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When Writers Attack …

Article by Derek Flynn © 30 October 2014.
Posted in Guest Blogs ().

Many writers are known for their sharp turn of phrase and withering put-downs. It’s no surprise then that when they decide to turn their attention to other writers, the results are entertaining to, to say the least.


Vladimir Nabokov is regarded as one of literature’s finest prose stylists, and he certainly wasn’t shy when it came to sharing his opinion of other writers. On Dostoevsky:

“Dostoevky’s lack of taste, his monotonous dealings with persons suffering with pre-Freudian complexes, the way he has of wallowing in the tragic misadventures of human dignity – all this is difficult to admire.”

On Joseph Conrad:

“I cannot abide Conrad’s souvenir shop style and bottled ships and shell necklaces of romanticist cliches.”

On Ernest Hemingway:

“As to Hemingway, I read him for the first time in the early ‘forties, something about bells, balls and bulls, and loathed it.”

He wasn’t alone in his loathing of Hemingway. William Faulkner said of Hemingway:

“He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”

Faulkner Hemingway

Although, the feeling was mutual: “Poor Faulkner,” said Hemingway. “Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”

Joseph Conrad was no fan D.H. Lawrence: “Filth. Nothing but obscenities.” Indeed, Lawrence came in for a lot of criticism for his “obscene” writing. As such, one would think he would have been sympathetic of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Oh contraire:

“My God, what a clumsy olla putrida James Joyce is! Nothing but old fags and cabbage stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest stewed in the juice of deliberate, journalistic dirty-mindedness.”

Mind you, he wasn’t alone in his opinion of Joyce. Virginia Woolf:

“[Ulysses is] the work of a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.”

Harold Bloom is a noted critic of literature who does not suffer “lowbrow” literature gladly:

“How to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? Why, very quickly, to begin with, and perhaps also to make an end. Why read it? Presumably, if you cannot be persuaded to read anything better, Rowling will have to do.”

Even the sainted Jane Austen does not escape criticism. Mark Twain:

“I haven’t any right to criticize books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize 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.”

Mark TwainJane Austen

Oh dear.

While one would presume that the Romantic poets were all great pals, the following quote would suggest otherwise. File this one under “With Friends like These”. Lord Byron on John Keats:

“No more Keats, I entreat: flay him alive; if some of you don’t I must skin him myself: there is no bearing the drivelling idiotism of the Mankin.”

Then there are comments which could be filed under “How Could He Know That?” W. H. Auden on Robert Browning:

“I don’t think Robert Browning was very good in bed. His wife probably didn’t care for him very much. He snored and had fantasies about twelve-year-old girls.”

Evelyn Waugh on Marcel Proust:

“I am reading Proust for the first time. Very poor stuff. I think he was mentally defective.”

Some of the comments made – while often cruel – are also often very funny.

Gertrude Stein on Ezra Pound: “A village explainer. Excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.”

G. Wells on George Bernard Shaw: “An idiot child screaming in a hospital.”

Robert Louis Stevenson on Walt Whitman: “…like a large shaggy dog just unchained scouring the beaches of the world and baying at the moon.”

Gore Vidal on Truman Capote: “He’s a full-fledged housewife from Kansas with all the prejudices.”

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

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




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Derek Flynn runs Writing.ie's SongBook blog, and is an Irish writer and musician. He has a Masters in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin. He’s been published in a number of publications, including The Irish Times, and his fiction was featured in 'Surge', an anthology of new Irish writing published by O’ Brien Press with the aim of showcasing “the very best of the next generation of Irish authors”. Online he can be found at his writing/music blog – ‘Rant, with Occasional Music’ – and on Twitter as @derekf03