Writer-Fight: The 10 Best Put-Downs in Literary History

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There is a kind of unwritten rule among writers that you don’t criticize colleagues’ work too harshly, because they understand just how hard it is to produce great pieces. And yet, over the years handfuls of famous writers have taken huge exceptions to this rule, often with harsh but hilarious results.

Some of them expressed their opinions in letters that have been included in their biographies, and who knows if they intended for the world to know of them. Either way, of the ones that are out there for all of us to enjoy, here are 10 of the best literary smack-downs ever recorded.

  1. “Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked?”

    Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner are two titans of American fiction, but apparently they weren’t each other’s biggest fans. When an interviewer asked Hemingway if it was true he brought along a pitcher of martinis to his writing area, he replied, “You’re thinking of Faulkner. He does sometimes — and I can tell right in the middle of a page when he’s had his first one.” For his part, Faulkner said of Hemingway, “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” 

  2. “A formless and dull mass of phony folklore, a cold pudding of a book, a persistent snore in the next room, most aggravating to the insomniac!”

    Vladimir Nabokov is no hack writer. Two of his works are listed on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list. So when, in a 1967 interview, he decided to give his two cents on writing legend James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, it was no surprise that he did it quite expressively. “Finnegans Wake‘s façade disguises a very conventional and drab tenement house, and only the infrequent snatches of heavenly intonations redeem it from utter insipidity.”

  3. “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.”

    You know it’s a good put-down when it prompts the recipient to sue you. That’s exactly what Lillian Hellman did when author and critic Mary McCarthy dropped that line on her on national television. Hellman sued for libel to the tune of $2.5 million, quite a sum in 1979. Unfortunately for her, by filing the suit McCarthy then had to prove Hellman had lied in her memoirs. When Hellman died before the case ended, McCarthy said, “I didn’t want her to die. I wanted her to lose in court.”

  4. “It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.”

    Mark Twain’s insults could make a list in themselves, but he was particularly unfond of author Jane Austen. Twain claimed in a letter to a friend that he could read James Fennimore Cooper (another writer he famously loathed) “on salary,” but not Austen. In another letter he said reading Pride and Prejudicemade him wish he could “dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” 

  5. “A sack of the sheerest trash”

    Thomas Carlyle was a popular writer in the Victorian era, noted for his retained Calvinism despite his abandoned faith. The combination made for a man Samuel Butler quipped had fortunately married the perfect woman so that there would be two miserable people instead of four. But fellow Victorian writer Anthony Trollope had a much harsher take on Carlyle’s work, saying the eight shillings he had spent on Carlyle’s book were “very much thrown away.” Carlyle’s “trash” was proof to Trollope that the man “who was always in danger of going mad in literature … has now done so.”

  6. “A more sententious, holding-forth old bore, who expected every hero-worshipping adenoidal little twerp of a student-poet to hang on his every word I never saw.”

    Extra points to James Dickey for using the word “twerp” in his put-down. In an interview in 1972, the Deliverance author was asked if the poetry of Robert Frost, one of the most revered and well-known poets in American history, had impacted him. Dickey’s colorful response was that if anyone ever saw Frost’s influence on one of his poems, he would “take that particular work … shred it, and flush it down the toilet, hoping not to clog the pipes.”

  7. “Is it all a practical joke?”

    Samuel Butler was an established author and translator in his own right, but in criticizing Johann Wolfgang von Goethe he took on one of the most well-respected writers in history. Forty years after Goethe’s death, Butler wrote that he had been reading one of Goethe’s works and that he thought it was “the very worst book” he had ever read.” “I cannot remember a single good page or idea,” he said. “Is it all a practical joke?”

  8. “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”

    Jack Kerouac spoke to a generation of Americans with his writing in books like On the Road. His style of prose was free flowing and unfettered and appealed to young people at a time when they were tired of feeling restricted by society. But Kerouac’s prose was apparently a little too loose to suit Truman Capote, the rock-star author of In Cold Blood. Capote’s clever zinger implied he thought what he did and what Kerouac did were two different professions. 

  9. “My answer hath been, would he had blotted a thousand.”

    Shakespeare is a sacred cow in literature today, but he had his detractors in his own time. One of those was the poet and playwright Ben Jonson, who wrote several popular satires and had a wide influence on the genre. It seems Jonson was considered to be on the slow side when it came to writing plays, and he may have slightly resented Shakespeare’s ability to churn them out. “I remember, the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare that in his writing (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out line,” Jonson said in his book Timber, or Discoveries. “My answer hath been, would he had blotted a thousand.”

  10. “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”

    Hopefully you’ve already read Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop, because this quote contains a spoiler. “Little Nell” is the heroine of the story, a young girl whose parents have died and whose only family in the world is her grandfather who raises her. Sadly, little Nell dies after a long journey to a village to live with her grandfather as beggars. Sad, of course, unless you’re Oscar Wilde, the notorious wit and author of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Apparently he wasn’t “buying” the tragedy of the story.