The literary rivalry is a tried and true source of drama, entertainment, and masterfully crafted rebuttal. Recently, Frederick Seidel reviewed Rachel Kushner’s new novel, The Flamethrowers in the New York Review of Books. The review was so controversial that Nicholas Miriello responded to Seidel in the Los Angeles Review of Books with this assessment of Seidel’s critique, “he cruelly summarizes key portions of the text until they are rendered mid-cult trash, giving it only a superficial reading while never daring to interrogate the novel’s core themes or interests.” (Disclosure: Miriello is a Senior Editor at The Huffington Post.) As authors and critics continue to butt heads, we thought we would revisit some of our favorite literary rivalries.
1. The Ancients vs. the Moderns:
The idea that everything worth writing had already been written was seriously considered way back in late 17th century France by the Ancients who respected the authority of the literature of the Antiquity. The Moderns responded with serious literary critiques of the Ancients, challenging authority, working towards ideals of progress, and ushering in the era of the Enlightenment.
2. Tom Wolfe vs. Norman Mailer:
In Norman Mailer’s review of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, Mailer wrote in the New York Review of Books that, “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. Fall in love, or be asphyxiated.” Thereby igniting a feud between the two would-be great American novelists.
3. Gore Vidal vs. Norman Mailer:
Gore Vidal once said of Norman Mailer, “Mailer feuded with me. I knew Norman's syndrome… He couldn't stop. He lived for his little swig of PR." Their rivalry is lengthy and well known, but rarely do bad reviews result in fisticuffs, which is why Vidal vs. Mailer remains one of the great literary feuds.
4. V.S. Naipaul vs. Paul Theroux:
The 30-year friendship between Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul and American novelist Paul Theroux went sour when Naipaul accused Theroux of seducing his wife. The rivalry escalated for years, but perhaps Theroux had the last laugh when he published a book about Naipaul, Sir Vidia’s Shadow.
5. Mary McCarthy vs. Lillian Hellman:
Rarely will a feud between authors result in a law suit, but when McCarthy said “every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'" about Hellman’s memoirs on the Dick Cavett show, Hellman responded through her lawyers. The legal battle would last for five years, ending only due to Hellman’s death.
6. William Giraldi vs. Alix Ohlin:
When William Giraldi wrote an exceedingly harsh review of two of Alix Ohlin’s books in the New York Times, he was faced with the wrath of ten thousand Twitter users. This ignited a debate in the literary community that persists today: are critics too mean? What is the point of criticism?
7. James Wood vs. Jonathan Franzen:
James Wood was one of the few critics to challenge The Corrections, provoking Franzen to insult book reviews and critics more generally, “So few people are actually doing serious criticism. It’s so snarky, it’s so ad hominum, it’s so black and white.”