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Why writers loved to feud Today's bright young things are too wet for a scrap

Master of the literary barb (David Levenson/Getty Images)


November 30, 2021   5 mins

There’s no bloodsport like a literary feud. Words are a writer’s field of expertise, so we can wield them like nunchucks — especially at ex-lovers. I don’t give a damn what Brad and Angelina are up to in their four-year, two-million-dollar divorce — but tell me that Liz Jones has written something nasty about her ex Nirpal Dhaliwal, or vice versa, and I’m all over it.

This war of words — Punch and Judy without the baby or the violence — is still going on despite the fact they divorced in 2007. But they still can’t stop tearing chunks out of each other; earlier this year, Dhaliwal used the marriage of Lady Kitty Spencer to an older man as a warning against an age difference between couples.

He wrote in the Telegraph: “My ex, during our time together, turned her one-sided take on our relationship into a lucrative industry, churning out thousands of articles. I still appear in her work now, despite not speaking to her in 12 years… no one thought to question her shabby flaunting of a brown and virile toy-boy.” Recollections certainly vary on this one, as Liz retorted in the Mail: “I never once berated him for his morbid obesity. Instead, I hired him a personal kick-boxing trainer, and bought him a bicycle. Which makes this line puzzling: ‘Her shabby flaunting of a brown and virile toyboy.’ Virile! We rarely had sex.”

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They are, of course, in good company. Writers love to be bitchy about other writers; we make contestants in a beauty pageant look like Poor Clares. It’s quicker to name writers who didn’t get into verbal scraps than those who did. Rimbaud and Verlaine, Thackeray and Dickens, Conan Doyle and Bernard Shaw, HG Wells and Henry James, Updike and Rushdie.

Gore Vidal was perhaps the worst/best. “Every time a friend succeeds, something inside me dies,” he once admitted. He adored feuding with other writers, especially Truman Capote, whom he met in the Forties: “My first impression — as I wasn’t wearing my glasses — was that it was a colourful ottoman. When I sat down on it, it squealed. It was Truman.”

They quarreled endlessly in the press all through the next decade, and by the Sixties it ended up in court. Capote said that Vidal had been thrown out of the White House because he was “drunk and obnoxious”. Vidal denied it, and sued, eventually winning the drawn-out case — by which time Capote had no money to pay Vidal damages.

They never reconciled; in 1984, on being told by a newspaper of Capote’s death, Vidal answered: “A wise career move.” Yet he saved his most withering put-down for someone else completely: “The three saddest words in the English language are Joyce Carol Oates.”

Women writers can be bitches too, of course. “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’,” said Mary McCarthy of Lillian Hellman. Flannery O’Connor on Ayn Rand: “She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.”

For my part, I’ve had some lovely exchanges with the writers Camille Paglia and India Knight, which — at least from my side — were mostly of the four-letter variety.

But that was just a bit of fun. Where it really gets fascinating, rather than plain public fisticuffs, is when a writer disguises a figure — usually an ex, sometimes an enemy — in a novel. Sometimes the name will be used outright; Ian Fleming hated the architect Erno Goldfinger so much that he named one of the most revolting Bond villains after him. Kingsley Amis based the drippy Margaret in Lucky Jim on his friend Phillip Larkin’s girlfriend Monica. In Melvyn Bragg’s novel The Crystal Rooms, after he was done over by my friend Lynn Barber, a character called ‘Martha Potter’ appears: a “successful metropolitan journalist, in her forties, aching for fame” who is drunk, fat and pleasures herself in the office toilets. (Coincidentally, Martha is a writer who is expert in eviscerating her subjects.)

But it’s Martin Amis who is the master of the devious literary barb. Admittedly, we don’t get along. After I gave one of his books a bad review he uttered: “I feel a kind of generalised species shame that I belong to the same breed as her.” To which I retorted: “I’ve never heard Martin Amis explain exactly why it’s bad — and probably indicative of some vast spiritual void — for bond traders to demand lots of money for their work and trade in their wives for younger models, but perfectly OK for novelists to do the same and still expect to be taken seriously as moral pontificators….”

Amis is famous for filleting friendships. And not just in fiction: he alienated his long-time bestie Julian Barnes when he fired his agent Pat Kavanagh (Barnes’s wife) for not securing him a sufficiently large book advance, and took up with a flash American one. Allegedly, Barnes wrote to Amis wishing him as happy an ending as two of the new agent’s other star clients: Salman Rushdie, living in fear of a fatwa, and Bruce Chatwin, who died of AIDS.

Why do we do it? Richard Burton said that so many male actors were drunks because they knew that sitting for hours in a make-up chair, dressing up in costumes and prancing about pretending to be someone else was “not a proper job for a man”. When you consider the world of work, and the boring, arduous things people do eight hours a day, perhaps we writers appreciate how easy our lives are. So we create trouble for ourselves in order to feel that our lives are harder than they are. Additionally, writers are notorious for procrastination. If you’re engaged in a war of words, you’re still actually writing; it’s still helping you avoid Your Novel.

As for myself, I’ve been told by quite a few of my husbands that I have a Good Twin and an Evil Twin within me. But the idea of myself as a Bad Person took hold at an early age. My parents were lovely people with a good marriage and I was a happy child. Then the hormones and Dorothy Parker hit and the idea of niceness — the be-all and end-all of a provincial working-class girl in the early Seventies — nauseated me.

Though I’m 62 now and know it’s not becoming to be an Asbo granny, old habits die hard. They say that fame is a mask which eats the face, but I can slip in and out of mine with great ease — after all, I’ve had 45 years of practice. Coming in from a hard morning volunteering at the charity shop, I swap masks, turn on my computer, and if there’s no paid scrapping that day, I’ll start a fight, just to keep my hand in.

Regrettably, I don’t believe that today’s generation will provide such amusement. They’re too wet, and too busy having a go at JK Rowling, who doesn’t respond as she’s so far above them in every way. Imagine Sally Rooney having a feud, the drip!

And yet despite her meekness, not for nothing did F. Scott Fitzgerald say, during his nervous breakdown, “I avoided writers very carefully because they can perpetuate trouble as no one else can”. Perhaps I’m proof of this, too. But a few abusive words on Twitter have none of the grace and wit of a glorious literary feud.


Julie Burchill is a journalist, playwright and author of Welcome to the Woke Trials, available now. Her latest play, Awful People, co-written with Daniel Raven, comes to Brighton Pier in September 2023.

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Martin Bollis
MB
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

I genuinely don’t understand the pleasure in manufactured vitriol.

I have some strong opinions. I enjoy debating them, but prefer not to get all frothy mouthed about it. Agreeing to disagree is still possible with civility when it becomes clear the positions are irreconcilable.

I much prefer a bit of banter. Humour is a much underrated human trait. If the legions of the po faced woke, and some of the more extreme commenters here, could occasionally laugh at themselves, the world would be a better place.

Still, don’t knock it til you’ve tried it. I googled Dhaliwal and Jones. Based on two Wikipedia articles I’m a solid Dhaliwalian. A pox on the miserable Jonesites with their pathetic emotional incontinence.

Come and ave a go if yer think yer ard enough.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

The conclusion I almost inevitably come to with these feuds is that they’re both as bad as each other. In different ways, for sure, but that’s a distinction without a difference.
The only exception to this in the above list is HG Wells versus Henry James. HG Wells is more readable today, but was a eugenics-favouring compulsively-ma5turbating philandering socialist buffoon. I don’t know anything about Henry James’ personality or private life, but he’d have had to be really going for it to come close to Wells in the ‘bad as each other’ stakes. So on that basis, and in gratitude for The Turn of the Screw, I’d take Henry’s side.

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

There’s a woman journalist ( can’t remember her name ) who every week fills a page in the Sunday Times accusing members of the Royal family of parasitism !

Ian Stewart
IS
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

Yup, camp Dhaliwal for me too. I’ll hold the coats….

Madeleine Jones
MJ
Madeleine Jones
2 years ago

If you ever want a smile, I suggest a quick web search of author feuds. Although not on the same level – it’s interesting to discover what writers think of each other. Tolstoy wasn’t keen on Shakespeare, and Austen never won over Charlotte Bronte (I think? It was a Bronte sister, I’m sure).
I find the rugged, fiesty individualism of writers fascinating. But it’s missing. I’m sure cancel culture and social media play their part.
Oh, and Sally Rooney? If she’s eager to snap words with a writer, well, I am game 🙂

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

I am a not-famous poet, and have tried my damnedest without response to initiate a feud with the famous not-poet Joe Dunthorne over the sheer McGonagallesque awfulness of his “Poem in which I Practice Happiness”, which for some unfathomable reason the New Statesman saw fit to publish in 2016:-
I love pigeons even
when their claws are stumps
and they walk as though in heels.
I love guinea pigs
for the idea they are in some way
a pig. Their heartbeats make their bodies
vibrate. I like to pretend
to answer them. Whom may I say is speaking?
I love football. More people love football
than love social justice
but that doesn’t mean football
isn’t brilliant. Whenever I head the ball
I feel a poem evaporate.
      I hate the bit of the poem
      where you’re obliged
      to hate something.
I love the piano.
I love true crime.
I love the sun
when it arrives
like a tray
of drinks.

The ghastliness of Dunthorne’s poem crops up here and there in my verse. Here are some lines from the middle of Book 1 (of a projected 4; I’m halfway through Bk3) of The Wokeiad. J____ is of course Owen Jones. This excerpt relates the demon/goddess Wokeness’s rescue of Jones from his attempted suttee on a burning of books:-
Wokeness aloft on gentle Zephyr’s breeze
Above this bonfire of the vanities,
Looks down in some disquiet at the blaze.
“The fashion’s not for sacrifice these days.
What vaunting Jupiter, what martial boast
Commemorates the burning of the toast? 270
I want to jerk my puppet on a string,
Not barbecue him like a chicken wing.”
Wokeness in winged dishonour now descends,
Her steps to J____’s bedsit straightway tends,
And finds the conflagration in full blaze.
“The remedy for fire’s a nice cheap phrase,
The squalidest epitome of lame
Is what serves best to extinguish a flame,”
So Wokeness roots about for a cliché,
Some stale quatrain with meter gone astray, 280
Some rancid ode with meretricious rhyme,
Sifts through Victoriana, beatnik, grime,
Discards McGonagall, Bukowski too,
And finds that Ferlinghetti won’t quite do.
The Staggers moulders in the bedsit loo,
Which J____ peruses when he does a poo.
This more in expectation than in hope
Wokeness scans thereof each abusive trope,
Between its glued-together pages finds
The jismop of Joe Dunthorne’s tiny mind, 290
The slimy pus of an inflamed abscess:
‘Poem In Which I Practice Happiness’.
What editor would publish this affront,
Of she-hyena’s womb th’aborted runt?
Dunthorne ‘loves pigeons when their claws are stumps’
And 21 more lines of Forrest Gump.
Apollo groans and crumples up his wreath,
And sage Athene’s rusting spear is sheathed.
“Res ipsa!” Wokeness cries, “the very thing
To extinguish a fire or block a spring.” 300
Wokeness takes up the mouldy paper sheet
And lays it like some barbecuing meat
Upon the conflagration of great works.

Last edited 2 years ago by Drahcir Nevarc
Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
2 years ago

Flannery O’Connor on Ayn Rand: “She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.” Hilarious!

Jim Richards
Jim Richards
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

Adapted by Matt Taibbi who said that Robin DiAngelo’s ‘White Fragility’ was so dumb it made ‘The Art of the Deal’ read like the Brothers Karamazov

Jean Nutley
Jean Nutley
2 years ago

I am of the opinion that these feuds are driven by narcissism, resentment and jealousy in equal measure. If you doubt it, try reading MS Jones column in the Mail on Sunday magazine. Nothing but self pitying twaddle. Much acclaimed apparently, all I can say if that is the yardstick, Gawd help us all.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
2 years ago

The thing is about JB that on those rare (?) occasions she talks bollocks, it’s entertaining ajd spirited bollocks

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

I think you need to cross out ‘Writers’ and put in ‘Celebrities’ as your piece seems to really mean that.

Lesley van Reenen
LV
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

I must admit that I immediately googled the first two characters mentioned….(well certainly not Brad and Angelina).

Last edited 2 years ago by Lesley van Reenen
Jean Nutley
JN
Jean Nutley
2 years ago

I had to do the same, and am now of the opinion that those two deserved each other.Shame that they divorced,now there will be four unhappy people instead of two.

Jon Redman
HJ
Jon Redman
2 years ago

a “successful metropolitan journalist, in her forties, aching for fame” who is drunk, fat and pleasures herself in the office toilets.

Didn’t you have a character in your novel who did the same? I’m sure I remember an incident of this nature in the Elizabeth Hurley audiobook reading of it that Loaded (or someone) gave away.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago

“This war of words — Punch and Judy without the baby or the violence — is still going on despite the fact they divorced in 2007.”
Clearly a writer I will never be. The whole point of divorcing someone is to ensure that you never have to argue with them or think about them again – ever. Divorce is shorthand for buggeroffanddie.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago

“.”

Last edited 2 years ago by Terry Needham