Pimple on the Nose
Among other insults from great literary rivalries
June 26, 2019 | by Anush Ter-Khachatryan
One author is blamed for chunky diction, while another gets stabbed with a knife. Read on for a look into some of the most epic literary rivalries in history.
Mark Twain vs. Jane Austen
Death is no obstacle for rivalry, as Mark Twain proved with his detest for the novelist Jane Austen born a century before him. Twain famously said that he has no right to criticize books, unless he hates them. Hence: “Everytime I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”
Twain’s downtrodden upbringing might explain this hatred — a bitter contrast with Austen’s life of success and lounging on couches. Twain remarked that he felt like “a barkeeper entering the Kingdom of Heaven” every time he picked her book.
Arthur Rimbaud vs. Paul Verlaine
While mischievous poet Arthur Rimbaud was spending his days at the British Library polishing the lines of his poetry collection A Season in Hell, he spent his nights creating another kind of hell for the poet Paul Verlaine.
Sharing a house, the two poets engaged in battles, armed with knives and poetic egos, hacking at each other’s wrists. At the end of this ritual they would put the knives away and go to the nearest pub for a drink, until Verlaine accidentally shot Rimbaud in the arm, dramatically resolving their turbulent relationship.
John Keats vs. George Byron
The rivalry between John Keats and Lord Byron was intense and full of transitions. It’s not hard to imagine a handsome, snobbish aristocrat, who happened to be a successful poet, and a struggling middle-class poet savaging each other with harsh criticism. It is, however, hard to imagine, that the rivalry started with young Keats dedicating an ode to Byron — a poem of admiration for the same talent which he’d later call the result of “being six foot tall and a lord!”
In turn, Byron snobbishly advised Keats to stop writing, as poetry was for noblemen, not for suburbians. But his sentiments also changed when he learned about Keats’s death at an early age of 25, and he asked his friend to dismiss all his published criticism on Keats.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky vs. Ivan Turgenev
For Russian writers the rivalries often emerged from ideological differences. This was the case for Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Ivan Turgenev. Turgenev, a liberal who lived in France but wrote novels about Russia, was criticized by the nationalist Dostoyevsky, who suggested that he buy a telescope to be able to see his homeland.
Meanwhile, Turgenev was a wealthy nobleman, and he mocked Dostoyevsky in a poem, describing him as a “pimple on the nose of literature” and labeling his dense novels as “psychological nitpicking”.
Ernest Hemingway vs. William Faulkner
Beginning with Faulkner’s severe criticism of Hemingway, this was an epic rivalry full of sound and fury. “Ernest Hemingway has no courage, has never crawled out on a limb,” wrote Faulkner, when his own writing had fallen out of favor. “He has never been known to use a word that might cause the reader to check with a dictionary to see if it is properly used.”
As a counterattack to Faulkner’s criticism, Hemingway remarked, “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”
Shirvanzade vs. Daniel Varoujan
Eastern Armenian novelist Shirvanzade’s rivalry with Western Armenian poet Daniel Varoujan was first of all triggered by language. Shirvanzade detested Western Armenian and opposed the accepted opinion that it was the more aesthetic language, calling it confusing and distasteful. Reading Daniel Varoujan’s poetry collection Pagan Songs, he was struck by its vulgarity and overcome with nausea.
Varoujan’s response was more subtle, not to say reserved. Regarding Shirvanzade’s refusal to read Western Armenian literature, he said, “Pity. And we know even the most obscure among their writers.”
Anush Ter-Khachatryan is a writer living in Yerevan.