Literary Rivals: Feuds and Antagonisms in the World of Books by Richard Bradford, book review: The importance of literary success to writers is exposed


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Just how many of the great literary works were replies to, or parodies of, lesser works by rivals?

It’s an intriguing question, if loaded with some difficulty and not a little discomfort, which Richard Bradford commendably doesn’t shirk from confronting; we don’t necessarily like to see our favourites behaving badly.

Bradford suggests just such an uncomfortably parasitical rivalry between Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Nabokov and Edmund Wilson, for instance, where the former in each pair seems to have happily borrowed from, or appropriated, or parodied a friend or rival’s earlier work. There is also not so much damning with faint praise as killing with the more fulsome kind: Thackeray, Nabokov, Coleridge and Henry Fielding all piled extraordinarily glowing words on their rivals’ works, with only the merest hint of sarcasm.

There is also a strong Oedipal feel to much of this rivalry: literary sons are out to kill their more successful fathers. Vladimir Nabokov demonstrated this when he wrote to Wilson, the US’s then pre-eminent literary critic, for help in establishing his reputation when he first arrived in the States, and then later published a take-down of Wilson’s fiction. The younger, more gifted Somerset Maugham did similarly to Hugh Walpole, who struggled to get over the betrayal of a man he had trusted and helped.

But does Hemingway’s cruel dismissal of Gertrude Stein’s help to him in his early days in Paris, as revealed in A Moveable Feast, turn that Oedipal theory on its head, with a son turning on a “mother”, if Stein could be said to have “mothered” Hemingway at all? One “father” fought back and lost: the critic J C Squire repeatedly attempted to squash the up-and-coming generation of Modernist writers by dismissing the work of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. But who, as Bradford asks, remembers Squire now?

What Bradford also exposes, apart from who the clear winners of these arguments are, is the importance of literary success, and legacy, to many writers, especially those whose egos fail to allow them to accept nothing less than immortality. Is this egoism peculiarly male, given the lack of female representation in this study? Only the rivalry between Lillian Hellmann and Mary McCarthy gets a mention here: do women writers not fall out? Are they less competitive? A rival study may have to answer that equally intriguing question.