Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Literary Sleaze (Part 3 of 3)

Experimental writers in Calgary are pretty lucky. In my experience, the avant-garde writers here are supportive and inclusive, and the critical climate is constructive. This is not the case for all writing communities, however. Canada is home to a few vocal writers who seem to believe that the role of the critic is not to critique books, but rather, to insult the work and its writer. Tensions between writing camps often express themselves in snide insults and a generally dismissive attitude, and with online publishing making it easier and easier to vent ones grievances, the simmering animosity between writers can easily boil over. It often seems as though the mere existence of a writer who does something differently is enough to get another writer fuming.

Writers are famous, if not infamous, for this fiery defensiveness, and while it’s regrettable that we cannot all coexist more amiably, there is a certain voyeuristic pleasure to watching these arguments rage. Literary Feuds: A Century of Celebrated Quarrels—From Mark Twain to Tom Wolfe, by Anthony Arthur, exploits this voyeurism for all it’s worth. Despite its trashy tabloid appeal, Literary Feuds is beautifully written in clear, evocative prose that bring to life the eight tales of literary mud slinging that the book chronicles. Arthur avoids sensationalism, basing his descriptions of the feuds on articles and reviews published by the combatants, on letters written by the authors, and on verifiable evidence from their personal lives. Arthur is also adept at quickly summarizing the works of the authors discussed into compact and interesting paragraphs, so that even if you haven’t read the material that sparked a particular feud, you can still enjoy reading about the argument.

Though the entire book is appealing, I found the chapter chronicling the feud between Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway particularly embroiling. Stein and writer Sherwood Anderson mentored Hemingway, helping him make the transition from journalist to literary writer. Hemingway learned much from both Stein and Anderson, but as he exceeded both in popularity, he became increasingly nasty, mocking his mentors in both interviews and in his writing. Stein eventually got back at Hemingway in The Autobiography of Alice B. Tolkas, where she and Anderson lament mentoring him, and portray him as a shallow writer with not much going on behind his, “interested eyes.” Stein also characterizes Hemingway as a traditionalist, a blowhard, physically weak, and intellectually thick. While Hemingway often resorted to physical violence to get back at critics, throwing vases and books, he got back at Stein with violent comments, insulting her on the basis of gender and sexual orientation. He also attacks her in the posthumously published Movable Feast, where he says she had nothing to teach, was too lazy to learn from him, and was so pathetic that he could no longer stand to visit her.

This chapter is satisfying because, though Hemingway got the last jab in after both he and Stein were dead, time is on Stein’s side. Hemingway’s reputation for unreasonable and violent behaviour makes his criticisms of Stein seem grasping and pathetic, while Stein’s ever increasing popularity vindicates her from Hemingway’s accusations that she couldn’t write. Furthermore, Stein’s salon is now perhaps the most famous literary salon in history, further shoring up her reputation against Hemingway’s attacks. Being on team Stein myself, it’s gratifying to see her win. Whether or not your writer is winning, however, Literary Feuds provides an entertaining take on its eight battle, and is written well enough to do all of its combatants justice.


Helen Hajnoczky recently completed her BA Honours in English and creative writing from the University of Calgary, where her research focused on feminist avant-garde poetics. Her work has appeared in Nod, fillingStation, Rampike, and Matrix magazines, as well as in a variety of chapbooks. She is the current poetry editor of fillingStation magazine. Her first book of poetry, Poets and Killers: A Life in Advertising, is forthcoming from Snare Books.

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