Literary Feuds

Greatest Literary Feuds

American Psycho and Less Than Zero author Bret Easton Ellis has taken to Twitter to go off on the late novelist David Foster Wallace, prompted by a late-night reading of D.T. Max's biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. To put the smack-talk into perspective, here are the greatest literary feuds in history, from Mailer punching Vidal to Dickens vs. Thackeray.

Luca Bruno / AP Photo; Gary Hannabarger / Corbis

Greatest Literary Feuds

American Psycho and Less Than Zero author Bret Easton Ellis has taken to Twitter to go off on the late novelist David Foster Wallace, prompted by a late-night reading of D.T. Max's biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. To put the smack-talk into perspective, here are the greatest literary feuds in history, from Mailer punching Vidal to Dickens vs. Thackeray.

Luca Bruno / AP Photo; Gary Hannabarger / Corbis

Bret Easton Ellis vs. David Foster Wallace

Ellis's debut novel Less Than Zero was a model for the early Wallace, the writer of Infinite Jest, who "admired the strong voice Ellis had found; he saw its potential," according to D.T. Max's biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. But it was a late-night reading session of this very book that sent Ellis fuming, possibly prompted by lines like this: "The debt to Bret Easton Ellis was one Wallace would never acknowledge." When asked whether Wallace ever read Less Than Zero, he said no. Ellis took to Twitter to go off on Wallace, who couldn't respond since he died in 2008 after hanging himself. But then again, he already did, in an interview where he called American Psycho a "mean shallow stupid novel." Here are Ellis's tweets:

Whether he's playing tennis with Jay McInerney, beating up Mary Karr or pissing all over Philip Roth: David Foster Wallace is insufferable.—12:45 PM - 6 Sep 12  

DFW is the best example of a contemporary male writer lusting for a kind of awful greatness that he simply wasn’t able to achieve. A fraud.—5:05 AM - 6 Sep 12 

David Foster Wallace was so needy, so conservative, so in need of fans–that I find the halo of sentimentality surrounding him embarrassing.—5:01 AM - 6 Sep 12 

Reading D.T. Max’s bio I continue to find David Foster Wallace the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation…—4:59 AM - 6 Sep 12 

Saint David Foster Wallace: a generation trying to read him feels smart about themselves which is part of the whole bullshit package. Fools.—4:58 AM - 6 Sep 12 

David Foster Wallace carried around a literary pretentiousness that made me embarrassed to have any kind of ties to the publishing scene…—4:56 AM - 6 Sep 12 

Anyone who finds David Foster Wallace a literary genius has got to be included in the Literary Doucebag-Fools Pantheon…—4:54 AM - 6 Sep 12 

Reading D.T. Max’s bio of DFW and OMG is the solemnity of the David Foster Wallace myth on a purely literary level borderline sickening…—4:52 AM - 6 Sep 12

David Pickoff / AP Photo; AP Photo

Norman Mailer vs. Gore Vidal

If Mailer—the violently sexist homophobe—and “exquisite” Vidal have anything in common, it is their love of a good feud. Mailer—whose past opponents include his second wife, whom he stabbed, Tom Wolfe, critic Michiko Kakutani, Truman Capote, and Germaine Greer—was enraged when Gore Vidal compared Mailer’s “The Prisoner of Sex” to “three days of menstrual flow” and Mailer to Charles Manson. In response, Mailer head-butted him in the green room of the Dick Cavett Show in 1971, and then told him on-air, that he “ruined” Kerouac by sleeping with him. Six years later at a Lally Weymouth soirée, he threw a drink at Vidal, and punched him. Even lying on the floor, Vidal somehow won the match: “As usual, words fail him,” he sniffed.

Robert Yager; Jamie McCarthy / Getty Images

Richard Ford vs. Colson Whitehead

In 2004, Ford approached Whitehead at a New York party for Poets & Writers, and spat on him, saying, “You’re a kid, you should grow up.” Ford was apparently responding to a poor review Whitehead had given Ford’s Multitude of Sins two years previously. Whitehead responded in the New York Times, saying it “wasn’t the first time some old coot had drooled on me, and it probably won’t be the last.” He added: “But I would like to warn the many other people who panned the book that they might want to get a rain poncho, in case of inclement Ford.”

Alberto Pellaschiar / AP Photo; Ezio Petersen / Landov

Salman Rushdie vs. John Updike

In 2006, John Updike panned Rushdie’s novel, Shalimar the Clown, in The New Yorker, asking “Why, oh why did Salman Rushdie, in his new novel call one of his major characters Maximilian Ophuls?'' Rushdie later responded in The Guardian, “Why oh why ...? Well, why not? Somewhere in Las Vegas there's probably a male prostitute called ‘John Updike’”. He added that Updike's latest novel, Terrorist, was “beyond awful,” and that Updike should “stay in his parochial neighborhood and write about wife-swapping, because it's what he can do.”

Mark Mainz / Getty Images; Scott Heppell / AP Photo

Harold Bloom vs. Harry Potter

In The Wall Street Journal in 2000, Harold “Voldemort” Bloom dismissed J.K. Rowling’s prose style as “heavy on cliché” and making “no demands upon her readers.” Bloom, famous for his 1973 work, The Anxiety of Influence, which expounded on literary originality, worried about the effect of the young wizard on the next generation of readers. “Why read, if what you will read will not enrich mind or spirit of personality?” he wrote. Although Harry Potter was not available for comment, hundreds of fans objected to Bloom’s remarks as high-brow snobbery. Bloom, however, remained unperturbed as a detractor. “Can more than 35 million book buyers, and their offspring, be wrong?” he asked. “Yes, they have been, and will continue to be for as long as they persevere with Potter.”

Ulf Andersen / Getty Images (2)

V.S. Naipaul vs. Paul Theroux

The two writers were friends for decades, with Naipaul acting as a mentor to the younger Theroux. But they fell out in 1996 when Theroux discovered through a bookseller’s catalogue that one of his own books, which he had fondly inscribed to Naipaul and his first wife, was being offered for sale for $1,500. Naipaul told Theroux to “take it on the chin and move on”; Theroux didn’t, and went on to write a book, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, in which he described Naipul’s “elevated crankishness.” Later, Theroux denounced Naipaul’s criticisms of E.M. Forster and Keynes as “the sort of explosive abuse you get from someone whose Valium has worn off.”

Evan Agostini / Getty Images; AP Photo; Seth Wenig / AP Photo; Osamu Honda / AP Photo

Tom Wolfe vs. Norman Mailer, John Irving, and John Updike

In 1998, three writers—Mailer, Updike, and Irving—lashed out against Tom Wolfe’s 1998 novel, A Man in Full. "It's like reading a bad newspaper or a bad piece in a magazine. It makes you wince," Irving said. Norman Mailer, writing in The New York Review of Books, compared reading the Wolfe novel to making love to a 300-pound woman: “Once she gets on top it's all over. Fall in love or be asphyxiated.” In his New Yorker review, John Updike wrote that the book “still amounts to entertainment, not literature, even literature in a modest aspirant form.” Wolfe lashed out at each in turn, and collectively called his opponents “the Three Stooges.”

Enrico Sarsini, Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images; Dan Jancino / NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Mary McCarthy vs. Lillian Hellman

The antagonism between author and critic Mary McCarthy and playwright Lillian Hellman is that rare thing—a literary duel between two female writers. In January 1980, as a guest on the Dick Cavett show on PBS, McCarthy called Hellman “a dishonest writer” and claimed that “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” Hellman—a playwright known for melodrama—responded by filing a $2.25 million lawsuit against McCarthy, Cavett, and PBS. The dispute inspired Norman Mailer—an unlikely advocate of peace—to urge Hellman to drop the case. If she won, he warned, “then every American writer will have to feel that much more tongue-tied at daring to criticize another American writer without qualification.”

AP Photo; Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Truman Capote vs. Gore Vidal

As Tennessee Williams observed, in the 1950s the young Capote and Vidal—both gay, gorgeous New Yorkers—were “running neck-and-neck for some fabulous gold prize.” Capote claimed that Vidal was without talent; Vidal called Capote “a fully-fledged housewife from Kansas with all the prejudices.” In 1975, in a drunken interview with Playgirl, Capote falsely claimed that Gore had been thrown out of the White House for insulting Jackie Kennedy’s mother. Gore sued for libel and then a made joke about Capote’s diminutive scale, claiming that he had accidentally sat on him at a party in the 1960s.

Correction: This item originally stated the Playgirl interview was in 1970.

Leonard Mccombe, Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images; AP Photo

Ernest Hemingway vs. Gertrude Stein

As Hemingway remembered, he and Gertrude Stein were once “just like brothers.” But a froideur grew between the two when Hemingway was disparaging about Sherwood Anderson, whom Stein felt was one of Hemingway’s greatest influences. Later, Stein published an unflattering portrait of Hemingway in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Hemingway finally took his revenge in A Moveable Feast, in which he criticized Stein’s prose for its use of “repetitions that a more conscientious and less lazy writer would have put in the waste basket.”

Reginald Hayes / Getty Images; AP Photo

Henry James vs. H.G. Wells

James, revered as the most sensitive of novelists, grew increasingly incensed by the prolific output of H.G. Wells, the ground-breaking writer of science fiction, whom he accused of valuing substance over style. In 1915, Wells published a parody of the master’s long-winded prose and exalted view of literature. A James novel was, he wrote, “like a church lit, but without a congregation to distract you, and with every light and line focused on a high altar, and on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an eggshell, a bit of string…”

Popperfoto / Getty Images; Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Charles Dickens vs. William Thackeray

With the 1848 publication of Vanity Fair, Thackeray—previously seen as either a hack or a sentimentalist—was suddenly competition for Dickens, perceived by most as the greatest English novelist. Tension built between the two authors so that when Edmund Yates, a gossip columnist on the staff of Town Talk, attacked Thackeray in his column, Thackeray assumed the assailant was Dickens. The literary quarters of the Garrick Club soon became a war-field and—lest the controversy should blow over—Yates reprinted the correspondence between himself, Thackeray, and Dickens in his magazine for all to read.