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One Writer's Ravings:
A Logophile's Blog
for Language Lovers

LIT CRIT 101: The Art of the Putdown

Writers are generally not known for their social grace. In fact, many are flat-out antisocial, sometimes to the point of misanthropy. Envy, egotism, selfishness, self-indulgence, and downright nastiness are just a few of the pleasant traits often associated with writers—along with the ability to be mean-spirited in epigrammatic prose laced with trenchant wit.

Probably since the dawn of language, writers have been practicing the not-so-gentle art of the literary putdown. Here are some of my favorite literary gibes and jabs.

“Reading him is like wading through glue,” said Alfred, Lord Tennyson of Ben Jonson.

“He was dull in company, dull in his closet, dull everywhere,” said Samuel Johnson of Thomas Gray. “He was dull in a new way, and that made many people think him great.”

“To me, Poe’s prose is unreadable—like Jane Austen’s,” said Mark Twain. “No, there is a difference. I could read his prose on a salary, but not Jane’s.”

Of the Greek philosopher Socrates, the English historian Thomas Babington Macaulay said, “The more I read, the less I wonder that they poisoned him.” And of Thomas Babington Macaulay, William Lamb once said, “I wish I was as cocksure of anything as Tom Macaulay is of everything.”

“Mr. Henry James writes fiction as if it were a painful duty,” concluded Oscar Wilde, and William Faulkner said that Henry James was “the nicest old lady I ever met.” And here is what Frank McCourt once told his creative writing students about William Faulkner: “When you enter a Faulkner sentence, wave goodbye to friends and family. You won’t be seeing them for a long time.”

“Virginia Woolf’s writing is no more than glamorous knitting,” said Edith Sitwell. “I believe she must have a pattern somewhere.”

“His style has the desperate jauntiness of an orchestra fiddling away for dear life on a sinking ship,” said the critic (literally) Edmund Wilson of Evelyn Waugh. And of Edmund Wilson, Raymond Chandler said, “His careful and pedestrian and sometimes rather intelligent book reviews misguide one into thinking there is something in his head besides mucilage. There isn’t.”

Ezra Pound, hitting both above and below the belt, called Amy Lowell “our only hippo-poetess.”

Dorothy Parker said that Ernest Hemingway’s “effect upon women is such that they want to go right out and get him and bring him home stuffed.”

Norman Mailer called J. D. Salinger “the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school.”
Gloria Steinem had this advice regarding Jacqueline Susann: “For the reader who has put away comic books, but isn’t ready yet for editorials in the Daily News.”

James Dickey didn’t care for Robert Frost. “If it were thought that anything I wrote was influenced by Robert Frost,” said Dickey, “I would take that particular work of mine, shred it, and flush it down the toilet, hoping not to clog the pipes.”

Of Jack Kerouac, Truman Capote famously said, “That’s not writing—that’s typing.” (Today that gibe would be "That's not writing—that’s tweeting.") And of Truman Capote, Gore Vidal said, “He has made lying an art. A minor art.”

And speaking of lying, let’s not forget perhaps the best literary putdown of them all, Mary McCarthy’s venomous stab at Lillian Hellman: “Every word she writes is a lie, including and and the.”

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Copyright (c) 2002, 2013 by Charles Harrington Elster
All Rights Reserved. Reproduction without permission is prohibited.
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