Stephen McGinty: Art of the literary punch-up

Salman Rushdie called Le Carre "a dunce" and "a pompous ass" . Photograph: LUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images)
Salman Rushdie called Le Carre "a dunce" and "a pompous ass" . Photograph: LUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images)
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When writers go to war, sometimes words are the sharpest weapons – but sometimes even that is not enough to express their feelings, writes Stephen McGinty

THE late Christopher Hitchens conjured many memorable images over his argumentative lifetime, but one of the most evocative was when he rushed in print to the aid of his friend, Salman Rushdie, who was in the midst of a literary feud with John Le Carré. The author of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was one of the few writers not to side with the author of The Satanic Verses following the fatwa, stating that Rushdie should have been aware of the potential for a murderous backlash. In a bitter tit for tat, Le Carré described Rushdie as “arrogant” and having undergone a “self-canonisation”, while Rushdie hit back that Le Carré was “a dunce” and “a pompous ass”.

John Le Carre calls Salman Rushdie "arrogant". Photograph: AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth

John Le Carre calls Salman Rushdie "arrogant". Photograph: AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth

The Hitch then stuck in his oar and compared Le Carré to “a man who, having relieved himself in his own hat, makes haste to clamp the brimming chapeau on his head”.

It is for such wit that I do so enjoy a good literary feud, as writers are wont to wield the best insults. Yet sadly for those of us who, like schoolboys gathering in a circle, love a good scrap, an age of peace and reconciliation appears to have broken out in the international literary community. Earlier this week this feud apparently drew to a close when Le Carré responded to Rushdie’s regrets in his recent memoir, Joseph Anton. Rushdie wrote: “I wish we hadn’t done it. He’s a writer I really admire.” And the spy author said this week: “I too regret the dispute. I admire Salman for his work and his courage, and I respect his stand.”

This will just not do. If the contemporary literary feud had an “unholy trinity” it would be composed of: Paul Theroux versus VS Naipaul; Mario Vargas Llosa v Gabriel Garcia Márquez, and Le Carré v Rushdie. All of which have now come to an amicable end.

In the case of Theroux versus Naipaul, the origins of the feud can be traced to the mid-1990s when Theroux was alerted to the fact that his old friend had sold off one of Theroux’s books – signed and personally dedicated – for £1,000. Theroux responded by trashing their friendship in a memoir, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, in which he skewered the Trinidadian author as a racist egotist. Yet, after 15 years, the wall of silence came tumbling down at the Hay Festival in 2010 when Theroux asked fellow writer Ian McEwan what he should do after spotting Naipaul in the green room. “Life is short. You should say hello,” was the answer. Theroux did and, with a handshake, the animosity between the men fell away.

The feud between Llosa and Márquez, the two giants of South American literature, rumbled on for almost 35 years – since that warm evening in Mexico City in 1975 when, outside a film premiere, Llosa punched Márquez in the face (Márquez was said to have told Llosa’s wife that she should leave him). There was also the matter of politics: Llosa was right wing and denounced the left wing Márquez as “Castro’s courtesan”. However, in 2010, when Llosa was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Márquez signalled a halt to hostilities with a brief tweet reading: “Now we’re even.”

Norman Mailer kept a list of his “enemies” and seldom forgot a slight. When Gore Vidal described the experience of reading Mailer’s novel The Prisoner of Sex as akin to “three days of menstrual flow” in 1971, Mailer took the opportunity of an encounter with Vidal in the green room of The Dick Cavett Show in the US to administer what in the west of Scotland is dubbed a “Glasgow Kiss”, but in America is simply a stiff head butt.

Seven years later, at a party, Mailer and Vidal once again met with aggressive consequences. Mailer began by hurling a glass at his bête noir, then launched a physical attack. As Vidal later noted: “I saw his tiny fist coming at me.” Vidal was knocked to the floor, but was still able to provide the knock-out blow: “Words fail Norman Mailer, yet again.”

A quarter of a century later, Mailer was still throwing punches, but this time only on paper. When Tom Wolfe published his novel A Man In Full, Mailer said of it: “Reading the work can even be said to resemble the act of making love to a 300lb woman. Once she gets on top of you, it’s over.” Wolfe responded by corralling his three staunchest critics – Mailer, John Irving and John Updike – into an essay and mocking them collectively as “My Three Stooges” and insisted that it was the lead dog that others try to bite in the ass. Mailer came back to say: “Just cause you’re bleeding from the ass, doesn’t make you the lead dog.”

Ernest Hemingway may have exchanged barbed insults with F Scott Fitzgerald, his former friend from Paris in the 1920s – of whom he later said: “I always knew he couldn’t think” – but the pair never came to blows. However, when Max Eastman wrote a novel which contained a parody of Hemingway and insisted that the author “take the false hair off your chest, Ernest”, the author tracked Eastman down to a bar, then, having ripped open his own shirt to verify the authenticity of his luxuriant chest rug, promptly picked up a copy of the offending novel and whacked him across the face.

While Americans are wont to throw punches, Russian novelists were most likely to draw blood. After years of literary fencing, in a fit of anger Leo Tolstoy challenged Ivan Turgenev to a duel in 1861, with pens replaced by loaded pistols. The duel was to take place in the woods near Bogoslovo, whose name was translated as “the Word of God”. However, when the reality of what he had triggered finally washed over Tolstoy he wisely decided that literary criticism wasn’t worth risking one’s life and so he made a profuse apology to Turgenev and cancelled the duel.

The closest we have come in recent years to an old-fashioned dust-up was when American novelist Richard Ford responded to a foul review from fellow writer Colson Whitehead by allegedly spitting on him at a party. Afterwards Whitehead said: “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 weather.”

So if one was to seek out the current state of the literary feud, the pickings would be rather weak, with fights breaking out not in TV show green rooms or in Russian woodland, but on the internet. In 2009, the urbane philosopher Alain de Botton found himself unable to apply the wisdom of the stoic philosophers and just accept Caleb Crain’s foul review of his latest book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, in the New York Times. Instead, in a paroxysm of rage, he went to the critic’s website and left a long, bile-filled rant, which concluded: “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill-will in every career move you make.”

A rash move, perhaps, and one de Botton said he later regretted and for which he apologised via Twitter – but at least he had the honesty to put his name to his thoughts.

Yet such honest antagonism, however brief, is becoming rarer as writers go undercover and indulge in “sock puppetry” – the act of leaving anonymous barbed reviews on the works of competitors while delivering bouquets to their own tomes. The practice came to light most publicly when Orlando Figes, a history professor at Birkbeck College, London, and author of works including Natasha’s Dance and A People’s Tragedy, left a number of anonymous reviews damning the work of foes as “disappointing” and “dull” while praising his own work as “beautiful and necessary” and, most toe-curlingly of all, writing: “I hope he writes for ever.” (What was particularly curious was that Figes was by far the more lauded and successful author.)

If you were to present an award for the most cunning success in a literary feud, it would have to go to art historian and writer Bevis Hillier, who found himself going head to head with AN Wilson when both were writing biographies of poet John Betjemen. In a breathtaking move of literary audacity, Hillier forged a spoof love letter in Betjemen’s name and saw that it reached the hands of his foe. Wilson was delighted by his new discovery and promptly included it in his finished work, only – after publication – to discover that he had been fooled and that the first letter of each sentence in the forged letter together spelt: “AN Wilson is a shit.”

But is the literary feud different from any other aggressive state of estrangement? Well, it can be argued that authors view their work as akin to children, given the effort and labour that goes in to their creation and so will not take kindly to another “parent” pointing out how ugly and malformed their “bonnie babe” is .

Still, to judge by this week’s cessation of hostilities between Le Carré and Rushdie, it seems that literature has grown up. What a pity.