Reviewer Wendy Thomas. Wendy lives in Southern New Hampshire with her husband and six children, ages 9-17 and has been published in various regional magazines and newspapers. She writes a weekly column, Simple Thrift for the Nashua Telegraph.
What a tremendous pool of entertaining curmudgeonly critiques amongst some of our greatest known authors is this collection of quotes and letters.
Poisoned Pens Literary Invective from Amis to Zola edited by Gary Dexter is nothing short of a delightful front row seat at some of the most vicious literally cat fights ever held. Through chapters organized from “Contempt for the Classics” to “Venom for the Victorians” and “Malice for the Moderns” we are made privy to such author’s barbs as that of William Makepeace Thackery on Jonathan Swift:
Some of this audience mayn’t have read the last part of Gulliver, and to such I would recall the advice of the venerable Mr. Punch to persons about to marry, and day. Don’t.
Or the scathing opinion of Oscar Wilde on Meredith:
As a writer he has mastered everything except language: as a novelist he can do everything except tell a story: as an artist he is everything except articulate.
Women’s sharp literary barbs are also included in this volume, such as Zelda Fitzgerald’s comments on her husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work:
For this book tells exactly, and with compelling lucidity, just what to do hewn cast off by a grandfather or when sitting around a station platform at 4 a.m., or when spilling champagne in a fashionable restaurant, or when told that one is too for the movies. Any of these might come into any one’s life at any moment.
It seems no one writer is immune to harsh criticism of his work especially if he has body odor, walks with a stoop, or serves cold fish and potatoes for dinner. Whether in person or on the page, if one offends, he offends.
Virginia Wolf on W. Somerset Maugham
Then there was Somerset Maugham, a grim figure: rat-eyed: dead man cheeked, unshaven: a criminal I should have said had I met him in a bus.
This book is a lovely and insightful collection of some of the most vindictive peer comments against those who you once thought were some of our finest literary resources throughout the ages.
While it is amusing to read of personal spats with each other, it is equally as educational to read of the exact reasons why prominent authors dislike the writings, insights and styles of contemporaries. Poisoned Pens Literary Invective from Amis to Zola is a terrific, entertaining, and enjoyable romp through the razor sharp world of literary criticism.
Gary Dexter is the editor of Chambers’ Concise Biographical Dictionary, a frequent contributor to the books pages of the Guardian, the Sunday Telegraph and the Spectator, and he as written columns for The Times and the Erotic Review. His latest books are Why not Catch-21 (Frances Lincoln) and his novel The Oxford Spoiler.