Tim’s Top Ten Literary Feuds

Want to be a great writer? Here’s some advice. Find a rival.

Feuds fuel writers. Competition breeds creativity. Hate, rage, and jealousy are great motivators. Having trouble rolling out of bed and putting pen to paper? Just remember he is hard at work, he is writing a bestseller, he isn’t lazy. There, that should spur you to work. As iron sharpens iron, so one writer sharpens another.

But what about that poor writer who takes Jesus’ words seriously. The writer who strives to love his enemies, lose his life, and die to himself. Is he permitted an enemy’s spur?

Yes. But how? An answer is found in my number one literary feud.


10. James Joyce versus Marcel Proust. The first meeting between two of the most influential authors of the twentieth century was doomed from the beginning. They met at a restaurant in 1922. Joyce later recalled, “Our talk consisted solely of the word ‘No’. Proust asked me if I knew the Duc de So-and-So. I said, ‘No’. Our hostess asked Proust if he had read such and such a piece of Ulysses. Proust said, ‘No’.” —A feud without hot words, just one cold word.

9. Tom Wolfe versus Norman Mailer, John Updike, and John Irving. Mailer and Updike publicly dissed Wolfe’s much-anticipated Man in Full (1998) for being “entertainment, not literature.” The white-suited Wolfe counter-punched. He called Mailer and Updike “two piles of bones” who preferred navel-gazing to story-telling. John Irving (author of A Prayer for Owen Meany) defended Mailer and Updike. Any page of Wolfe’s novel, he said, “would make me gag.” Wolfe countered: “Why does [Irving] sputter and foam so? Because he, like Updike and Mailer, has panicked. All three have seen the handwriting on the wall, and it reads, ‘A Man in Full.” —A tough feud to top for sheer pettiness. (Side note: Norman Mailer was not afraid of a fight; he once decked his nemesis Gore Vidal at a dinner party; but Vidal got the last word: “Words fail Norman Mailer yet again.”)

8. Mary McCarthy versus Lillian Hellman. During filming, television host Dick Cavett asked novelist Mary McCarthy what writers she believed were overrated. Pearl Buck, she said, and John Steinbeck; but most of all (playwright) Lillian Hellman “who I think is tremendously overrated, a bad writer, a dishonest writer, but she really belongs to the past.” Then McCarthy went farther: “I once said in an interview that every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” —Hellman was watching the Dick Cavett show and promptly slapped McCarthy with a $2.25 million lawsuit. The spat went on and on. See more here.

7. F. Scott Fitzgerald versus Ernest Hemingway. Fitzgerald had just published The Great Gatsby. Hemingway was an unknown. Their first meeting was rocky. In a Paris bar called Dingo, Fitzgerald peppered Hemingway with invasive questions on the order of Had Hemingway slept with his wife before they were married? But Fitzgerald soon became Hemingway’s advocate, advising and editing an early novel. The friendship faltered, however, as Hemingway ascended and Fitzgerald faded. Nonetheless, Hemingway would later describe Fitzgerald’s talent as “the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings.”

6. Edmund Burke versus Thomas Paine. Another friendship that ended in feud. Burke and Paine WERE friends until Burke wrote that natural rights ought not be considered a rationale for violent revolution (Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1791). Paine was offended. He took Burke’s book as a personal insult and defended natural rights against Burke in The Rights of Man (1792). The disagreement swept across Europe and continues (albeit in a different form) even today.

5. Erasmus versus Martin Luther. Both scholars adored the Christian Scriptures and demanded reformation of the Church. But their temperaments and strategies diverged wildly. Erasmus was a dove; Luther, a bull. Erasmus was ecumenical; Luther, sectarian. Erasmus was a scholar; Luther, a reformer. See their temperaments and theologies on full display in their debate over free will.

4. Leo Tolstoy versus Ivan Turgenev versus Fyodor Dostoevsky. In 1870 the three titans were battling for the title of Russia’s greatest novelist. The battle was not just over art but over the future of their country. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky loved mother Russia and mistrusted the West; Turgenev chose the West over Mother Russia. Turgenev and Dostoevsky were obsessed with the new Russian philosophies (like nihilism); Tolstoy developed his own philosophy based on Christianity trimmed of eternal life. The three novelists’ beliefs were like magnets that repulsed one while attracting the other.

3. Aristophanes versus Plato. The playwright Aristophanes accused Socrates (Plato’s hero) of being a comic eccentric—a “headmaster of thinkery” who had Spartanized young men after the war between Athens and Sparta. During his trial, Socrates mentions Aristophanes mocking play: “I loved The Clouds,” said Socrates, “When they laugh at me, it feels like a big party of good friends.” Aristophanes was present when Socrates was condemned to death by his beloved Athens.

2. William Shakespeare versus Christopher Marlowe. This rivalry makes the list not by virtue of hatred but of literary impact. Shakespeare is accepted as the greatest poet of the English language, and Marlowe was an early master of the Elizabethan stage. Marlowe’s Tamburlaine probably influenced Shakespeare’s early style. Shakespeare became Marlowe’s playwriting rival after arriving in London. But the rivalry was friendly and professional. Some critics believe Shakespeare nodded warmly to the murdered Marlowe through Touchstone the clown in As You Like It (1593).

1. George Bernard Shaw versus G. K. Chesterton. They could not have been more different. Shaw was the atheist, vegetarian Socialist. Chesterton was the Christian, meat-eating Distributist (a “third-way” economic idea that, sadly, never took root). Shaw was thin; Chesterton was fat. Shaw was strict; Chesterton was tolerant. Shaw was a teetotaler; Chesterton loved wine. Most amazing, these ideological enemies were friends. Moreover, they were asking the same questions and even debated the answers in London in 1928. Obviously, they settled the questions in radically different ways.

  • On belief in God: Shaw said, Quit pretending you believe, you don’t. Chesterton said, Rediscover the reasons for faith or our race is lost.
  • On property: Shaw said, Private property produced ghastly poverty. Chesterton said, Abolish ghastly poverty by restoring property.
  • On marriage: Shaw said, “Marriage is an adventure, like going to war.” Chesterton said, “A man may be a fool and not know it—but not if he is married.”

Their friendship is instructive. Shaw and Chesterton sharpened each other and had affection for each other that was warmer than chilled respect.


These top ten lists were inspired by the occasional debates among Gutenberg students about their favorite great books. Which is a better novel, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamzov? Which is Shakespeare’s best play, Hamlet or King Lear? Who do you more identify with, Plato or Aristotle?

Yes, we have such debates. We are bookish, nerdy, and classicist. Just like Winston Churchill, James Madison, Dorothy Sayers, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Hannah Moore, C.S. Lewis, John Milton, Søren Kierkegaard, William Gladstone.


One thought on “Tim’s Top Ten Literary Feuds

  1. Where do you get that comment of Socrates’ about The Clouds? Plato’s Apology has Socrates mentioning the play, but he doesn’t say anything like that about it there. According to the Jowett translation from Project Gutenberg, he says:

    Such is the nature of the accusation: it is just what you have yourselves seen in the comedy of Aristophanes (Aristoph., Clouds.), who has introduced a man whom he calls Socrates, going about and saying that he walks in air, and talking a deal of nonsense concerning matters of which I do not pretend to know either much or little—not that I mean to speak disparagingly of any one who is a student of natural philosophy. I should be very sorry if Meletus could bring so grave a charge against me.

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