November 30, 2021

There’s no bloodsport like a literary feud. Words are a writer’s field of expertise, so we can wield them like nunchucks — especially at ex-lovers. I don’t give a damn what Brad and Angelina are up to in their four-year, two-million-dollar divorce — but tell me that Liz Jones has written something nasty about her ex Nirpal Dhaliwal, or vice versa, and I’m all over it.

This war of words — Punch and Judy without the baby or the violence — is still going on despite the fact they divorced in 2007. But they still can’t stop tearing chunks out of each other; earlier this year, Dhaliwal used the marriage of Lady Kitty Spencer to an older man as a warning against an age difference between couples.

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He wrote in the Telegraph: “My ex, during our time together, turned her one-sided take on our relationship into a lucrative industry, churning out thousands of articles. I still appear in her work now, despite not speaking to her in 12 years… no one thought to question her shabby flaunting of a brown and virile toy-boy.” Recollections certainly vary on this one, as Liz retorted in the Mail: “I never once berated him for his morbid obesity. Instead, I hired him a personal kick-boxing trainer, and bought him a bicycle. Which makes this line puzzling: ‘Her shabby flaunting of a brown and virile toyboy.’ Virile! We rarely had sex.”

They are, of course, in good company. Writers love to be bitchy about other writers; we make contestants in a beauty pageant look like Poor Clares. It’s quicker to name writers who didn’t get into verbal scraps than those who did. Rimbaud and Verlaine, Thackeray and Dickens, Conan Doyle and Bernard Shaw, HG Wells and Henry James, Updike and Rushdie.

Gore Vidal was perhaps the worst/best. “Every time a friend succeeds, something inside me dies,” he once admitted. He adored feuding with other writers, especially Truman Capote, whom he met in the Forties: “My first impression — as I wasn’t wearing my glasses — was that it was a colourful ottoman. When I sat down on it, it squealed. It was Truman.”

They quarreled endlessly in the press all through the next decade, and by the Sixties it ended up in court. Capote said that Vidal had been thrown out of the White House because he was “drunk and obnoxious”. Vidal denied it, and sued, eventually winning the drawn-out case — by which time Capote had no money to pay Vidal damages.

They never reconciled; in 1984, on being told by a newspaper of Capote’s death, Vidal answered: “A wise career move.” Yet he saved his most withering put-down for someone else completely: “The three saddest words in the English language are Joyce Carol Oates.”

Women writers can be bitches too, of course. “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’,” said Mary McCarthy of Lillian Hellman. Flannery O’Connor on Ayn Rand: “She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.”

For my part, I’ve had some lovely exchanges with the writers Camille Paglia and India Knight, which — at least from my side — were mostly of the four-letter variety.

But that was just a bit of fun. Where it really gets fascinating, rather than plain public fisticuffs, is when a writer disguises a figure — usually an ex, sometimes an enemy — in a novel. Sometimes the name will be used outright; Ian Fleming hated the architect Erno Goldfinger so much that he named one of the most revolting Bond villains after him. Kingsley Amis based the drippy Margaret in Lucky Jim on his friend Phillip Larkin’s girlfriend Monica. In Melvyn Bragg’s novel The Crystal Rooms, after he was done over by my friend Lynn Barber, a character called ‘Martha Potter’ appears: a “successful metropolitan journalist, in her forties, aching for fame” who is drunk, fat and pleasures herself in the office toilets. (Coincidentally, Martha is a writer who is expert in eviscerating her subjects.)

But it’s Martin Amis who is the master of the devious literary barb. Admittedly, we don’t get along. After I gave one of his books a bad review he uttered: “I feel a kind of generalised species shame that I belong to the same breed as her.” To which I retorted: “I’ve never heard Martin Amis explain exactly why it’s bad — and probably indicative of some vast spiritual void — for bond traders to demand lots of money for their work and trade in their wives for younger models, but perfectly OK for novelists to do the same and still expect to be taken seriously as moral pontificators….”

Amis is famous for filleting friendships. And not just in fiction: he alienated his long-time bestie Julian Barnes when he fired his agent Pat Kavanagh (Barnes’s wife) for not securing him a sufficiently large book advance, and took up with a flash American one. Allegedly, Barnes wrote to Amis wishing him as happy an ending as two of the new agent’s other star clients: Salman Rushdie, living in fear of a fatwa, and Bruce Chatwin, who died of AIDS.

Why do we do it? Richard Burton said that so many male actors were drunks because they knew that sitting for hours in a make-up chair, dressing up in costumes and prancing about pretending to be someone else was “not a proper job for a man”. When you consider the world of work, and the boring, arduous things people do eight hours a day, perhaps we writers appreciate how easy our lives are. So we create trouble for ourselves in order to feel that our lives are harder than they are. Additionally, writers are notorious for procrastination. If you’re engaged in a war of words, you’re still actually writing; it’s still helping you avoid Your Novel.

As for myself, I’ve been told by quite a few of my husbands that I have a Good Twin and an Evil Twin within me. But the idea of myself as a Bad Person took hold at an early age. My parents were lovely people with a good marriage and I was a happy child. Then the hormones and Dorothy Parker hit and the idea of niceness — the be-all and end-all of a provincial working-class girl in the early Seventies — nauseated me.

Though I’m 62 now and know it’s not becoming to be an Asbo granny, old habits die hard. They say that fame is a mask which eats the face, but I can slip in and out of mine with great ease — after all, I’ve had 45 years of practice. Coming in from a hard morning volunteering at the charity shop, I swap masks, turn on my computer, and if there’s no paid scrapping that day, I’ll start a fight, just to keep my hand in.

Regrettably, I don’t believe that today’s generation will provide such amusement. They’re too wet, and too busy having a go at JK Rowling, who doesn’t respond as she’s so far above them in every way. Imagine Sally Rooney having a feud, the drip!

And yet despite her meekness, not for nothing did F. Scott Fitzgerald say, during his nervous breakdown, “I avoided writers very carefully because they can perpetuate trouble as no one else can”. Perhaps I’m proof of this, too. But a few abusive words on Twitter have none of the grace and wit of a glorious literary feud.