The wickedest author to author insults

Is everyone up on the literary scandal du jour? The one where Salman Rushdie rated a couple dozen modern classics on Goodreads, and his clamorously low ratings for many of them (To Kill a Mockingbird, three stars out of five?! Lucky Jim only one?!) were shared with the 30 million members of the site, as is the wont of a "social networking website", resulting in a few shocked people and much media kerfuffle? Sir Salman claims he didn't dream they would be on public view and he was just playing around, which sounded a lot like saying he didn't inhale, but he did stick up for his right not to like Kingsley Amis books, which has to count for something.

Zero stars from me for The Independent, which described Sir Salman as having "sparked controversy with some trenchant opinions of some authors widely regarded as among the finest of their generation".

Star-rating a book is not a "trenchant opinion"! Trenchant opinions are, well, trenchant: from the French, meaning cutting, sharp. They involve skill, and are not done with an abacus, nor with a blunt instrument such as Bret Easton Ellis used on David Foster Wallace a few years ago when he declared "I continue to find [him] the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation", an earlier scandal du jour.

The best trenchant opinions make use of trenchant wit, as with Oscar Wilde's arch comment about the 18th century master of the heroic couplet: “There are several ways to dislike poetry; one is to dislike it, the other is to read Alexander Pope."

Here are some of my favourite author to author insults, witty, mostly trenchant, always wicked.

Dorothy Parker on Lady Asquith

For caustic, you can't go wrong with Dorothy Parker. Here's what she said in The New Yorker about Lady Asquith: "That gifted entertainer, the Countess of Oxford and Asquith, author of The Autobiography of Margot Asquith (four volumes, neatly boxed, suitable for throwing purposes), reverts to tripe in a new book deftly entitled “Lay Sermons.”

Cited by Quote Investigator as part of the evidence proving Dorothy did not actually quip, in a review of Atlas Shrugged, "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force."  Alas. It made for good telling.

Please note: our copy of the Asquith memoirs is a one-volume abridged version.

Valdimir Nabokov on Hemingway

Vladimir Nabokov on Hemingway, from his book Strong Opinions: "I read him for the first time in the early 'forties, something about bells, balls and bulls, and loathed it."

T.S. Eliot on Edgar Allan Poe

T.S. Eliot attributed to Edgar Allan Poe "the intellect of a highly gifted person before puberty."
(1948 Library of Congress lecture "From Poe to Valery")

Mary McCarthy on Lillian Hellman

"Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'."

Mary McCarthy's judgement on Lillian Hellman, proferred during an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, caused Hellman to sue her for libel, possibly not the wisest decision (shades of Oscar Wilde) in view of how many people came forth to testify to Hellman fabrications. Of course, it depends on what you want to get out of it. McCarthy was not wealthy and the cost of defending herself nearly ruined her, which she always suspected was the reason why the wealthy Hellman would not let go, through five long years. Only with Hellman's death was the case extinguished, if not the grudge, which I picture having been so strong as to still be lurking somewhere in the universe.

Nancy Mitford on Violet Trefusis

Which reminds me of Nancy Mitford's quip that Violet Trefusis's memoir Don't look round, politely deemed "unreliable" by the Times Literary Supplement, ought to have been titled Here lies Mrs Trefusis.

Katherine Mansfield on E.M. Forster

Katherine Mansfield had this to say about Howards End and its author, in her journal: "E.M. Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot. He's a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain't going to be no tea."

And to finish off, my personal favourite - Mark Twain on Jane Austen

Danger, danger, Janeites! Someone's about to be outrageous about Jane Austen:

In an 1898 letter to his friend Joseph Twichell, Mark Twain confided: "I often want to criticise Jane Austen but her books madden me so that I can't conceal my frenzy from the reader. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone."

Author: Karen Craig, Reading Engagement Specialist