Why writers fight: A guide to global literary feuds

By Rahul Jayaram

Irony, drama and black humor are standouts of VS Naipaul’s sulphurous writings. Some of Paul Theroux’s more popular work is often low on quality but high on cheap thrills. But by the feted standards of men known for the frisson in their works, their public rapprochement was underwhelming. In the end, it took a silly little handshake to terminate a decade-and-a-half of tension. Fifteen years of mutual head-banging and mudslinging, ended in a whimper. Sad.

Their squabble wasn’t a highfalutin fight for an alternative perception of the world. Indeed, the cause for the friction between Naipaul and Theroux was behavior that was markedly male and unquestionably adolescent: women. Or, to be precise, one woman. Naipaul suspected skirt-chasing Theroux (a writer addicted to having one or more sex scene per book) to have seduced his deceased first wife. After a decade and more, his apprehensions have been proved wrong. Perhaps, the only thing missing was a CBI report confirming the same.

 Why writers fight: A guide to global literary feuds

Clearly, Theroux was emotionally prepared for both probabilities. He had prepared answers for acceptance and humiliation. AFP Photo

Indeed, during the moment at the Hay Festival when Ian McEwan hatched the meeting, Naipaul shook hands with old chela Paul only after looking for some sort of cue from wife Nadira. When the signal from Lady Naipaul was green, he smiled and said his salaams. Theroux, like much of his writing, was artless. When interviewed later his replies were prepubescent. “It was great to meet VS Naipaul, so I’m happy,” he burbled. When queried if the handshake hadn’t happened what he would do, Theroux said “Oh God, that’s Naipaul, I should say hello but I really don’t want to.” In truth, Theroux did walk forward and offer his hand. “I miss you,” he said. Naipaul glanced at his wife – and then shook it. “I miss you too,” he said. Theroux and Naipaul, were now behaving like lovers.

Clearly, Theroux was emotionally prepared for both probabilities. He had prepared answers for acceptance and humiliation. Nothing in the world can divide men like women. Nothing can unite them like women either. Never have two writers fought for so little, and regained even less.

Naipaul and Theroux aren’t the only Mohammed Ali-Joe Frazier duo of literature. Whenever super egos collide, it’s easy for sparks to fly. An editor with a publishing company says that the sense of a supersized ego can actually help spur writers to produce great work because it makes them sensitive to the barbs of the world.  It also helps them survive. “That huge ego is quite critical for a writer, because writing is a very competitive business,” she says. “It’s tough to get a shoo-in the publishing marketplace even in the best of times. That makes for writers to be unusually aggressive people.”

Unusually aggressive, indeed.  American writers Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal had a slugfest throughout their lives. Vidal likened Mailer’s sumptuously anti-feminist book The Prisoner of Sex as “three days of menstrual flow” and the writer himself to a serial killer. On the Dick Cavett show on television in 1971, Mailer replied by head-butting Vidal in the green room. Six years later, Mailer threw a glass of whiskey and punched him. Vidal, bleeding on the floor, came up with the immortal repartee: “As usual, words fail him”.

Mailer or Vidal or Naipaul or Theroux's ancestors in the world of letters, were a whit more civilized. In nineteenth-century Paris, on a street that would be later named after him, Honore de Balzac would coincidentally meet Alexandre Dumas while on evening walks. Both were commended novelists, but Balzac was indigent due to his debts and failed initiatives in printing, law, business and even politics. Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and Count of Monte Cristo were bestsellers that made Dumas the dude in Parisian circles.

Dumas and Balzac had an equation in private that was of the snake and mongoose variety. In public, they wore the mask of social graces. When they saw one another on the street they hugged, chatted for nanoseconds and continued. Dumas would usually be followed by his flunkeys; Balzac alone. After traversing some distance, Balzac would look back and tell a passerby (or himself), “Only if I had the money that this fool had.” While Dumas would mumble to his coterie, “He is such an idiot, but how I wish I could write like him!”

In the twentieth century, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway – contrasting voices of the American experience – held one another in genuine disrespect. Hemingway got real shirty at Faulkner winning the Nobel before him. He even called Faulkner a “phoney c**t”. Faulkner had earlier described Hemingway’s writing as amateurish for its simple language. “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary,” he muttered. As if making the reader run to the dictionary, was a marker of accomplishment.  Despite Faulkner’s greatness, if he were to be writing today, he’d remain unpublished.

In the current era, Salman Rushdie has had punches thrown at him and returned them with more force. In 2006, he took John Updike – a writer decades past his best – to the cleaners. Updike in his review of Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown in The New Yorker complained about “why oh why” Rushdie called one of his major characters Maximilian Ophuls. Rushdie replied to Updike’s gibe in The Guardian: “Why oh why ...? Well, why not? Somewhere in Las Vegas there’s probably a male prostitute called ‘John Updike’”. He called Updike’s latest novel Terrorist, as “beyond awful,” and recommended that Updike should “stay in his parochial neighborhood and write about wife-swapping, because it’s what he can do.” Updike's oeuvre, is one of American literature's most famous cases of satyriasis.

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In 1997, Rushdie had another fight with espionage master John Le Carre. During Rushdie’s fatwa years, though Le Carre defended freedom of expression, he had alleged that Rushdie had no right to disparage a great religion like Islam in his book The Satanic Verses. Christopher Hitchens joined issue with Rushdie. Both piled on the agony for Le Carre.

Wars between writers are arenas where the personal, political and professional converge. There are more layers to these than the Israel-Palestine conflict. Indian writing in English has perhaps had two big arguments this year. Critic Hartosh Singh Bal had a go at William Dalrymple and the Jaipur Literature Festival terming much of Indian writing in English to be “strangely beholden to the English”. Dalrymple barked back accusing Bal of racism. They finally made up over a drink, where else but at the Jaipur Literary Festival?

On the other hand, a review by the London-based Pankaj Mishra questioned the somewhat celebratory axis Patrick French’s latest book India: A Portrait revolved on. He thought French’s perception took a view of the country through rose-tinted lenses and that that was the case with most Westerners writing about India. French’s book was part of the imperial, celebratory narrative. French retorted by accusing Mishra of having become part of the Western establishment. Look who is talking of representing India, he claimed. It was Mishra who was part of the metropolitan elite now, French replied.

Going by the Bal-Dalrymple and Mishra-French fights, Indians should be happy our literary feuds take the slightly higher road – fighting over issues such as representation, the idea of India, and authenticity rather than who might have slept with whose wife.

Literary critic Nilanjana Roy observes: “The feuds I’ve found the most interesting are not the personal skirmishes – entertaining as those might be, they’re normal. You don’t have to be a writer to fight over sex or money or politics, or to have an oversized ego, or to part company with friends." She says it's the political or literary disagreements that are interesting because it's about a clash of ideas, not just the egos. "Aside from the personal barbs, I do find the whole debate over ideas of India and Indian history useful, for instance,” she says.

Does success for a writer make him/her more secure or insecure? Because most of the fights we have seen, include well-known names. “As far as the quarrels about the politics embodied in a writer’s work and the arguments concerning them, I think those can be helpful. The debates about representing India by ‘Indian’ or ‘foreign’ writers for instance is a very relevant one,” says the editor at the publishing company. “The personal one, I suppose,” she says, “is just entertainment!” How boring would the world be, without fighting writers?

Watch this video of Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal on the Dick Cavett show:

Updated Date: Jun 10, 2011 13:10:51 IST