Literary Invection

“Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin bone,” an ornery Mark Twain once wrote of Jane Austen. “At certain points, reading the work can even be said to resemble the act of making love to a 300lb woman. Once she gets on top, it’s all over. Fall in love, or be asphyxiated,” said Norman Mailer of Tom Wolfe’s long-winded A Man in Full. Are we at our bests, sadly, when others are at their worst? The answer is yes, at least for writers, according to Gary Dexter’s forthcoming book, Poisoned Pens. From objections of character to criticism of craft, writers have a habit of tearing one another down. Many factors can explain a tendency towards clever unkindness, including a skill set naturally fit for insult and society’s limited number of high profile spots for recognizable writers. In Poisoned, Dexter chronicles the history of scathing intellect beginning from Greek literature to the particularly nasty Romantics, to show that, in the words of Sunday Times writer Richard Woods, “some authors are at their most inventive and scabrous when sinking their teeth into other literary stars.”