Nothing new there, you might think. Insecurity and envy have always been an essential part of the literary life; the jealous rage caused by the success of contemporaries - assiduous, networking, talentless nobodies - has always been what gets writers to their desks every morning. Alexander Pope was so embattled that he kept a bound volume of his literary quarrels, which he prefaced with a quotation from Job: "Behold, my desire is that mine adversary had written a book, surely I would take it upon my shoulder, and bind it as a crown to me." And so it has continued, down the centuries. "The rivalry among novelists is quite as intense as that among sopranos," John Cheever wrote in his diary.
But recently we have moved on - on, and down. Cheever's daughter, Susan, also a writer, reacted to a bad review from William Styron by collecting dog turds and sending them to him. When Richard Ford received a bad notice from fellow novelist Alice Hoffman, he took out a pistol given to him by his friend Raymond Carver, shot a hole in one of her novels and mailed it to her. Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal scuffled on The David Letterman Show.
Words, these writers seem to recognise, tend to let you down when you need them most. Sometimes other means of expression - fist, pistol, dog turd - are more effective.
And so to the week's news of writerly pique. Responding to an article in The Morning Star in which it was argued that Captain Corelli's Mandolin was politically slanted, presenting the wartime Greek Communists as dehumanised sadists and the Italian Fascist army as amiable buffoons, the novel's author, Louis de Bernieres, opted for the direct approach. "How long are you people going to sit in an air-pocket, wanking each other off?" he asked.
A similar level of verbal sophistication was achieved by the journalist and novelist AA Gill, following criticism by The Spectator columnist Taki. His letter of reply invited his critic to "go fuck yourself, you smelly dago lesbian".
Now this is all very peculiar. Both de Bernieres and Gill are worldly, established writers who have been around long enough to know that taking your knocks in public goes with the territory. Yet they have reacted to criticism in low-circulation publications with the foul-mouthed, hysterical intemperance of spoilt footballers.
It seems that something awful happens to successful authors who begin to consider themselves as celebrities. Think of Jeanette Winterson, stamping her feet with rage on the doorstep of a critic, or John Le Carre and his various batey attacks on Salman Rushdie. Or even Rushdie himself, who recently rounded on a bewildered literary editor, accusing him of pursuing a vendetta.
For journalists and readers alike, it is all part of the celebrity merry- go-round - one day it's Kelly Brook, the next Louis de Bernieres. For writers, the most serious influence is not on their sanity, but on their work. Novelists who write crackpot letters to the press are beginning to act with the pique of those who believe that popularity has earnt them special privileges. From this state of mind, it is but a small step to allowing their need for approval to seep into the words that they write. The terrible effect of this need to be endearing can be found in virtually any novel that is written by a comedian.
The best commentary on the lure of public acclaim is not to be found in a book at all but in the songs of the astonishingly brilliant Randy Newman, a man who longs to be loved, who complains in interviews about his lack of popularity, and yet whose lacerating honesty emerges in every line of his work.
Perhaps the next time Gill or de Bernieres suffers one of these turns, he should remember that rage and bad language belong in the work. If he has to, Gill could pin a picture of Taki on his wall and, as Ibsen did with Strindberg, say: "He is my mortal enemy and shall hang there and watch while I write." De Bernieres might put down his mandolin and listen to the wise, ironical words of Randy Newman on his new CD Bad Love: "I want everyone to like me/ That's one thing I know for sure/ I want everyone to like me/ 'Cause I'm a little insecure."
Miles Kington is on holidayReuse content