We writers have a mission. In a world where mediocrity is rammed down our throats by advertisers and where the internet is awash with lies and ugliness, we stand united in our struggle for excellence, truth and beauty.
Er, no. Writers sometimes reserve their sharpest skills for being spectacularly rude about other writers. Here are some classic literary put-downs – by great authors about great books (nonentities being rude about lesser books is a lot less funny).
Truman Capote was not overkeen on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, commenting: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” Kerouac tended to attract negativity: Norman Mailer said his work was “pretentious as a rich whore, sentimental as a lollipop.”
Vladimir Nabokov reckoned that James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake was “a formless and dull mass of phony folklore.” Virginia Woolf described Joyce’s other great experiment, Ulysses, as “brackish, pretentious and” (what a patrician Bloomsbury put-down!) “underbred”. Henry James, incidentally, left Woolf feeling “entombed in a block of smooth amber”.
Mary McCarthy said of Lillian Hellman, “Everything she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.”
The world of theatre criticism is particularly rich in insults. The Guardian’s long-serving Michael Billington said when Godspell returned to London: “For those who missed it the first time, this is your golden opportunity. You can miss it again.”
Noel Coward once described the director of a version of Charley’s Aunt, in which he had a minor role, as having “all the airy deftness of a rheumatic deacon producing Macbeth for a church social”.
Fighting back for writers as writers, PG Wodehouse asked: “Has anybody ever seen a drama critic in the daytime? Of course not. They come out after dark, up to no good.”
Of course, we at United Ghostwriters have risen above such backbiting, and support each other. That’s not meant ironically – we really do bat for each other. We know each other’s work and often refer potential clients to another ghost if we think she or he would do a better job than us (that’s not false modesty: we know the areas we are best at). There is some unity out there, after all.