Literary Feuds

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On the Daily Shvitz yesterday, Elisa Albert referred to an amazing article from the New York Times last month about the death of the literary feud. The heavyweight champion of this sport, of course, was Norman Mailer.

In “Evaluations — Quick and Expensive Comments on the Talent in the Room,” an essay in his 1959 collection “Advertisements for Myself,” Mailer offered a no-holds-barred assessment of his peers. Saul Bellow, he said, wrote “in a style I find self-willed and unnatural,” while William Styron, though immensely gifted, would be more “potent” if he showed “the moral courage to write a book equal to his hatred and therefore able to turn the consciousness of our time.” J. D. Salinger? “No more than the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school,” a writer he couldn’t see “soon emerging on to the battleground of a major novel.”

I’m currently writing a column for the Jerusalem Post about Norman Podhoretz’s Making It (which will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2007), and in re-reading the book, I was also reminded of these feuds: the aggressive intellectual jousting at the center of the New York literary world (what Podhoretz calls “the family”) that surrounded Partisan Review and Podhoretz’s Commentary in the 1950s and 1960s.

In Making It, Podhoretz writes:

To be adopted into the family was a mark of great distinction: it meant you were good enough, that you existed as a writer and an intellectual. But once adopted, you could expect to be spoken of by many (not all) of your relatives in the most terrifyingly cruel terms. They would rarely have even a grudging good word to say for anything you wrote, though they would at least always read it, and they would attribute the basest motives to your every action.

Indeed, Podhoretz was ushered into the circle after publishing a thrashing of Saul Bellow’s otherwise-heralded The Adventures Augie March. And ironically, Mailer’s negative review of Making It in Partisan Review initiated his feud with Podhoretz.

Posted on December 27, 2006

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