Poison pens: The art of literary revenge
Jilly Cooper has named a goat in her latest novel after a critic who wrote a biting review. She got away lightly...
Friday 15 October 2010
There must be something about the many hours they spend alone with their word processors, hammering out words that no one will read until months after they are written that makes authors so very prickly at times. Jilly Cooper, for example, has a vast army of admiring readers, and has made millions from her special brand of fiction. She could surely afford to overlook a mildly critical review of her novel, Rivals, published in 1988, in which rich people get in and out bed with each other, which concluded with the comment: "The interminable randiness, drunkenness and the salacious, schoolgirlish innuendoes become tedious and distasteful."
But the review, and the name of the reviewer, Anne Chisholm, obviously stuck in her mind – because 22 years on, Cooper has revealed at the Cheltenham Literary Festival that she has used the reviewer's name for a character in her latest novel, Jump – and not a human character either.
"Chisolm" (the misspelling is Cooper's) is a goat, who has a sweet enough nature, but is described leaving mess in the car and on the kitchen floor. Surprised that she should be remembered after all these years, Anne Chisholm reacted philosophically. "On the whole, Cooper's revenge could have been a great deal worse," she wrote. "And all publicity is good publicity."
Cooper is not by any means the only author to resent a slight or carry on a feud. Here are some other examples of authors using their work to get back at someone who has crossed them.
James Frey vs Oprah
There is no better way to boost sales in the US book market than being featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, but for James Frey, author of a memoir called A Million Little Pieces, about his recovery from drug addiction, the experience turned nasty after it was revealed that a good part of his book was made up. He was called back on to the show when a sometimes tearful Winfrey demanded to know why "he felt the need to lie".
Three years later, in 2009, a paperback edition of Frey's novel Bright Shiny Morning, appeared, with a new section entitled "Chat Show Host" that was not in the original hardback. It described how the protagonist was hauled on to a chat show to be called a liar, and how he later recorded a telephone conversation with the chat show host in which she said that she had written a book that had never been published. When asked if he really had a recording of a phone conversation with Winfrey, Frey replied: "The book is fiction. Interpret it however you want."
John Hervey vs Alexander Pope
John Hervey was the eldest son of the Earl of Bristol, a courtier and a writer with a talent for making enemies, of whom the most talented was the poet, Alexander Pope. The quarrel is said to have begun because Hervey, who was bisexual, married a woman Pope fancied.
Hervey believed that the "Lord Fanny" in Pope's poem Imitations of Horace was an attack on him, and retaliated with Verses to the Imitator of Horace. He was also the suspected author of a letter that mocked Pope's humble birth and physical deformity. Pope hit back with some of the most insulting lines in English poetry, in which Hervey was lampooned as "Sporus", the gay lover of the Roman Emperor Nero: "Let Sporus tremble – 'What? that thing of silk, Sporus, that mere white curd of ass's milk? Satire or sense, alas! can Sporus feel?
Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?' Yet let me flap this bug with gilded wings, This painted child of dirt that stinks and stings..."
Melvyn Bragg vs Lynn Barber
Melvyn Bragg is a national treasure whose TV programmes were an adornment of the country's cultural life – or so Lynn Barber was told by everyone she spoke to as she was swotting up to interview the great man in June 1990.
She, on the other hand, could hardly bear to watch him on television – "smiling, simpering, giggling, looking down at his nails when he is supposed to be asking questions, exuding his awful smug matey blokiness... " Meeting him face-to-face, she was surprised to find him "twitchy", "neurotic" and very vain.
The interview in The Independent on Sunday was possibly the worst thing Lord Bragg had ever read about himself. He wasted no time taking revenge. In 1992, he published a novel, Crystal Rooms, which surprised people by the characters he drew, including a pushy, 40-something hack called Martha Potter. She is portrayed sitting in a public lavatory, pleasuring herself while dreaming of Prince Charles.
A N Wilson vs Bevis Hillier
This feud began with a hurtful book review, though the revenge was more elaborate and mischievous. Bevis Hillier is an art historian, who spent 25 years working on a three-volume biography of the poet John Betjeman. Wilson reviewed the second volume in 2002, and described it as "a hopeless mishmash". Then he set to work on his own book on Betjeman, which one newspaper forecast would be "the big one".
Hillier has denied any involvement in the following hoax, but the story told is that the predicted success was too much for Hillier, who composed a fake love letter from Betjeman to a woman named Honor Tracy, and sent it to Wilson, with a cover letter purportedly coming from a woman named Eve de Harben. It was later revealed that the letter was not just a fake, but an acrostic in which the first letter of each sentence spelt "A N Wilson is a shit" – while Eve de Harben is an anagram of "ever been had".
Sebastian Faulks vs DJ Taylor
Again it is said to have begun with an unflattering review. In 2005, Faulks published Human Traces, a fictionalised history of 19th-century psychiatry, which DJ Taylor, writing in The Spectator, assessed as being spoilt by too many "clumps of undigested data". He added: "Sebastian Faulks's novels have never worn their research particularly lightly."
In Faulks's next novel, A Week in December, there appeared a character named R Tranter, an embittered reviewer who took pleasure in destroying the careers of other writer by panning their work. Critics thought they spotted a likeness, though Faulks said Tranter was not based on Taylor.
Then, in March this year, Constable published a new novel by DJ Taylor, At the Chime of a City Clock, midway through which there appears a rather unpleasant detective, "a spindly-looking bloke in a brown mac with a strand or two of silvery hair plastered across his head..."
His name – Faulks.
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