Battle of words; Literary rivalries
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 13 January 2016)

Leo Tolstoy's peculiar opinion of William Shakespeare, a literary scandal when it first became known, still crops up whenever people talk about writers seeing faults in each other. In a recent issue of Commentary magazine, Joseph Epstein noted that writers never believe their work is sufficiently praised. Usually, they also think the writing of others receives far more acclaim that it deserves. Those who know a few writers are used to hearing jealous comparisons but it's still disturbing that the same feelings exist on the highest plateau, up there with Tolstoy and Shakespeare.

A biographer of Tolstoy, Henri Troyat, says that when Anton Chekhov was visiting Tolstoy, the great man said: "Anton Pavlovich, I admire your stories. But your plays, really, your plays are worse even than Shakespeare."

Peter Sekirin's Memories of Chekhov contains Chekhov's account of another visit to Tolstoy: "He was bedridden due to illness. When I was about to say goodbye he took my hand and whispered in my ear, 'You know, I hate your plays. Shakespeare was a bad writer, and I consider your plays even worse than his.' " Why would Tolstoy dislike Shakespeare's work? Perhaps an unavoidable sense of competition coloured his feelings. Perhaps Tolstoy had heard that he was considered one of the great masters of the ages, second only to Shakespeare. Maybe he had heard that once too often.

Those who believe they sit on top of the hill can be blinded when considering others who are positioned nearby. The most spectacular example is the greatest king of the hill in modern times, Ernest Hemingway. Kenneth Lynn's biography says that in his last years "His jealousy of other writers soared." Lynn quotes a Hemingway letter about James Jones, whose best-selling novel, From Here to Eternity, was published in 1951 by Scribner's, Hemingway's own publisher. Charles Scribner was foolish enough to ask Hemingway his opinion of that book. He might have reflected that its subjects were the military and their relations with women, familiar themes in Hemingway. It appeared, to good reviews, a year after Hemingway's Across the River and into the Trees was widely panned. Hemingway answered Scribner with an obscene and poisonous letter. He said that Jones "will do great damage to our country. I hope he kills himself."

A few years later Norman Mailer began claiming that he was seeking Hemingway's crown -- "I pointed to the farthest fence and said that within 10 years I would try to hit the longest ball ever to go up into the accelerated hurricane air of our American letters."

He took an easier course and began eliminating his own competitors. It's commonplace for novelists to express astonishment at the good reviews received by the boring Writer X or the hysterical Writer Y. Typically, Mailer said of J.D. Salinger, "I seem to be alone in finding him no more than the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school."

That appeared in Mailer's 1959 collection of his writing, Advertisements for Myself, in a few pages headed Quick and Expensive Comments on the Talent in the Room. He called his views "expensive" to suggest he was creating enemies who would punish him in the future.

He accused William Styron of "oiling every literary lever" that might help him on his way. Truman Capote had "less to say than any good writer I know." Jack Kerouac's sense of character was nil. Saul Bellow? "I do not think he knows anything about people. I cannot take him seriously." James Baldwin? "Too charming a writer to be major." He confessed that he had nothing to say about any women writers. "I do not seem able to read them."

Was this parade of opinions expensive? Perhaps Mailer annoyed the writers he discussed, but it's more likely that he gathered to himself many new readers who were impressed by his brave exhibitionism. It expanded Mailer's reputation as rather crazy in an interesting way. By associating himself with all those promising authors, he created an imaginary club in which he was the most colourful member. At a delicate moment in his career, with a couple of failed books behind him, it implied that he was operating at the highest level.

In essays Vladimir Nabokov occasionally mentioned the word "poshlost," a favourite of his. Others might translate it from Russian as "banality," but when Nabokov used it he poured into those two syllables enough meanings to fill a thesaurus of literary defamation. Nabokov loved the famous 19th-century Russian novelists, except for one. He considered Fyodor Dostoyevsky hideously overrated, and wanted everyone to know it, especially his students.

At Cornell University he taught literature in the 1950s and left his lecture notes in the university archives. They reveal that he said Dostoyevsky was at best a mediocre writer, a sentimentalist whose exaggerated emotions provoked automatic compassion in the reader. He demonstrated several aspects of poshlost, such as "cheap, sham, smutty, highfalutin, false."

In an interview with the Paris Review, Nabokov was asked to define poshlost. Genially, he enlarged his thesaurus: "Corny, trash, vulgar, clichés, bogus profundities." If we want to pin down poshlost in contemporary writing, he said, we must look for it in such terms as "the moment of truth" and "charisma." "This one word," he said, "encompasses triviality, vulgarity, sexual promiscuity, and a lack of spirituality."

Gore Vidal never needed all those words to establish himself as unchallenged insult champion of 20thcentury American literature. He favoured brief comments that played to the inclinations of his audience. If he thought readers were bored by an unrelenting stream of similar books from an author, Vidal announced that "The three most depressing words in the English language are Joyce Carol Oates." If the world considered Truman Capote a dwarf clown, Vidal recalled entering a room without his glasses and seeing what he thought was a colourful ottoman. "When I sat down on it, it squealed. It was Truman."

Vidal enhanced his outrageous comments with an elegantly disdainful tone that implied he was always the social and intellectual superior of his enemies. As John Lahr put it, "Vidal pisses from an enormous height."

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