Whether it is Henry Fielding mocking Samuel Richardson’s painfully virtuous Pamela with his spoof, Shamela; Lillian Hellman suing Mary McCarthy for millions of dollars over her quip that “every word [Hellman] writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’”; or Norman Mailer knocking Gore Vidal to the floor at a party (“Once again words fail Norman Mailer,” remarked Vidal), there is little more cheering than a good literary feud.
But it’s been a while since a proper throwdown. Richard Ford famously shot an Alice Hoffman book and posted it to her after she wrote a bad review of his book (“It’s not like I shot her,” he told the Guardian in 2003), and spat at The Underground Railway author Colson Whitehead over a similar offence, but Ford has lately refrained from such behaviour. Tom Wolfe’s death in 2018 put paid to his long-running and gloriously vituperative beef with John Updike, Norman Mailer and John Irving. (Irving is now the only survivor from that contretemps: does that mean he wins?)
So all hail Cynthia Ozick who, taking inspiration from Derek Walcott’s evisceration of his fellow Nobel laureate VS Naipaul (“I have been bitten, I must avoid infection / Or else I’ll be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction”), has responded to a less-than-glowing review by Lionel Shriver with a poem.
In her review of Ozick’s Antiquities, Shriver asks why the author “decided to write this of all books – about an elderly man in a former boarding school reminiscing about a 12-year-old boy whose primary exoticism was being Jewish”. While admitting that “at 93, Ozick can still craft a beautiful sentence”, Shriver ends: “I hope I haven’t sounded unkind. But Cynthia Ozick is a pro. Whatever her age, she can take it.”
Returning fire, the great Ozick shows just how well she can take it, rhyming Shriver with “no deep diver”, before taking issue with the review, which described her novel as “odd” and frequently mentioned her age.
“Oh look, the writer’s so old! / (Reviewer? A mere sixty-four),” writes Ozick, which has – like Shriver’s review – been published in the New York Times. “In the quiet of her nook / the writer is shook / and roars in her wrath / Anathema!” Ozick thunders. “For the blow Shriver’s given / May she never be shriven!”
Rousing stuff. How will Shriver, no stranger to controversy, respond? A duel with pistols, perhaps, a la Proust, who challenged Jean Lorrain over a review that suggested the author was gay? (He was and so was Lorrain.) Or with the forbearance shown by Salman Rushdie when he was dissed by the late Maurice Sendak? “That flaccid fuckhead,” said Sendak. “He was detestable. I called up the Ayatollah, nobody knows that.” Rushdie, not one to shy away from a punch-up, responded on Twitter: “#MauriceSendak says I’m a flaccid fuckhead. I love you too, Maurice. (Actually, I do. Grumpy old bastard.)”