Literary Insult Comics


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.