A toxic history of literary rivalries
- When her first book came out, I became obsessed with an author whose book launched the same week
Mar 16, 2019-
When my first book was published last year I wasn’t prepared for how unhinged I would become. I’d expected review-induced nerves and worries that swung from “No one will read it” to “Oh God, someone is actually going to read it”. But I hadn’t foreseen the appearance of a wholly one-sided and indecorous obsession with another author.This author’s book launched in the same week as mine. It was nothing like my book, a memoir based on lists written by my grandmother, so its existence should not have troubled me, yet my writing life somehow became combatively interwoven with his. I had a review in a broadsheet; the next week he had a full-page spread in the same paper. I did a radio interview; he appeared on the same show. Every time I read about his achievements (pretty much every time I checked his social media), it diminished my own. It was like a nasty bruise I couldn’t resist pressing.
Eventually, I was checking his Amazon rankings so frequently that people who bought my book started receiving emails suggesting they also buy his. As my irrational behaviour was actively helping him sell more books, I realised things had got out of hand.
I’m usually a level-headed person, so I shocked myself with the extent of my grudge. It forced me to consider what it is about writing that might precipitate this mental unravelling. For writers the definition of “success” is slippery and subjective. Could the fact that authors live and work inside our heads also mean our obsessions fester and become all-consuming?
The best known literary feuds have become legendary: Gertrude Stein describing Ernest Hemingway as a “climber” and a “coward”; John Updike reviewing Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full as “entertainment, not literature”; Norman Mailer headbutting Gore Vidal just before going on a TV talkshow together. When another of Vidal’s rivals, Truman Capote, died, Vidal famously said his death was “a good career move”. Mark Twain described his rival and former friend Bret Harte as “a liar, a thief, a swindler, a snob, a sot, a sponge, a coward”. But what I was experiencing was not a case of mutual loathing or sparky verbal sparring. It was a quiet, seething, private, irrational resentment. This wasn’t a feud—I doubt the author even knows I exist, yet he was my adversary.
Some rivalries, like mine, come down to timing. David Lodge published Author, Author, a novel about Henry James, in the same year that three other Jamesian books came out, including one by Colm Tóibín that got more attention and praise. Lodge was so scarred by the experience that he wrote an entire book about it. Others are the complicated flip side of friendship: Virginia Woolf complained of Katherine Mansfield that she “advertises herself” and was deeply hurt when her friend reviewed her work negatively. Yet when Mansfield died, Woolf was bereft without this competitor and brilliant mind to collide with, feeling she was writing “into emptiness”.
Sylvia Plath struggled with another type of adversary—one whose work you feel is inferior, yet can’t help but compete against. Referring to her scorn for fellow poet Adrienne Rich, Plath wrote that she stewed in “the quiet righteous malice of one with better poems”.
In classical stories of rivalry, revenge is enacted violently, often ending with a morally justified death. In the literary world things don’t usually get that far, though Richard Ford shot a hole through one of Alice Hoffman’s books after she gave him a bad review, and Marcel Proust and Jean Lorrain had an actual duel. Did I harbour violent thoughts about my rival? When a counsellor asked me to describe the darkest thought I’d had about the author I realised I didn’t wish him any actual harm. Just, in Roxane Gay’s words, “papercuts and abject failure”.
Social media has not helped this affliction. It’s too easy to scroll through Facebook tutting at the fawning comments. Woolf never had to endure Mansfield humblebragging about book sales on Twitter, and Stein didn’t have to watch Hemingway’s self-aggrandising vlogs. Most writers feel they need to have an online presence in order to make useful connections and drive sales (behind every lighthearted Instagram post there’s a tiny voice saying “Please buy my book”). If we despise relentless self-promotion it may be because it exposes our own limitations and timidity. How do we get the balance right between publicity and authenticity as we carve out a new public identity for ourselves?
My relationship with my rival is, of course, about my own insecurities and anxieties. Until I’ve properly dealt with these, my obsession may skulk in the corner, but it won’t disappear. And who knows, perhaps that author is secretly wishing I get buried alive under a pile of lists.
—©2019 The Guardian
Published: 16-03-2019 10:29