Authors behaving badly

In my piece about Bobby Fischer last week I alluded to the fierce rivalries in chess. An example of this is the relationship between Fischer and Garry Kasparov. Fischer famously accused Kasparov and Karpov of choreographing their world championship contests. Such feuds have always fascinated me. In the world of books such rivalries are also frequent. I will not be limiting myself to literary authors as historians and philosophers are also great value for money: Here are four of my favourite examples.

Words fail him

American writers Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal enjoyed a relationship of mutual hatred. As we shall see time and time again a bad review was behind it all. The book in question was Mailer’s The Prisoner of Sex. This work of non-fiction attacked a number of the sacred cows of feminism including Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Kate Millett and Germaine Greer. In a review for The New York Review of Books, Vidal argued that Mailer’s anti-feminist tract “read like three days of menstrual flow.” What’s more he famously grouped Mailer with Henry Miller and Charles Manson as part of “a continuum in the brutal and violent treatment of women. Things got worse after they appeared together on the Dick Cavett Show in 1971. Here is a transcript of part of that show.

Mailer: We all know that I stabbed my wife years ago, we do know that, Gore. You were playing on that.

Vidal: Let’s just forget about it.

Mailer: You don’t want to forget about it. You’re a liar and a hypocrite. You were playing on it.

Vidal: But that wasn’t a lie or a hypocrisy.

Mailer: People who read The New York Review of Books know perfectly well — they know all about it, and it’s your subtle little way of doing it…

Vidal: Oh, I’m beginning to see what bothers you now. I’m getting the point.

Mailer: Are you ready to apologize?

Vidal: I would apologize if — if it hurts your feelings, of course I would.

Mailer: No, it hurts my sense of intellectual pollution.

Vidal: Well, I must say as an expert, you should know about such things.

In the green room after the show, Mailer headbutted Vidal. And six years later, at a party given by the journalist and publisher Lally Weymouth, Mailer threw a drink at Vidal, and punched him. Even lying on the floor Vidal was able to get in one of his trademark ripostes: “Words fail Norman Mailer yet again.”

If you can’t say anything nice…

This is a tale of rivalry among Sovietologists. Orlando Figes from Birkbeck College is the author of a number of books about Russia including Natasha’s Dance: A cultural History of Russia and The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia. But he came unstuck a couple of years ago. Once again negative reviews were at the centre of the dispute.

It is April 2010 and the talk in publishing circles is all about an anonymous Amazon reviewer with the nom-de-plume Historian who has been trashing works by fellow Sovietologists Professor Robert Service and Dr Rachel Polonsky. The latter had history with Figes – she had written a very hostile review of Figes’s Natasha’s Dance in 2002. And Figes was particularly scathing about Polonsky’s book, describing Molotov’s Magic Lantern, as “dense“, “pretentious” and “the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published“. The anonymous reviewer was more positive about Figes’s work: “Beautifully written … leaves the reader awed, humbled yet uplifted … a gift to us all,”

Matters came to a head when Polonsky read the reviews on Amazon. She knew immediately that it was Figes; she discovered that the reviewer shared the same home address as Figes. She saved the Amazon pages on her hard disk, printed them, scanned them, and sent the link to Service. Service contacted Figes, who after first suggesting that the two could mend their relations, decided that the best defence was to go on the attack. He threatened Service with legal action for having suggested that he was the author. On April 17th 2010 Figes, sensing that he had been rumbled, tried to suggest that his wife, the barrister and academic Stephanie Palmer, had written the poisonous reviews. One week later Figes finally confessed.:

It was stupid – some of the reviews I now see were small-minded and ungenerous but they were not intended to harm.

After the case was settled Rachel Polonsky released this statement:

I hope it will be clear to everyone (despite some misleading headlines and news reports) that our cause of action was not the pseudonymous Amazon reviews themselves. Our objectives in pressing this case were to recover the considerable costs we had incurred in fending off Professor Figes’s legal threats to Robert Service; to gain a contractual undertaking from Professor Figes not to use fraud, subterfuge or unlawful means to attack or damage us or our works in the future; and to require Professor Figes to circulate a formal apology and retraction to all the recipients of his email of 15 April.

The worst review of all time

Throughout the ages philosophers have reflected on the meaning of life. However there is one question that has proved beyond even the greatest thinkers – how to respond to a bad book review. This particular spat features American-born Ted Honderich, a professor emeritus at University College London and the editor of The Oxford Companion to Philosophy and Colin McGinn, an English professor, who works in the States. This particular spat began after a scathing review by McGinn of Honderich’s book “On Consciousness”. It could be considered the worst review of all time. Here is how McGinn’ begins:

This book runs the full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous to the merely bad. It is painful to read, poorly thought out, and uninformed.

And he concludes:

Is there anything of merit in On Consciousness? Honderich does occasionally show glimmers of understanding that the problem of consciousness is difficult and that most of our ideas about it fall short of the mark. His instincts, at least, are not always wrong. It is a pity that his own efforts here are so shoddy, inept, and disastrous (to use a term he is fond of applying to the views of others).

But for me the best part is the note he adds to the review:

The review that appears here is not as I originally wrote it. The editors asked me to “soften the tone” of the original; I have done so, though against my better judgment.

I would love to see the original! According to Honderich, McGinn is motivated by personal animus. The bad blood goes back to when the two professors were colleagues at University College London more than a quarter of a century ago. Honderich maintains that Mr. McGinn has never forgiven him for calling an ex-girlfriend of his “plain.”

They should write a book together

In 1988 Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, his fourth novel. The novel would provoke a furious reaction in the Muslim community for what some Muslims believed were its blasphemous references. As the controversy spread, the book was banned in India and burned in demonstrations in the United Kingdom. Then in February 1989 Ayatollah Khomeini, issued that infamous fatwa calling on all good Muslims to kill Rushdie. Apart from the fatwa Rushdie also felt he had not been supported by a number of prominent writers. This is when his feud with David John Moore Cornwell, AKA John Le Carré, began. Le Carré recommended that publication of the book be postponed to avoid the loss of lives. The feud flared up again in 1989 when Le Carré complained that he was the victim of a witch hunt by zealots of ”political correctness” in the United States, where he was accused of anti-Semitism. The issue had first come up in a 1996 New York Times review of his book The Tailor of Panama. The reviewer described his principal character, Harry Pendel, as the embodiment of the idea of the Jew as traitor who betrays for money.

Rushdie did not feel too sympathetic towards Le Carré’s plight. The stage this time was the letters section of The Guardian:

In 1989, during the worst days of the Islamic attack on The Satanic Verses, Le Carré wrote an article (also, if memory serves, in The Guardian) in which he eagerly, and rather pompously, joined forces with my assailants.

It would be gracious if he were to admit that he understands the nature of the Thought Police a little better now that, at least in his own opinion, he’s the one in the line of fire.

Le Carré responded immediately:

Rushdie’s way with the truth is as self-serving as ever. I never joined his assailants. Nor did I take the easy path of proclaiming him to be a shining innocent. My position was that there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity.

Rushdie was not impressed:

I’m grateful to John le Carré for refreshing all our memories about exactly how pompous an ass he can be. He claims not to have joined in the attack against me but also states that “there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity.”

A cursory examination of this lofty formulation reveals that (1) it takes the philistine, reductionist, radical Islamist line that The Satanic Verses was no more than an “insult,” and (2) it suggests that anyone who displeases philistine, reductionist, radical Islamist folk loses his right to live in safety.

Richard Ingrams, the former editor of Private Eye dislikes both authors:. ”As I have a low opinion of both of them and can’t bear to read either of their works, I must say I think they are both as bad as each other. Perhaps the solution is they should both sit down and write a book together.’‘ In fact, this is what two France’s most famous public intellectuals have done. These two rivals, novelist Michel Houellebecq, and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, have come together to produce Public Enemies, a book in which, according to the two men “lock horns on everything, including literature, sex, politics, family, fame and even – naturally – themselves.”  What an excellent idea.

So there you are. I could have mentioned the dispute between V.S. Naipaul and. Paul Theroux. The two writers fell out in 1996 when Theroux discovered through a bookseller’s catalogue that one of his own books, which he had lovingly inscribed to Naipaul and his first wife, was on sale for $1,500. Unfortunately they have now made up. I could also have mentioned the bust-up between Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, who punched the Colombian novelist. What made their dispute personal was Márquez’s interest in Llosa’s wife. The most recent feud is between two historians Niall Ferguson and Pankaj Mishra. After a negative review of his book Civilisation,Ferguson threatened to sue Mishra for allegedly portraying him as a racist. I enjoy reading Ferguson, but I think it would be a mistake to go to the courts- he should try Norman Mailer’s tactics.

So remember if you have any negative opinions about my blog, keep them to yourself. I bear grudges and you really wouldn’t want to be headbutted by me.

2 Responses to Authors behaving badly

  1. Peter Stone says:

    Though they had a guarded respect for each other as the two “greats” of their time, Hemingway and Faulkner also had their moments of discord.
    “Ernest Hemingway has no courage, has never crawled out on a limb. He has never been known to use a word that might cause a reader to check with a dictionary to see if it is properly used,” wrote William F.
    “Poor Faulkner,” responded Papa. “Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know $10 words. I know them all right. But there are other simpler and better words and those are the ones I use.”
    Hemingway then went on to counter attack: “Faulkner sometimes cons himself pretty bad. For quite a while when he hits the sauce towards the end of a book it shows bad. He gets tired and goes on and on and on, and the sauce writing is really hard on those who have to read it.”
    Unlike Mailer and Vidal’s exchange their skirmish was purely epistolary (now there’s a $10 dollar word for you) and they never descended to fisticuffs – which was probably just as well for Faulkner.
    Hemingway himself was hardly averse to the “sauce” and by the end had so ruined his health that his only way out was unload the contents of a shotgun into his mouth. Faulkner reached his own gradual Bourbon fuelled destiny shortly after. His was a slower form of suicide contrasting with Hemingway’s dramatic (“in your face”) finale.

  2. I just want to chime in here and recommend Public Enemies, the book of correspondence between Houellebecq and Levy. I am half-way through and I don’t want it to end. I thought the book was going to be a slug-fest (don’t believe the hype), but instead, found it heartfelt and compassionate. Their discussion is fascinating, covering a range of topics: philosophy, spirituality, victimhood, memory, poetry, French history, etc. So I will continue to read slowly in order to savor it.

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