Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Top 10 vicious literary hatchet jobs

On the day that The Omnivore announces the winner of its Hatchet Job of the Year award, Rupert Hawksley doffs his cap to the writers whose poisoned barbs have hit home over the centuries.

Christopher Hitchens vs Gore Vidal
Christopher Hitchens vs Gore Vidal 
1. Aristophanes on Euripides (405 BC)

Just a year after the death of the celebrated tragedian, Aristophanes ignored all warnings never to speak ill of the dead, and savaged Euripides in his comedy The Frogs.
As the play draws to an end, Euripides is pitted against Aeschylus in a war of wits. The prize: a route out of the underworld. Predictably, Aristophanes pours scorn on Euripides and Aeschylus emerges the victor.
ÆSCHYLUS: "Hah! sayest thou so, child of the garden quean! And this to me, thou chattery-babble-collector, Thou pauper-creating rags-and-patches-stitcher?"
ÆSCHYLUS: "My poetry survived me: his died with him."
Perhaps the greatest of all 18th Century satirists, Alexander Pope was no stranger to literary conflict: he took to Grub Street’s battlefield with an incomparable enthusiasm. This skewering of John Hervey in Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot is most memorable for its relentless personal attacks.
"What? that Thing of silk,
Paris, that mere white Curd of Ass’s milk?
Satire or Shame alas! can Paris feel?
Who breaks a Butterfly upon a Wheel?’
Yet let me slap this Bug with gilded wings,
This painted Child of Dirt that stinks and stings;
Whose Buss the Witty and the Fair annoys,
Yet Wit ne’er tastes, and Beauty ne’er enjoys,
So well-bred Spaniels civilly delight
In mumbling of the Game they dare not bite."
"Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?" The phrase still bites today nearly 300 years on.
Read the full poem

3. John Wilson Croker on John Keats (1818)

An author might expect a reviewer to read the work in question before launching an attack. John Wilson Croker, though, when tasked with reviewing John Keats’ Endymion for The Quarterly Review, claimed this was simply not possible:
"…We have made efforts almost as superhuman as the story itself appears to be, to get through it; but with the fullest stretch of our perseverance, we are forced to confess that we have not been able to struggle beyond the first of the four books…"
His reasons were as follows:
"[Mr Keats] is a copyist… but he is more unintelligible, almost as rugged, twice as diffuse, and ten times more tiresome and absurd than his prototype, who, though he impudently presumed to seat himself in the chair of criticism, and to measure his own poetry by his own standard, yet generally had a meaning."
Read the full review

4. Henry James on Anthony Trollope (1866)

Well before Henry James went on to become the celebrated author of The Portrait of a Lady, he was dismissing some of the great novelists. Even Dickens did not escape James’s sharpened quill, but it is his treatment of Anthony Trollope in a review of The Belton Estate that is still so devastating: "It is utterly incompetent to the primary functions of a book…", he wrote.
"We do not open his books with the expectation of being thrilled, or convinced, or deeply moved in any way, and, accordingly, when we find one to be as flat as a Dutch landscape, we remind ourselves that we have wittingly travelled into Holland, and that we have no right to abuse the scenery for being in character."
"Our great objection to The Belton Estate is that, as we read it, we seemed to be reading a work written for children; a work prepared for minds unable to think; a work below the apprehension of the average man and woman…" 

Read all ten.

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