Friend or Foe: Writers and their Feuds

Friction among writers has all the earmarks of a good fiction story, but make no mistake; it does exist in real life. Writers have long been associated with harboring resentment over the success of their colleagues, especially when their work has not reached the same levels of popularity. Competition does not always occur on the field; sometimes it takes place with the stroke of a pen.

Ernest Hemingway had a feud with just about every contemporary in the business. From Willa Cather to William Faulkner, Hemingway came out swinging. When Cather wrote One of Ours, about an American soldier during World War I, Hemingway rebuked the novel, citing that a woman could not accurately depict battle scenes. He claimed that Cather borrowed heavily from war movies in order to write about the conflict in her book. “Poor woman,” Hemingway quipped, “she had to get her war experience somewhere.” Unfortunately for Hemingway, Cather went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for the novel.

But Hemingway’s most notorious feud involved William Faulkner, who once claimed that Hemingway’s simplistic writing style did not require readers to use a dictionary. Never one to shy away from public scrutiny, Hemingway fired back: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”

Other feuds have ensued over the decades: Gertrude Stein and James Joyce had a long-standing dispute which began over Stein’s ability to churn out books without hesitation, while Joyce struggled to get his thoughts down on paper. Upon the release of Huckleberry Finn, Louisa May Alcott chided Mark Twain for being too profane and having a bad influence on children. Truman Capote’s affection for Harper Lee terminated upon her winning the Pulitzer Prize for To Kill a Mockingbird. Capote fully expected to win for his nonfiction novel In Cold Blood. When that didn’t happen, Capote felt slighted enough to take his frustrations out on his childhood chum.  

But what exactly fuels animosity among writers? As with any profession, writers strive to become the best. They often spend countless hours in seclusion hoping their words will transform the world. The desire to write “The Great American Novel” sometimes overrides the desire for kindness and empathy toward their fellow writers. And when this occurs, friends become foes.

Even novice writers can experience the cold shoulder from their peers at one time or another. Imagine meeting a group of friends in a café to discuss your latest masterpiece. Everyone at the table appears supportive as they sip their lattes. By the end of the night – kiss, kiss, hug, hug, they wish you luck and depart. Then comes the dreaded phone call that one of those friends has been published before you. OUCH!

Though I am not a jealous person at heart, I can attest to feelings of envy whenever someone published their work before I did. Similarly, when I saw my first short story reach print, I received a less than enthusiastic response from some of my writing companions.

Writers as a group have never been known for their modesty. So long as the mighty pen exists, so too will the feuds. Seeing the work of others being admired has a way of conjuring jealousy, even though there’s enough room on the shelf for everyone’s words. If only we made it a practice to abide by the golden rule – love thy fellow writer – perhaps we could forge stronger working relationships.

-Tara Lynn Marta

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