A sad tale of 'pimp-slapping' and sharp elbows

For some people, being a writer has become as ruthless a contest as any Olympic event

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The American author Stanley Crouch was recently having lunch at a restaurant in Greenwich village when he noticed his fellow writer, the novelist and critic Dale Peck, walking by. Stanley had issues with Dale; quite serious issues. His book
Don't the Moon Look Lonesome had been given the traditional Peck treatment in a review - that is, it had been trashed, trounced, drubbed, pummelled and comprehensively ridiculed. So now he approached Dale, shook his hand and slapped him around the face.

The American author Stanley Crouch was recently having lunch at a restaurant in Greenwich village when he noticed his fellow writer, the novelist and critic Dale Peck, walking by. Stanley had issues with Dale; quite serious issues. His book Don't the Moon Look Lonesome had been given the traditional Peck treatment in a review - that is, it had been trashed, trounced, drubbed, pummelled and comprehensively ridiculed. So now he approached Dale, shook his hand and slapped him around the face.

The technical term for this kind of assault is apparently a "pimp-slap". The gesture is designed to express contempt rather than to cause physical hurt. Later, Stanley Crouch commented that he only wished he had had the presence of mind to hawk up a huge oyster and spit it in Dale's face.

It would probably be an exaggeration to conclude that this episode is typical of the way authors have learnt to behave in the early 21st century. Literary pimp-slapping is relatively rare and, besides, there is something traditional about writers hating each other. The 17th and 18th centuries were famous for the rivalries between Dryden and Shadwell, Pope and Colley Cibber. The tradition was maintained by Ibsen, who kept a portrait of Strindberg over his desk, saying, "He is my mortal enemy and shall hang there and watch me while I write." More recently, Norman Mailer acquired a reputation for squaring to Gore Vidal, Truman Capote or whoever had annoyed him most recently.

When Richard Ford received a negative review from the novelist Alice Hoffman, he bought a hardback copy of one of her novels, shot a hole in it with a pistol given to him by Raymond Carver, and mailed it to her. Even as magisterial a figure as John Updike has compared literary life to a Medusa's raft, small and sinking - "one's instinct when a newcomer tries to clamber aboard is to stamp on his fingers," he wrote. As if in response, a relatively new kid on the block, David Foster Wallace, has described Updike "a penis with a thesaurus". So it goes on.

But there is something about the contemporary scene that has made competitiveness, doing the next person down, a central part of the writing business rather than just a sideshow. Dominated by the marketing imperative, the publishing and bookselling process no longer has room for the semi-success, the slow burn, the author who was once successful or may possibly be successful in the future. Almost from the moment the first book contract is signed, a brutal bifurcation takes place between the achievers and the strivers.

Bestseller charts have always been important, but now there are all sorts of other lists of favourite reads or most promising authors to stoke the competition and pull writing closer to showbusiness. Next year, it is rumoured, a competition called Lit Idol, held at the London Book Fair and offering would-be authors the chance to write a few pages and compete for the prize of being represented by an agent, may be shown on television.

The festivals and fairs at which authors are invited to show off and sell their wares often reflect this new rivalrousness. In marquees, where the literary gang gather over glasses of white wine, conversation can be edgily egocentric, with as many points being scored or dropped as at a tennis tournament.

It is a shock for many people to discover that writers can be as vain, competitive and boastful as those in any other profession, but add a snobbery all of their own. One might think that hours spent alone shaping stories about character and the human condition might allow a benign wisdom, a generosity of spirit, to settle upon them, yet quite often, the opposite seems to be the case. The gentle storyteller, once released from the study, becomes a ravening tiger of self-obsessed ambition.

There may or may not be instances of pimp-slapping at the Edinburgh Book Festival but, as I travel north this week, it is with the certainty that, among my old writing friends, there will also be circulating a fair number of literary jerks. Names will be dropped. The details of impressive deals will be casually mentioned en passant. Sneery gossip about the disappointing sales of others will be eagerly passed on. Sessions by other authors will be shunned, as if merely being seen in someone else's audience is a concession to his or her talent. For these people, being a writer has become as ruthless and sharp-elbowed a contest as any Olympic event.

It occurs to me that in writing, and maybe in most other walks of life, talent and generosity tend as a general rule to go together. It is the most successful who are least likely to bother with the trivial idiocies of gamesmanship. They know, like Alexander Pope, that "Each burns alike, who can, or cannot write,/ Or with a Rival's or an Eunuch's spite./ All Fools have still an Itching to deride,/ And fain wou'd be upon the Laughing Side."

They have learnt that pimp-slapping of one kind or another is not the answer, and that the most effective way of succeeding and staying sane is to concentrate on one's own project and let others get on with their own. Working well is the best revenge.

terblacker@aol.com

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