If you think that writers or authors are a happy family, think again. They may be part of one big writing family, but the family can be highly dysfunctional. Authors are in fact able to be vitriolic in their abuse of other writers albeit with some style. Unlike the often incoherent mutterings of common internet trolls, their comments come with truly horrendous barbs, sharp like scalpels, and honed like harpoons.
“English has one million words; why confine yourself to six?” That vicious comment by Virginia Woolf was aimed at D.H. Lawrence. It can stand up to any comment a troll could place on a blog but its real sharpness comes from the fact that it hits so near to the truth. I hope you are able to appreciate style in crabbiness. The grand tour of all comments crabby and witty is given by Gary Dexter as editor of Poisoned Pens: Literary Invective from Amis to Zola which was published by Frances Lincoln Limited.
The book is a treasure trove of crabby, cutting, churlish comments that are at the same time stylish and well directed. The insults are all directed by writers at fellow writers. It covers just about everything from ancient classical authors to modern writers. Their cat fights are organised in chapters that don’t necessarily have to be read in the order they are presented in. If you have a preference for venomous Victorians, feel free to start there. The book is a hilarious excursion into all the reasons just why contemporary writers tend to loath each other’s writing.
To any aspiring troll, though, it gives invaluable examples for truly cutting set-downs. Oscar Wilde famously said about Meredith: “As a writer he has mastered everything except language: as a novelist he can do everything except tell a story: as an artist he is everything except articulate.” That's what I call a well honed insult. Or Thackery on Swift: “Some of this audience mayn't have read the last part of Gulliver, and to such I would recall the advice of the venerable Mr. Punch to persons about to marry. Don’t.“ It's advice I always took very seriously.
Jane Austen is one of the most revered and enduring English authors. American writer Mark Twain was so irritated by her that he wrote in one 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." You might attribute this to cultural differences, but I for my part am able to enter into his feelings, I would like to do the same for just about every book she wrote. Unlucky: She has only two shin bones and brittle ones at that.
Maybe you prefer to stay with the more refined poets that are more tender at heart. Lord Byron described Keats' work as "neither poetry nor anything else but a Bedlam vision produced by raw pork and opium." He also offered Keats' publisher to skin the poet alive. Shelley on the other hand described Byron’s work as “mischievous insanity” brought on by Byron’s taste for “bigoted and disgusting Italian women.” It is nice to belong to a devoted family, don't you agree?
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book from cover to cover. If you are tempted to write comments on other writers' blogs or pages, it will most probably teach you to just shut up. Most of us don't have the class to get away with such outrageous comments. Most of what can be found on the internet is not worth trying to reach that level of insult.
I recommend this book especially to all writers taking their first steps on the publishing ladder. It will help them deal with their trolls while acting as the perfect antidote to any vile remark. If a comment is not as well written as the one by Oscar Wilde, ignore it; if it is, take it as a compliment.