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The Venomous Pens of Feuding Authors

Some of the Most Cutting Remarks of 20th Century Writers

By William Shelton • March 29, 2021

Casting disparaging remarks about contemporaries seems to be a hallmark of great writers. Afterall, Andre Gide could never decide if he worshiped at the shrine of Oscar Wilde, or despised his poisoned pen flamboyance. Particularly among the post World War II American writers that published so prolifically, they measured their own success by the personal failures of their fellow writers.

Gore Vidal said it best, "Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies." When it comes to feuds, Vidal nurtured his like hot house flowers. Beginning in his early twenties with a love-hate relationship with Anaïs Nin, Vidal would cause an irreparable rupture in their friendship by commenting that the lines on her face outnumbered the lines of her prose. Crime novelist Dominick Dunne later remarked that the real break in the friendship occurred when Nin brought home a young gigolo, to the Guatemalan estate they were sharing, that Vidal didn't like. How did Dunne know? He was the young gigolo fresh out of the Army after the war. Anaïs Nin recorded all of this in her famous diaries. Vidal reserved most of his vitriol for Ernest Hemingway, of whom he said "...was nothing more than a glorified Field & Stream writer, who didn't evolve, but merely lurched forever forward drunkenly."

Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.—Gore Vidal

Truman Capote, the l'enfant terrible of that generation, burst onto the scene with his haunting Southern Gothic coming of age novel Other Voices, Other Rooms, in 1948. Desperate for any publicity Capote reached out to fellow author, and the fiction editor of Mademoiselle magazine, George Davis for a review. Davis, a wicked man himself, skewered Capote in print by writing a single line review of the new novel: "Well, eventually someone was bound to write a homosexual version of Huckleberry Finn..." Tennessee Williams, driven to fits of jealousy by Capote's later success with his non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, said that Truman Capote was not a writer, merely a typist.

...they’re not writers. They’re typists.—Truman Capote

Truman was not innocent in all of these exchanges. Once, in a television talk show interview, he compared Jaqueline Susann, the author of The Valley of the Dolls, to a truckdriver in drag. When asked if Truman Capote had any literary style, Gore Vidal said: "...of course he does; he stole it all from Carson McCullers and Eudora Welty..."

Capote would repay all of his contemporaries for their vicious remarks in his final, unfinished, novel Answered Prayers. However, the negative fallout resulting from this work drove him to descend into alcoholism, and drug addiction. When Gore Vidal learned that Capote had died, he remarked that it was a wise career move for him.

Norman Mailer, whom Capote called an "intellectual" because he said it was the dirtiest word he knew to call a fellow writer, was frequently goaded into combat, usually televised. On a 1971 episode of the Dick Cavett show, Gore Vidal said that Mailer was driven out of frustration to stab his wife with an ink pen because he could make no better use of the instrument. Mailer headbutted Vidal and punched him to the floor. While still on the floor, Vidal said "Words fail Norman Mailer again!"

Words fail Norman Mailer again!—Gore Vidal

William Styron was another source of perpetual ire for Normal Mailer. A twenty-five-year exchange of published snipes was carried on between the two as a result of Styron making negative comments about Mailer's wife in 1958. Mailer even revenged himself against Capote by saying that once, at a party, he sat down on an overstuffed ottoman and didn't realize, unit it squeaked in protest, that it was actually Truman Capote.

Now that all of these great American writers of their generation have transcended from literary acclaim to their celestial reward, perhaps the field of current writers is less colorful without them. Who among our writers today maintains a fulltime second career of eviscerating their frenemies? Can we imagine J.K. Rowling accidently confusing Stephenie Meyer with an overstuffed ottoman? Or Suzanne Collins saying that words fail Ta-Nehisi Coates?

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