Poisoned Pens: Literary Invective from Amis to Zola, ed Gary Dexter

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The Independent Culture

From Aristophanes, who attacked Euripedes in his play The Frogs (Euripedes was safely dead by that point), to the critic Harold Bloom, who recently consigned Harry Potter to the "vast concourse of works that cram the dustbins of the ages", Gary Dexter's book compiles pithy put-downs and waspish jibes from writers.

It can be a rather ugly spectacle – literary pugilism from men you suspect wouldn't have been much cop in a real fight – but it is always compelling: Kingsley Amis writes of Dylan Thomas that he'd like to "walk on his face" and "punch his privy parts" in return for the "gonorrheic rubbish" of his poetry; Noël Coward calls Oscar Wilde a "tiresome, affected sod".

There is, Dexter insists, a serious point to all this. Writers ensconced in the canon are too often considered immune from criticism, and his book allows us the thrill of seeing sacred cows challenged. Shakespeare is dismissed by Ben Jonson, Voltaire and Tolstoy; Joyce's Ulysses is deemed "unimportant" by Woolf and a "joyless orgy" by EM Forster. Amis fils, meanwhile, likens the experience of reading Cervantes to a visit from a doddering old relative who outstays his welcome. There's something refreshing in hearing Don Quixote described as "insufferably dull", even if you're inclined to disagree.