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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Tuesday 1st November 2011

Poisoned Pens: Literary Invective from Amis to Zola by Gary Dexter

What a ludicrous book! Has any other editor managed to compile an anthology stretching over 240 pages on such a threadbare premise? You might as well anthologize a collection of bus tickets. This must be the most pointless literary exercise since Jeffrey Archer gave up short-distance running. If I am asked on my deathbed whether I have any regrets I will say, “Yes. I regret reading Poisoned Pens.”

It’s no good. I can’t keep it up. The obvious thing to do when reviewing an anthology of bad reviews is to give it a bad review, but it’s simply not warranted here. Gary Dexter’s collection of literary invectives is extremely entertaining -- a potpourri of wit and invective.

As a journalist, I was inclined to dislike it because not a single hack gets a look in. To qualify for inclusion, you have to be what Dexter calls a “writer”. “After fifty years no one cares about what paid hacks might have thought,” he says. “But what Byron thought of Keats will endure for ever.”

However, after reading this book, I think this was probably the right decision. When it comes to sheer, bilious rage, your average book critic cannot hold a candle to a disgruntled author. Here, For instance, is Kingsley Amis writing about Dylan Thomas: “I have got to the stage now with mr toss that I have only reached with Chaucer and Dryden, not even with Milton, that of VIOLENTLY WISHING that the man WERE IN FRONT OF ME, so that I could be DEMONIACALLY RUDE to him about his GONORRHEIC RUBBISH, and end up WALKING ON HIS FACE and PUNCHING HIS PRIVY PARTS.”

What brings out such splenetic rancour? Ninety-nine times out of a hundred it is envy, pure and simple, and it’s noticeable that the higher the standing of a particular author, the more vitriolic the abuse. “With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare,” wrote George Bernard Shaw. Mark Twain had a similar disregard for Jane Austen, no doubt prompted by her reputation as the finest novelist in the English language. “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone,” he wrote -- and this attitude was shared by Charlotte Bronte, D H Lawrence and Virginia Woolf.

Writers are envious by nature, but, judging from this book, the degree of envy is not inversely proportional to their talent. On the contrary, some of the most gifted authors are the most uncharitable. Henry James, for instance, didn’t have a good word to say about anybody. Thus, Trollope was “gross and importunate”, Baudelaire was “ludicrously puerile”, Hardy was “ingeniously verbose” and Wilde was “clumsy, feeble and vulgar”.

One thing Gary Dexter makes abundantly clear is that writers have been taking swipes at each other for at least 2,500 years, beginning with Euripides and Aristophanes. But the 20th Century seems to have produced more literary spats -- and more memorable phrases -- than any other. “He would not blow his nose without moralizing on conditions in the handkerchief industry,” said Cyril Connolly of George Orwell, while Hemingway claimed that Wyndham Lewis had “the eyes of an unsuccessful rapist”. Focusing on an eminent author’s unattractive appearance was a favourite trick of 20th Century critics. “Mr Lawrence looked like a plaster gnome on a stone toadstool in some suburban garden,” wrote Edith Sitwell.

Poisoned Pens is full of such goodies and begs the question, “Why are negative comments about an author’s work so much more enjoyable to read than positive ones?” Dexter has a stab at answering this in his Introduction, offering the fact that blame is usually more sincerely felt than praise and writers are at their most lively -- firing on all cylinders -- when they’re attacking other writers. True, no doubt, but there may be a more primitive reason. When we read a particularly vicious jibe we can’t help imagining the victim’s reaction and that, inevitably, appeals to the sadist in us.

In this respect, we are a little like the creature Lytton Strachey conjures up in his withering dismissal of Alexander Pope: “The verses, when they were written, resembled nothing so much as spoonfuls of boiling oil, ladled out by a fiendish monkey at an upstairs window upon such passers-by whom the wretch had a grudge against.”

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