Ever since Ben Jonson's snide suggestion that William Shakespeare could improve his style by writing less, professional disagreements have led authors to wage tempestuous feuds, and even throw the odd punch.
Yesterday, Ian Rankin, the best-selling crime writer, lifted the lid on a seething contemporary rivalry affecting a whole genre. Asked if he found encounters with other authors stimulating, Rankin replied: "No. There's a lot of bitching and backbiting. Writers, by their very nature, are solitary creatures who don't like competition. So when you put us up against other writers – whether it's in a bar or on a panel – this competitive edge comes into it."
Speaking to the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, he claimed that literary novelists were jealous of the success of crime writers, whose prose they often derided as pulpy. "Without a doubt there is jealousy over the sales. I mean, [crime fiction] is a popular genre. It sells by the millions," he said. "We're the non-literary brigade. You don't want us in your literary club, so we'll make our own club, and help each other out as much as we can."
Literary novels have, historically, been seen as the books that win prizes, while crime novels have been dismissed as airport fiction. But that distinction has long since disappeared, says Rankin. "The best crime fiction today is talking about the same things big literary novels are talking about. They are talking about moral questions, taking ordinary people and putting them in extraordinary situations ... some of the best crime fiction is literature. And some of the best literature is crime fiction."
Reflecting on his own history of spats, Martin Amis told The Independent he had never knowingly started a dispute. "If somebody says something in a letter, you tell them in private. If someone does it in public, you defend yourself," he said. He said it tended to be those on the "periphery" of the establishment who tended to be the most backbiting, and often had "peripheral talent".
Philip Kerr, the crime novelist who has just returned from an (amicable) literary festival in Adelaide, Australia, said the nature of writing led some to become paranoid: "If you spend all your time on your own, it tends to make you feel solitary and neglected, and it's easy to perceive slights when none exist."
One of the biggest points of contention occurred over book reviews written by fellow authors, he added.
"If you are a writer and you review as well, that's not a good recipe for excellent relations with fellow writers. I will be sharing a platform with a fellow crime writer shortly, at Edinburgh, whose book I reviewed unfavourably. I have reread it and apologised since," he said.
Amis concurred, saying he had stopped writing hostile book reviews in his 20s. "Scathing reviews by writers is [a reflection of] a corruption of power. You have got a guy's fate in your hands."
Peter Kemp, a newspaper fiction editor and member of the Man Booker Advisory Committee, said such spats were memorable because of the high levels of eloquence between the people exchanging insults: "Since words are their business, they are more likely to acquit themselves memorably than two people at a Tesco check-out."
Wars of words: Literary feuds
*Salman Rushdie vs. Germaine Greer
Cambridge contemporaries during the late Sixties, their spat erupted in the early 1990s when Greer traduced Rushdie and his controversial The Satanic Verses, refusing to sign a supportive petition and labelling him a self-absorbed "megalomaniac, an Englishman with dark skin". Rushdie bore a grudge until 2006, when he attacked Greer's opposition to filming an adaptation of Monica Ali's novel Brick Lane on location as "philistine, sanctimonious, and disgraceful, but... not unexpected".
*Ruth Padel vs. Derek Walcott
Erstwhile Oxford professor of poetry Ruth Padel ran a smear campaign against her Nobel Prize-winning rival for the post, Derek Walcott, last year. She sent 100 members of the Oxford faculty (and The Sunday Times) photocopied pages of a 1980s academic study on sexual harassment which detailed Walcott's indecency towards one of his students at Harvard. Once exposed, she resigned from the post just days after her victory, successfully smearing both poets' reputations in the process.
*Norman Mailer vs. Gore Vidal
Norman Mailer had an "enemies list" almost as long as Richard Nixon's. Perhaps his most notable beef, though, was with Gore Vidal, who tastefully compared reading Mailer's The Prisoner of Sex to experiencing "three days of menstrual flow". In retaliation Vidal was head-butted in 1971 then punched in 1978. During the latter incident Vidal retained his composure, firing back from the floor: "Words fail Norman Mailer again." Mailer also stabbed Vidal's second wife in the back. Literally.
*Martin Amis vs. Julian Barnes/ Pat Kavanagh
The writers' long-term friendship was terminated after Amis betrayed his agent, Pat Kavanagh, who coincidentally was Barnes's partner. Amis left her for American rival Andrew "the Jackal" Wylie to secure a lucrative advance for his new novel, The Information. The response was swift and succinct. As Amis described the note's sign-off: "The words consist of seven letters. Three of them are fs."
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