Saturday, 15 October 2011

Best literary insults

Following my recent blog posting on political insults I'm turning my attention this time to literary slanging matches. No-one seems to be immune from opprobrium; even the top man.

William Shakespeare

You can feel the pure, raging jealousy of dramatist Robert Greene in these lines, one of the few contemporary references to Shakespeare as playwright:

"For there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes fac totum is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country."

Greene may have been a minnow by comparison, but there are some greats in their own fields who have also taken a swipe at Shakespeare over the years, including...


"This enormous dunghill."

"Shakespeare is a drunken savage with some imagination whose plays please only in London and Canada."

Charles Darwin:

"I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me."

Leo Tolstoy:

"Crude immoral, vulgar and senseless."

and, most colourfully, George Bernard Shaw:

"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 when I measure my mind against his... it would positively be a relief to me to dig him up and throw stones at him."

Read carefully, though, Shaw's quote might be seen as a bitter acknowledgement that Shakespeare's mind is the greater.

Another classic and immensely popular English writer who seems to have stirred enmity in others is Jane Austen:

Jane Austen

"Miss Austen's novels... seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisioned in the wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow. The one problem in the mind of the writer... is marriageableness." (Ralph Waldo Emerson).

"Jane Austen's books too are absent from this library. Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn't a book in it." (Mark Twain)

"I have discovered that our great favourite, Miss Austen, is my countrywoman... with whom mamma before her marriage was acquainted. Mamma says that she was then the prettiest, silliest, most affected husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembers." (Mary Russell Mitford)

As we saw with Robert Greene, some of the most spiteful insults come from the contemporaries of the writer. So we have Lord Byron dismissing John Keats as "a tadpole of the lakes"; George Orwell describing W H Auden as "a sort of gutless Kipling" and Evelyn Waugh damning Beverly Nichols as "a mercenary, hypochondriacal flibbertigibbet who doesn't take in one of the six words addressed to him."

Here are some more writer-on-writer barbs:

"Chaucer, notwithstanding the praises bestowed on him, I think obscene and contemptible; he owes his celebrity merely to his antiquity." (Lord Byron on Geoffrey Chaucer)

"This obscure, eccentric and disgusting poem." (Voltaire on Milton's 'Paradise Lost')

"I wish her characters would talk a little less like the heroes and heroines of police reports." (George Eliot on Charlotte Bronte)

Charles Dickens

"Of Dickens' style it is impossible to speak in praise. It is jerky, ungrammatical and created by himself in defiance of rules... No young novelist should ever dare to imitate the style of Dickens." (Anthony Trollope on Charles Dickens)

"A flabby lemon and pink giant, who hung his mouth open as though he were an animal at the zoo inviting buns - especially when the ladies were present." (Wyndham Lewis on Ford Madox Ford)

"What a tiresome, affected sod." (Noel Coward on Oscar Wilde)

"Owen's tiny corpus is perhaps the most overrated poetry in the twentieth century." (Craig Raine on Wilfred Owen)

"Stewed-up fragments of quotation in the sauce of a would-be dirty mind." (D H Lawrence on James Joyce)

"The work of a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples." (Virginia Woolf on James Joyce's 'Ulysses')

"He has never been known to use a word that might send a man to a dictionary." (William Faulkner on Ernest Hemingway)

"That's not writing, it's typing." (Truman Capote on Jack Kerouac)

And finally, my two favourite literary insults. The first is from Christopher Smart about his fellow-poet Thomas Gray:

"He walked as if he had fouled his small clothes, and looks as if he's smelt it."

And the inestimable Groucho Marx, after Sidney J Perelman sent him his new novel 'Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge':

"From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it."


  1. I hadn't seen that Voltaire swipe at Canada before. How dare he! [bg]

  2. This is quite the comprehensive list!

  3. Thank you, Domey. I've working now on cruellest literary reviews.