Literary Invective

Mansur Qureshi

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice' was the first 'adult' novel that I read (the word 'adult' had different connotations back in 1950's) and I loved it. When I retired in 1990, I read it again and enjoyed it even more. Recently I was amused when I learnt that Mark Twain thought otherwise. In fact he got so upset with Jane Austen and her first novel that he wrote in a letter:

"Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin bone."

This literary invective is nothing new. Writing about Dante Alighieri's 'The Divine Comedy' (1321) in The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written, Martin Seymour-Smith writes:

"Dante often really was despised, even as 'extravagant, absurd, disgusting - a Methodist parson in Bedlam' - that, though, was said by Horace Walpole, a 'frigid Frenchified coxcomb' (said William Wordsworth). But Dante was not despised by everyone, and he soon became a hero of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries."

Kathy Lette, a modern author, says that 'cruelty is naturally built in to writers. What creates a writer is huge psychological dysfunction.' This literary invective has been so commonplace that a book is coming out later this month titled Poisoned Pens: Literary Invective from Amis to Zola. A few quotes from it appeared in my Sunday paper. Following is a sample from them, some comments being puriently personal:

Virginia Woolf on D.H. Lawrence
English has one million words: why confine yourself to six?

Edith Sitwell on DH Lawrence
Mr Lawrence looked like a plaster gnome on a stone toadstool in some suburban garden. At the same time he bore some resemblance to a bad self-portrait by Van Gogh.

Charles Lamb on Shelley
Shelley I saw once. His voice was the most obnoxious squeak I ever was tormented with.

GK Chesterton on Tennyson
He had much more power of expression than was wanted for anything he had to express.

Mary McCarthy on Lillian Hellman
Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'.

Philip Larkin on Kingsley Amis
The only reason I hope I predecease him is that I'd find it next to impossible to say anything nice about him at his memorial service. He probably thinks the same about me.

Witty put-downs in genuine literary criticism are legitimate and welcome. My favourite one comes from an essay by TS Elliot on Byron:
"We have come to expect poetry to be something very concentrated, something distilled; but if Byron had distilled his verse, there would have been nothing whatever left."
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