Author Smackdowns

As a follow-up to my post last week, I was going to jump in with a response piece. Now I know why you write, so here’s why I read. But Miriam totally beat me to the punch. How dare she?!

So it’s an about face and on to talk again about commercial versus literary fiction. Or really, commercial versus literary authors. On Saturday, I was going to attend an event called An Afternoon of Failure which was a bunch of authors getting together to discuss whether we have failed literature or if it has failed us. I figured it would be pretty self-congratulatory and very anger-inducing, but what can I say? Sometimes you need a little dose of pretension to get the blood boiling. Of course, as is only fitting for an event called “An Afternoon of Failure,” I sat down on my couch shortly before I was to leave and found myself waking up two hours later having completely missed the whole thing. Oops! Regardless, this sounded like a bunch of marginal authors hanging out together mourning the state of current literature and making some absurd argument about how books stopped being good after…(fill in the blank).

As someone who just plain loves reading, I often feel caught between the hyper-literary and ultra-commercial. It doesn’t really make sense to feel trapped since the lines are so superfluous, but both groups tend to take themselves too seriously. Whether it’s literary authors griping about how “good literature” never sells or commercial authors whining about how dull literary fiction is, it’s still snobbery. Over at The Morning News’s Tournament of Books this morning, Jennifer Weiner who often bemoans the ways commercial fiction is belittled said that Jennifer Egan’s A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD was “no fun.” I literally gasped in horror. She went on to say, “Egan’s book seemed more like an exercise in Let Me Show You How Clever I Am than anything as lowbrow as entertainment.” Which completely misses the point since the book is wildly entertaining AND fun AND funny. But more relevantly, it’s the kind of inter-author sniping that is so common and so mysterious.

I’m not going to lie: sometimes it’s super fun to see authors on the attack because people who write for a living tend to come up with THE best put-downs. I still don’t fully understand these sorts of literary rivalries, though. Is it the competitive nature of the industry putting people on edge? Is it petty jealousy? Is it a sincere belief in one’s superiority? Haters gonna hate. But I wonder why other people think that is.

To close, I’ll offer my favorite ever moment of inter-author bitchery. Mary McCarthy (sadly, no relation) went on Dick Cavett and suggested, regarding Lillian Hellman, that “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.” It’s too good. So maybe the better question is, how secure do you have to be in your own intelligence and wit to take an author on?

8 Responses to Author Smackdowns

  1. There’s a very intriguing book called Literary Feuds–and it covers the McCarthy/Hellman debacle. As well as Updike vs. Wolfe vs. Mailer, Stein vs. Hemingway, and Sinclair Lewis vs. Theodore Dreiser. It only covers one century but it’s enough to prove this stuff ain’t new. =)

  2. Michael G-G says:

    LOVE these literary feuds. (Add Naipaul and Paul Theroux; Le Carre and Rushdie). I’m not even an amateur psychologist, more of a psychobabbler really, but I suspect that in those of a writerly persuasion there is waged a great war between overweening ego and poor benighted (and oft-rejected) mini-me. Arrogance vs. insecurity.

    Jennifer Weiner’s certainly making a name for herself. Let the verbal fisticuffs fly!

  3. Bethany Neal says:

    Um, I think you have to be very insecure about your own intelligence and wit to take another author on.

    We all write differently, and there are countless readers out there with multifaceted interests. So why the hate? If you don’t like it, don’t read it!

  4. LupLun says:

    Hahaha. Yes, this stuff goes back a ways. S. Andrew Swann brought up Mark Twain’s blasting Ambrose Bierce when the latter decided to phone it in. Which, as I pointed out, doesn’t come close to Twain’s thorough deconstruction of James Fenimore Cooper.

    The absolute king of author vs. author put-downs, however, has to be Drydan’s MacFlecknoe.

  5. Monica says:

    Writing is too subjective for me to ever feel comforatble enough to attack another author. What is boring or pretentious to one reader might be a life-altering work of art to another.

    When it comes to opinions about books, everyone is right.

    I think the need to attack does come from insecurity as Bethany said. We can’t all write the same style or genre. We just have to co-exist.

    Still it is entertaining, as long as you aren’t involved.

  6. If you’re secure in your intelligence and wit, you wouldn’t feel the need to take on another author. I truly believe that “all writing helps all writing.” Even if you read something you think is crap, it teaches you what not to do. I’ve never understood authors who belittle other genres/writers/etc. I watched so many people jump on the bash Stephanie Meyer bandwagon, but you know what? She got TONS of reluctant readers to pick up her books, and though they might not be the type of books I’d choose to write, a rising tide lifts all boats.

  7. Dea K says:

    I don’t think it’s necessarily insecurity. I think that’s the conclusion people jump to when they don’t like what is being said, and thus, the person saying it. Claiming someone is insecure is really an even bigger put-down than simply saying he or she is a jerk.

    Personally, I think writers can be critical of other writers for two reasons. One, they are readers. Voracious readers. Readers who analyze deeply and make judgments based on all the other things they have read. Two, they are writers. They know the craft, so they can be critical of the craft. Further, they have ideas about what books should be about; if they didn’t, they’d have nothing to write about. So, they have to believe fiercely in the ‘truth’ of what they, themselves, are wanting to say. Sometimes this means they think other writers are wrong about what they want to say. Inevitable, I think, and fine. I love a good lit brawl too!

  8. Julie Nilson says:

    I’ve been loath to admit it, but I felt similarly about A Visit from the Goon Squad. While I thought the structure was brilliant and the intertwining plotlines and timelines were very clever, I didn’t LOVE it, even though I felt like I should. I think it’s because with so many characters and so many stories in one book, I never got to really know the characters. There was no one that I loved or hated.

    But that’s just me. I want to get emotionally involved with the charatcers, and obviously, that’s not the same for everyone.

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