world, hidden in a “snoozer” put-down.

    Maybe. Also.

  19. Lay your knife and your fork, across your plate

    Damn. Wish I had penned that.

  20. In Stephen King’s On Writing there’s an anecdote about a friend of James Joyce’s who went to visit and found him distraught over a manuscript. “I’ve been trying to work all day, and i’ve only written seven words,” Joyce said.

    “But James,” said the friend, “for you, that’s pretty good.”

    Joyce wailed, “But i don’t know what order they go in!”

    And yes, Twain’s takedown of Cooper is brilliant. Over a hundred years later, it’s still full of OH SNAP.

    1. Steven King is no one to insult someone else’s writing. I remember reading one of his early novels where he defensively stated that if he wanted to, he could be an “important” writer like Joseph Heller (and, he joked, write a novel every ten years).

      I remember thinking to myself “no fucking way you could write anything a shade above pulp.” Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that, but as has been pointed out, a man’s got to know his limitations.

      Also, after writing IT, King is no longer qualified to insult anyone’s writing. I wish a modern day Twain would do a take down of that excerable piece of shit, I suspect it would read close to Twain’s takedown of Deerstalker.

      1. King certainly could write an “important” novel. I doubt he ever will and it’s a shame he never did, but he has the potential. I’m not a huge fan of King, I’ve only read a few of his books, but there is a reason he’s pretty much at the top of his genre.

        Also, On Writing is a really, really good book.

  21. Gore Vidal, after being head-butted backstage at the Dick Cavett Show by the author of 500-page wank-fests like The Executioner’s Song, and still on the floor, calmly informed onlookers that “Words fail Norman Mailer yet again.”

    1. vidal’s a dick, but hell if he ain’t been a snappy, witty dick.

  22. Sniff my ass – it smells like Atlas Shrugged.

  23. Oscar Wilde about Alexander Pope,

    “There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope”.

  24. Nonfiction writers sometimes take good jabs at each other too. Personally, I never tire of hearing David Berlinski issue zingers at Darwinists:

    “Look at Christopher Hitchens ? very bright, very able. Just recently he felt compelled to release his views on evolution to a public not known eagerly to be waiting for them. … The truth of the matter, however, is that he pretty much likes what he knows, and what he knows is what he has heard smart scientists say. … But that’s a journalist for you: all zeal and no content.”

    On Darwin,

    “Darwin’s theory is plain nuts. … Anyone can become an evolutionary biologist in an afternoon. Just read a book. Most of them are half illustrations anyway.”

    On Dawkins,

    “Fascinating because like Noam Chomsky he has the strange power effortlessly to command attention. Just possibly both men are descended from a line of simian carnival barkers, great apes who adventitiously found employment at a circus.”

    1. Those are terrible. And the Darwin one, besides being a non sequitur, is both wrong and doesn’t make sense.

        1. What makes me a troll? Not being a Darwinist? I think that those are well-crafted put-downs.

  25. No insults by Jamie Kelly?

  26. I guess nebber didn’t want his stellar reputation as a random Amazon commenter sullied by a reference in Reason of all places.

  27. Without Lillian Hellman there’d be no Nora Charles (she was Hammett’s inspiration.)

    For that alone we should be grateful.

  28. In a letter from Max Reeger (1873-1916) to a critic: “I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me.”

  29. What? No Dorothy Parker?

    On Benito Mussolini’s The Cardinal’s Mistress, “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”

    And on A.A. Milne, “It is that word ‘hummy,’ my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up.”

    1. You know, more and more these days, I’m prone to thinking Parker was just an overrated, crotchety old bitch. And unlike Gore Vidal, not quite entertaining enough to make up for that.

      1. At least we can agree that both eventually lived to become overrated, crotchety old bitches. One other difference, though, is that, unlike Vidal, Parker knew and acknowledged she was, at best, a minor talent.

  30. …and long, long ago.

  31. Mr. Darcy does not conga, but he excels at freestyle disco.

  32. Articles such as this would have Justice Thomas siding with Justice Alito in stating “The courts have erred in second-guessing the legislative judgment about the importance of preventing cruelty to readers.”

  33. Hemingway calling Faulkner a drunk…?

    According to this list,

    “Top 10 Drunk American Writers”

    http://www.alternativereel.com…..p?id=00075

    …Hemingway out-drunked Faulkner by a nose, just edging out Dorothy Parker, and *tied* with Hunter Thompson… And that is some seriously stiff competition. I am not sure of their rating system though. The criteria seem unclear. It certainly isn’t ‘readability’. Nor, “who’d be the best to get drunk with”. I’d end up punching Bukowski.

    One would have thought Kerouac a higher-scorer. You’d think *killing* yourself with booze was some kind of special bonus achievement. Hemingway and Thompson both killed themselves with *shotguns*. I mean, come on… no effort at all.

  34. Hemingway out-drunked Faulkner by a nose, just edging out Dorothy Parker, and *tied* with Hunter Thompson… And that is some seriously stiff competition. I am not sure of their rating system though. The criteria seem unclear. It certainly isn’t ‘readability’. Nor, “who’d be the best to get drunk with”. I’d end up punching Bukowski.

    One would have thought Kerouac a higher-scorer. You’d think *killing* yourself with booze was some kind of special bonus achievement. Hemingway and Thompson both killed themselves with *shotguns*. I mean, come on… no effort at all.

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  35. On Benito Mussolini’s The Cardinal’s Mistress, “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”

    And on A.A. Milne, “It is that word ‘hummy,’ my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up.”

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  36. Hemingway out-drunked Faulkner by a nose, just edging out Dorothy Parker, and *tied* with Hunter Thompson… And that is some seriously stiff competition. I am not sure of their rating system though. The criteria seem unclear. It certainly isn’t ‘readability’. Nor, “who’d be the best to get drunk with”. I’d end up punching Bukowski.
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