Bards Behaving Badly: Talking Trash

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“Poe’s jealousy of other writers amounted to a mania.”

Frederick Saunders, biographer of Edgar Allan Poe


Dueling preceding boxing, headbutting, and backstabbing as the gentleman’s way of resolving literary and extra-literary disputes.

After publishing Pleasures and Days, Marcel Proust challenged critic Jean Lorrain to a duel for a review depicting him as “one of those pretty boys who’ve managed to get themselves pregnant by literature.”[1] He had taken critic Robert de Montesquiou’s broadside – “a mixture of litanies and sperm” – in stride, even finding it flattering. But Lorrain’s was below the belt. The two gay asthmatics managed to rise before dawn and find a free meadow. But both shot over each other’s head, returning home for hot compresses and cognac. Proust staged several other such duels, health permitting.[2]

Then came the Turgenev-Tolstoy showdown that didn’t happen, a bitter disappointment for Dostoyevsky. It all started when Ivan badmouthed the motherland in Smoke, and Fyodor suggested the novel be “burned by the public executioner.” Ivan in turn called the newly patriotic gulag con a “madman” and a “petty, dirty gossip”; Fyodor then parodied him in The Devils as “the most written-out of all written-out authors”; whereupon Ivan called him “the Russian Marquis de Sade.”[3]

Tolstoy found all this deeply disturbing since he liked both the fussy dilettante and the excitable epileptic. He’d even called The House of the Dead, “the finest work in all of Russian literature.” In turn, Dostoyevsky heaped praise on Tolstoy (though, in private, he found his masterpiece, Anna Karenina, “rather tedious”). So, diplomatically, Tolstoy was between a rock and a hard place.

The scales were tipped one day when Tolstoy scolded Turgenev about his poor treatment of his daughter born to his mother’s slave, “If she were your legitimate daughter, you would educate her differently.” Ivan threatened to slap Leo’s face. Instead Leo suggested a duel. But soon, conscience getting the best of him, Leo apologized to Ivan and called the whole thing off so as not to interrupt his work on War and Peace.

At about the time Dostoyevsky returned from Siberia and got into it with Turgenev, he was thrilled to discover Baudelaire’s translation of Edgar Allan Poe, no less excitable and choleric than himself. Inside the great American bete noir raged a perfect storm of megalomania, touchiness, frustration, and rage even greater than that of his hypercompetitive successors, Hemingway and Faulkner.

The poet had many unwilling sparring partners. His early favorite was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow had done nothing in particular to piss off Poe, other than outselling him, being an esteemed professor, and having a rich wife.

Initially, the young firebrand had called Longfellow a genius and begged him for an endorsement of his work so “my fortune will be made.” When Longfellow declined, Poe dismissed him as “the GREAT MOGOL [his caps] of the Imitators” and a plagiarist.[4]

Henry played rope-a-dope with Edgar, stoically taking his most devastating shots, and saying only, “Life is too precious to be wasted in street brawls.”

Beside himself, Poe threw haymakers at his rival’s Poems on Slavery, saying they were written “for the especial use of those negrophilic old ladies of the north, who form so large a part of Mr. LONGFELLOW’s friends.”

Returning to his corner at the bell, the father of Horror cooled down with the sponge. He then counted himself one of his opponent’s “warmest and most steadfast admirers,” and regarded him as “the principle American poet.” Ignoring the olive branch, Henry still stubbornly refused to endorse the ambitious upstart’s work.

Poe soon traveled to Boston to deliver his lecture “On Reason.” Receiving a chilly reception from unreasonable Bostonians, he called everyone in the audience a plagiarist. He then carriaged across town to the Lyceum to read “The Raven,” only to realize, en route, that he’d forgotten to pack his popular poem. So he recited it by heart with some stammering and hyperventilation. As audience members walked out, he hectored the stage, cackling that he had “demolished” the Walden “Frogpondians.”

Back in New York, Poe courted patronesses while his wife/cousin, Sissy, was in the last stages of TB at home. He boasted that one, Mrs. Ellet, was sending him love letters. She charged him with libel and enlisted gentlemen to protect her honor. The penniless poet hurried to his colleague, T.D. English, asking to borrow his pistol.

T.D. had recently published a parody of “The Raven.” Poe felt that the least he could do, by way of making amends, was to lend him a piece to protect himself against Mrs. Ellet’s champions. But English insulted him again, suggesting that he apologize to the widow. Poe had recently finished “The Cask of the Amontillado” in which his hero, Montressor, making good on his motto — “Nemo me impune lasessit” (No one insults me with impunity) – buried his rival, Fortunado, alive.

Instead of walling up T.D. in a wine cellar, Edgar boasted that he “gave English a flogging which he will remember to the day of his death… [and] had to be dragged from his prostrate, rascally carcass.”

English had a different take on the bout. He said he flattened the bard’s nose with a signet ring punch, sending him “to bed from the effect of fright and the blows he received from me.”

Poe wrote “Literati,” a caricature of the work and physical peculiarities of English and his allies. After its publication, the author announced his plans for a sequel, “American Parnassus,” which would discredit the entire American literary population. According to biographer, Kenneth Silverman, he vowed that the title would be “a culmination of his work as a critic, aesthetician, and tastemaker.”

Rebutting “Literati” in the New York Evening Mirror, magazine publisher, Charles Briggs, described his former editor and book critic as a self-confessed forger and a loan cheat. Adding insult to injury, Briggs described Poe as:  “5 feet 1…. His tongue too large for his mouth… his head… of balloonish appearance.”

The poet sued the Mirror for libel, insisting that his character was unimpeachable. Furthermore, he described himself as 5 feet 8, English a dwarf by comparison, and the Mirror’s owner, Hiram Fuller, “a fat sheep in reverie.”

English scorned his rival’s “exhibition of impotent malice,” adding: “The kennels of Philadelphia streets… have frequently had the pleasure of his acquaintance.”

Edgar launched a flurry of body blows, calling T.D. out for his “filthy lips,” his “wallowing in hog-puddles” and his resemblance to “the best-looking but most principled of Mr. Barnum’s baboons.”

Two years later, Poe was in a Baltimore ER watching, according to his physician, Dr. Moran, “spectral and imaginary objects on the walls.” In a brief moment of coherence, he told Moran “the best thing my best friend could do would be to blow out my brains with a pistol.”

The next day he muttered, “Lord help my poor soul” and expired. Some say of drink, others “congestion of the brain,” others of rabies. 


[1] Edmund White, Marcel Proust (Fides, 2002)

[2] William C. Carter, Marcel Proust: A Life (Yale University Press, 2000)

[3] Myrick Land, The Fine Art Of Literary Mayhem (New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1963)

 [4] Kenneth Silverman, Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance (New York: HarperCollins, 1991)


David Comfort has published three popular nonfiction titles from Simon & Schuster, and a fourth from Citadel/ Kensington. “Bards Behaving Badly” is excerpted from his latest trade title, An Insider’s Guide to Publishing, released by Writers Digest Books in December, 2013. Comfort is a Pushcart Fiction Prize nominee, and a finalist for the Faulkner Award, Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren, America’s Best, Narrative, Glimmer Train, Red Hen, Helicon Nine, and Heekin Graywolf Fellowship. His current short fiction appears in The Evergreen ReviewCortland Review, The Morning News, Scholars & RoguesInkwell, and Eclectica Magazine.


Bards Behaving Badly: “FTBSITTD”

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“I don’t think writers are comfortable in each other’s presence.

We can talk, of course, for five minutes or so, but I don’t think we want to socialize.”

Joseph Heller


The last half of the 19th century was enlivened by a literary free-for-all in the English-speaking world. Thackeray was trashing Dickens; Conrad, Melville; Wells, James; Orwell, H.G Wells; Poe, everybody.

Nor was it all just boys being boys. George Eliot jumped into the fray with her essay, “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” After the turn of the century, Dorothy Parker, observed, “As artists, women novelists are rot, but as providers they are oil wells – they gush.” Her expatriate colleague, Gertrude Stein, begged to disagree, tersely informing her Random House publisher, Bennett Cerf, “20th century literature is Gertrude Stein.”

After the Montparnasse matriarch passed, Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy squared off for the title. Even before the heat of it, the former observed, “Writers are interesting people, but often mean and petty.” Proving it, Ms. McCarthy announced on the Dick Cavett Show, “Everything she [Hellman] writes is a lie, including the ‘and, and the ‘the’.” The author of Julia sued for $2.5 million, including $1.7 for “pain and anguish.” In the New York Times, pugilist turned peacemaker, Norman Mailer, scolded the defendant for hitting her opponent “when down,” and appealed for truce. Instead, Hellman had a heart attack and the libel suit was dropped.

“What’s not understood sufficiently about novelists is how competitive we all are. We’re as competitive as star athletes,” Mailer told the Paris Review. Why can’t talented writers just “enjoy” each other without becoming “envious”? he asked rhetorically. His cloud-parting explanation: “It doesn’t work that way!”

Bard pic 1Mailer disdained Faulkner for his “mean small Southern streak” and for never saying anything “interesting,” but shared his supreme vanity and ambition.

Elite competitors have a fire in the belly; but in writers, unlike athletes, that fire can be fueled by frustration and anger over the blindness or biases of the refs – Pulitzer judges, Times’ critics, armchair academics. Like most novelists, Faulkner, Hemingway and the other masters suffered punishing sacks throughout their careers, and often complained that a work had been unfairly judged or eclipsed by lesser talents.

“Nothing is more humiliating than to see idiots succeed in enterprises we have failed at!” fumed Flaubert.

Deciding the best defense is an offense, Hemingway cut loose on his rivals in his second title, The Torrents of Spring. The first target: his mentor and patron, Sherwood Anderson. “Wrote it to destroy Sherwood and various others,” the young war correspondent wrote Ezra Pound. “It’s the first really adult thing [I] have done. Jesus Christ, it is funny.” He later added: “A man’s got to take a lot of punishment to write a really funny book.”

Norman Mailer idolized Hemingway. Following the master’s lead, The Naked and the Dead novelist took on his own peers one by one[1] in Advertisements for Myself. Meanwhile, the Light Heavyweight champ, Jose Torres, was teaching the Village Voice bete noir The Sweet Science: Boxing. In The Fight, Mailer would later write: “No physical activity is so vain as boxing. A man gets into the ring to attract admiration. In no sport, therefore, can you be more humiliated.” Except in the writing game, he might have added.

When encountering a critic, Norman would — like Papa — drop into a fighter’s crouch. He soon got into the habit of sparring in bars. “I seemed to have turned into a slightly punch- drunk and ugly club fighter who can fight clean and fight dirty, but likes to fight,” he said. Later, proving himself a multi-talented martial artist, he head-butted Gore Vidal, sat on Truman Capote, and shanked the second of his six wives for calling him a eunuch.

A Million Little Pieces fabulist and fight fan, James Frey, was bummed about being “a fucking pariah” of publishing, until he had the good fortune of meeting his role model, Norman Agonistes. “If you would have called me, I would have explained to you how to get through all this mess!” the 83-year-old legend told him. Like a boxer, every rebel artist takes a beating, he explained. Just as the philistines had for forty Biblical years “stomped on me,” the author of The White Negro went on, “now you have the privilege of being stomped on for the next forty years.”

Poet John Dolan had called Frey’s bestselling rehab “memoir” “A Million Little Pieces of Shit”; Liar’s Club author, Mary Karr, dismissed it as “horse dookie”; and The New York Daily News branded Frey “a lying sack of dung.” After The Smoking Gun outted Pieces as pure fiction, his patroness, Oprah, the Queen of Empathy, skewered him on air. “I’ve been through so much shit…. I’ve been stabbed over and over and over again,” Frey told Esquire magazine.

Like his heroes Hemingway and Mailer, the pariah was determined to “write the best book of my generation,” and be regarded as “the hottest shit in the world.” Exploiting his experience  with  crucifixion,  Frey went on to write  Illumination:  The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, a post-modern tale of Jesus’ Second Coming to New York, inspired perhaps by Mailer’s first-person novel, The Gospel According to the Son, in which Jesus corrects the apostles’ record vis-a-vis his miracles, his love life, his persecution and Passion.

Meanwhile, James, determined to do unto others before they did unto him again, got a “FTBSITTTD” wrist tattoo — “Fuck the Bullshit, It’s Time to ThrowDown.” Doing so, he trashed A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, telling Dave Eggers and his fans to “fuck” themselves for thinking the novel deserved to be the Pulitzer finalist for 2000. Then he laid into the other critical darling of his generation: David Foster Wallace.

In 2012, Bret Easton Ellis tag teamed the winded Frey: he went American Psycho on Wallace. The Less than Zero novelist notified his 300,000 Twitter followers that the Pulitzer nominee was “the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation.” He added that anybody who considered the MacArthur Genius a genius belonged in “The Literary Douchebag-Fools Pantheon.”

Wallace might have defended himself except he was dead.

He’d bloodied The Lit Brat Packer with his own broadsides back in ’87. After the tradition of Hemingway’s Torrents and Mailer’s Advertisements, Wallace critiqued his Twenty- Something rivals in a Review of Contemporary Fiction essay, “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young.” He argued that many suffered from “Workshop Hermeticism,” “Catatonia,” and/or “Yuppie Nihilism,” and that Ellis held the triple crown, writing “trash” no better than TV. The polemicist compared the L.A. author to a hooker: she “titillates, repulses, excites, transports—without demanding any intellectual or spiritual or artistic responses.” At the time, Ellis was at work on his second trick, American Psycho, the hero of which dismembers and eats prostitutes while playing the stock market.

There was a larger issue at stake between the X-Gen novelists, as there often is with such literary showdowns. Their editor, Gerald Howard, alludes to it in “I Know Why Bret Easton Ellis Hates David Foster Wallace.” Minimalism against Maximalism. The new Pop vs. the new Proust. Commercial vs. Purist.

When he wrote “Fictional Futures,” Wallace, 25, had one novel (The Broom of the System) which concerned symbolic language and Wittgenstein’s philosophy: it sold 2,200 copies.

Ellis, 23, had one novel (Less Than Zero) about partying yuppie junkies and Hollywood sex slaves: it sold over 50,000 copies in the first year, and would be made into a major motion picture. In 1990, Wallace wrote his bestselling friend, Jonathan Franzen: “Right now I am… a failed writer at 28, who is so jealous, so sickly searingly envious of you and Vollmann and Mark Leyner and even David F–kwad Leavitt… that I consider suicide a reasonable…option.”

By the time he took that option in 2008, he had eclipsed his peers. Especially Ellis. Wallace’s last complete novel, Infinite Jest, sold well and earned a slot on Time’s 100 Best Novels list; Ellis’s last, Imperial Bedrooms, a Less Than Zero sequel, tanked critically and commercially. Rattling Ellis further, the martyred Wallace was canonized in D.T. Max’s 2012 biography, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. So, before his rival was beatified, the American Psycho delivered the final blow to the Pale King: he called him a “fraud” and his fans “Douchebags.”

As for Franzen’s relationship with Wallace, the National Book Award winner told the Paris Review: “Our friendship was haunted by a competition between the writer who was pursuing art for art’s sake and the writer who was… getting public attention and money.”[2]

[1] In this order: James Jones, William Styron, Truman Capote, Jack Kerouac, Saul Bellow, Nelson Algren, J.D. Salinger, Paul Bowles, Gore Vidal, Anatole Broyard, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Herbert Gold, William Borroughs. 

[2]  Jonathan Franzen Interview, The Paris Review, Winter 2010


David Comfort has published three popular nonfiction titles from Simon & Schuster, and a fourth from Citadel/ Kensington. “Bards Behaving Badly” is excerpted from his latest trade title, An Insider’s Guide to Publishing, released by Writers Digest Books in December, 2013. Comfort is a Pushcart Fiction Prize nominee, and a finalist for the Faulkner Award, Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren, America’s Best, Narrative, Glimmer Train, Red Hen, Helicon Nine, and Heekin Graywolf Fellowship. His current short fiction appears in The Evergreen ReviewCortland Review, The Morning News, Scholars & RoguesInkwell, and Eclectica Magazine.


Bards Behaving Badly: Paper Lion Prize Fights

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“It’s very hard to be a gentleman and a writer.”

W. Somerset Maugham

While writers have long battled publishers, editors, and critics, many have fought even more fiercely with the competition – themselves. If editorial rejection is maddening, peer criticism can be even more infuriating.

This is particularly true in the U.S. where competition is king – in the arts, no less than sports. The works of fully mature artists are incomparable. Apples and oranges. But some have struggled to be recognized, through sales or prizes, as The Greatest. The #1.

“I started out very quiet and I beat Mr. Turgenev,” wrote Hemingway. “Then I trained hard and I beat Mr. de Maupassant. I’ve fought two draws with Mr. Stendhal, and I think I had an edge on the last one.”

Dispensing with metaphor, Hemingway and his colleagues came to real blows about who was the titleholder. The one-upsmanship often deteriorated into character assassination. In a letter to Harvey Breit, Hemingway called Faulkner “a strange sort of phony cunt.” In a note to Malcolm Cowley, he described his rival as lacking “conscience” and “moral fiber.” But lest Cowley think he begrudged Faulkner his earlier Nobel, Papa conceded that his foe had a natural, if undisciplined, talent.

“I wish to Christ I owned him like you’d own a horse and train him like a horse and race him like a horse – only in writing,” the sportsman went on. He concluded with a takes-one-to- know-one compliment. “He is almost as much of a prick as Poe. But thank God for Poe and thank God for Faulkner.”[1]

The great southern novelist could be no less patronizing and competitive. “The good artist … has supreme vanity,” he told the Paris Review. “No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him.” Even before The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner had announced: “I am the best in America, by God!”

If not more modest, Hemingway was more metaphorical about his own abilities. “I don’t like to write like God,” he pointed out. “It is only because you never do it, though, that the critics think you can’t do it.”

Just as America’s third Nobel laureate considered the second a phony, he dismissed the first laureate, Sinclair Lewis, as a “fake.” Lewis, who anointed himself “the best writer in this here goddamn country,” counterpunched by calling Hemingway “a dull-witted, bovine, monosyllabic simpleton.”

Not a stranger to literary roughhousing, Lewis had gone toe-to-toe with another top contender, Theodore Dreiser, after returning from Stockholm as the first rock star of American letters in 1930. At a Nobel celebration dinner attended by the New York literati, Lewis called his rival a “plagiarist” and an “ignoramus.” The creator of Sister Carrie challenged the guest of honor, “Say it again, and I’ll slap you.” So Arrowsmith did so and got himself slapped. The next day, the newspapers whipped up a popular frenzy for a proper rematch between the reigning American realists. A New York fight promoter proposed a “Dreiser Heavyweight Champ of American letters” versus “Kid Lewis” 15-round bout at Ebbets Field. When the two declined to participate, the promoter suggested they hire ghostwriter fighters.

In his diary, Dreiser described himself as “blazing with… a desire for superiority” and confessed to an “egotism written in every lineament.” Much like his other American heavyweight rivals – Lewis, Faulkner, and Hemingway.

The fourth American Nobel laureate, John Steinbeck, suffered the same affliction. “The whole early part of my life was poisoned with egotism,” he confessed. But he believed good writing came from “an absence of ego.”[2] And, as a point of honor, he refused to belittle his colleagues. Until he met Hemingway.

With great expectations, John O’Hara and John Hersey had arranged a summit between the two titans at a Manhattan restaurant. The year: 1944. Steinbeck was finishing Cannery Row then and riding high from The Grapes of Wrath. But, to his annoyance, many still dismissed him as “the poor man’s Hemingway.” As for Papa, his For Whom the Bell Tolls had come out in 1940, but he was entering an eleven-year drought.

After shoptalk and a few rounds, Hemingway bet $50 that he could break O’Hara’s prize blackthorn walking stick—a gift from Steinbeck—over his, O’Hara’s, head. Papa promptly did so, triumphantly threw the pieces down and demanded his money. Head in hands, the hypersensitive O’Hara was on the edge of tears.[3]

The walking stick incident moved Steinbeck to change his professional détente policy: He launched into diatribes about Hemingway.

When collecting his own Nobel eight years after Hemingway, a reporter asked Steinbeck if he felt he “deserved” the honor. “Frankly, no,” he replied in deference to those who had been overlooked by the Royal Academy, such as John O’Hara who confessed to craving the prize “so bad I can taste it.” When the Swedish inventor of dynamite honored Steinbeck, O’Hara sent him a telegram: “Congratulations, I can think of only one other author I’d rather see get it.”

A decade after the Hemingway moveable feast on O’Hara, Steinbeck invited Faulkner to dinner. By then the host was in his prime and his guest twenty years past it. Three sheets to the wind on arrival, Faulkner managed a few monosyllables during the course of the evening. Otherwise, he grunted, glared, and drained the bar. “We had a dreadful time with him,” recalled Elaine Steinbeck. Months later the Sound and the Fury ran into the Grapes of Wrath at a literary affair.

“I must have been pretty awful that night,” he said.

Steinbeck, not always an easy person himself, winked: “You were.”[4]

Mark Twain — whom Faulkner called the “father of American literature” but later dismissed as a “hack” — could be awful himself, suffering from the same supreme vanity and determination to “outrival those whom the public most admires.”[5] In his critical reviews, the former Mississippi River boat pilot enlarged himself by belittling his competitors: he sliced and diced George Eliot, Jane Austen, Robert Louis Stevenson, and James Fenimore Cooper with what he called “a pen warmed up in hell.”

Twain, embroiled in more lawsuits than any other American author, reserved his greatest spleen for his first editor and mentor, Bret Harte. “He trimmed and trained and schooled me patiently,” he admitted. Within a few years, Harte was written out, doing jingles for a soap company, and begging his now famous student for a handout. Twain offered him $25 for a play collaboration. Soon he branded the author of “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” “a liar, a thief, a swindler, a snob, a sot, a sponge, a coward,” adding that he was gay, Jewish, a plagiarist and never “had an idea that he came by honestly.” After his teacher surrendered to throat cancer, he provided the eulogy: “Not a man … but an invertebrate without a country.”[6]

Shortly before his own death eight years later, Twain, once esteemed as a humanitarian and champion of the underdog, confessed: “I am full of malice, saturated with malignity.”

[1] Carlos Baker, ed., Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters 1917-1961 (New York: Scribners)

[2] Jay Parini, John Steinbeck: A Biography (New York: Henry Holt, 1995)  

[3] Steve Newman, “John Steinbeck Meets Ernest Hemingway,” The Bookstove, December 15, 2010

[4] Jay Parini, John Steinbeck: A Biography (New York: Henry Holt, 1995)

[5] Ron Powers, Mark Twain: A Life. (New York: Free Press, 2005)

[6] Anthony Arthur, Literary Feuds: A Century of Celebrated Quarrels – from Mark Twain to Tom Wolfe (Thomas Dunne, 2002)


David Comfort has published three popular nonfiction titles from Simon & Schuster, and a fourth from Citadel/ Kensington. “Bards Behaving Badly” is excerpted from his latest trade title, An Insider’s Guide to Publishing, released by Writers Digest Books in December, 2013. Comfort is a Pushcart Fiction Prize nominee, and a finalist for the Faulkner Award, Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren, America’s Best, Narrative, Glimmer Train, Red Hen, Helicon Nine, and Heekin Graywolf Fellowship. His current short fiction appears in The Evergreen ReviewCortland Review, The Morning News, Scholars & RoguesInkwell, and Eclectica Magazine.