By Martin Levin


jkr2In the annals of literature, the progress of friends and rivals has often been a matter of consuming interest to writers. The thoughts – often more the spewings – of those sufficiently in the grips of the green-eyed monster to go on record are the subject of Poisoned Pens: Literary Invective from Amis to Zola, edited by Gary Dexter (Francis Lincoln, 240 pages, $21.50). It’s a delicious concoction of dismissals, disappointments, re-evaluations (direction: firmly downward) and outright rants.

Writers have apparently always loathed and envied other members of the tribe: more famous, better paid, more fawning reviews, undeserved canonization. So the bilious range extends from the Greeks – Aristophanes’s entire play The Clouds is an attack on Socrates, and Martin Luther called Aristotle a “histrionic mountebank” – to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, whose celebration in The New York Times highbrow critic Harold Bloom condemned as “confirmation of the dumbing-down it leads and exemplifies,” thus potting two cultural birds with one stoning.

Mark Twain: A “hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe.” In his savagely funny essay Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences, Mark Twain wrote of the once immensely popular novelist: “There are nineteen rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction. … In Deerslayer, Cooper violated eighteen of them.”

Twain himself took it on the chin from fellow Southerner William Faulkner, who called him a “hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe, who tricked out a few of the old proven ‘sure fire’ literary skeletons with sufficient local color to intrigue the superficial and the lazy.”

Nor is the invective always strictly literary. Virginia Woolf saw Somerset Maugham as “a grim figure; rat-eyed, dead-man-cheeked, unshaven; a criminal I should have said had I met him in a bus.”

Charles Lamb wrote of Shelley: “His voice was the most obnoxious squeak I ever was tormented with,” and James Dickey, poet and novelist, said of an iconic New England poet: “If it were thought that anything I wrote were influenced by Robert Frost, I would take that particular work of mine, shred it, and flush it down the toilet, hoping not to clog the pipes.”

Robert Frost: a “sententious holding-forth old bore, who expected every hero-worshipping adenoidal twerp of a student-poet to hang on his every word.”

Bile of that intensity you just don’t encounter every day. But lest it be thought that the art of invective is a dying one in an age that regards offending anyone as the gravest of sins, I refer you to three recent instances of its continued liveliness.

Finally, there was Tom Wolfe, referring to heavyweight novelists John Irving, John Updike and Norman Mailer as “the three stooges,” fellow aging men who, unlike him, were out of touch with contemporary life and who belittled Wolfe’s own fiction ( A Man in Full, which Mailer called “a 742-page work that reads as if it is fifteen hundred pages long”) because they were simply jealous of his success.

It pains me, though, that Canadian writers have fallen invectively short. Are we too nice? Too deferential? Sure, there’s no shortage of private whining, resentments and jealousies, but wouldn’t it be a treat to have, say, Alice Munro opine of Robertson Davies something along the lines of: “The man was a blowhard. All that cloudy, mystical Jungianism hung on the slenderest of twigs; and never a character you could faintly believe in.”

Ah well, I can dream, can’t I?

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