The Library Is Open: 13 Instances of Writers Throwing Shade at One Another

John Keats/Portrait: CC/National Portrait Library

Editor's Note:

Who doesn’t love a good quote? For more like this, check out our quotations archive.

In drag queen nomenclature, “reading” has nothing to do with literature. As explained in the immortal 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning,” which introduced the world to Harlem’s drag ball scene, reading is “the real art form of insults” (see also: throwing shade). Every season, the queens on RuPaul’s drag reality show uphold this tradition by competing in a reading mini-challenge, accompanied by the inevitable hashtag #TheLibraryIsOpen.

It isn’t uncommon for authors to end up creatively sharpening their claws on each other, either: Literature’s various feuds and rivalries have spawned some of history’s most savage put-downs, capitalizing on the fragile egos and insecurities that haunt anyone who pushes together words for a living. “Interpretation is the revenge of the intellectual upon art,” Susan Sontag euphamistically observed; withering drama critic Dorothy Parker managed to sum it up a bit more simply: “I don’t care what is written about me so long as it isn’t true.”

In any case, some of the following quotes help demonstrate just how far shade can be thrown: a century onward, and we’re still gagging.

John Keats, from a letter to his brother, 1819
“You speak of Lord Byron and me … There is this great difference between us. He describes what he sees – I describe what I imagine – Mine is the hardest task.”

Lord Byron, from a letter to John Murray asking of Keats’s death, 1821
“Is it true – what Shelley writes me that poor John Keats died at Rome of the Quarterly Review? I am very sorry for it – though I think he took the wrong line as a poet – and was spoilt by Cockneyfying and Suburbing – and versifying Tooke’s Pantheon and Lempriere’s Dictionary.”

H.G. Wells, criticism of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, 1904
“A magnificent but painful hippopotamus resolved at any cost, even at the cost of its dignity, on picking up a pea which has got into a corner of its den.”

Mark Twain, letter to Joseph Twichell, 1898
“I haven’t any right to criticize books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 1929
“Anyone who has the temerity to write about Jane Austen is aware of [two] facts: first, that of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness; second, that there are twenty-five elderly gentlemen living in the neighbourhood of London who resent any slight upon her genius as if it were an insult to the chastity of their aunts.”

Charles Dickens, from a note pinned to a guest room wall in the Dickens household, 1857
“Hans Christian Andersen slept in this room for five weeks – which seems to the family AGES!”

Mary McCarthy, about Lillian Hellman, 1979
“Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.'”

Salman Rushdie, The Guardian interview, 2006
“Somewhere in Las Vegas there’s probably a male prostitute called ‘John Updike.'”

Dorothy Parker, to Norman Mailer after publishers compelled him to rely on the euphemism ‘fug’ in his book The Naked and the Dead, 1948
“So, you’re the man who can’t spell ‘fuck.'”

Ayn Rand on C.S. Lewis, Ayn Rand’s Marginalia, 1998
“The lousy bastard who is a pickpocket of concepts, not a thief, which is too big a word for him … This monstrosity is not opposed to science – oh no! – not to pure science, only to applied science, only to anything that improves man’s life on earth!”

Vladimir Nabokov, in response to criticism from Edmund Wilson, 1966
“Commonsensical, artless, average reader with a natural vocabulary of, say six hundred basic words.”

Ernest Hemingway, from a letter to Arthur Mizener, 1950
“I never had any respect for [F. Scott Fitzgerald] ever … except for his lovely, golden, wasted talent. If he would have had fewer pompous musings and a little sounder education it would have been better maybe. But anytime you got him all straightened out and taking his work seriously Zelda would get jealous and knock him out of it.”

Gertrude Stein in response to Ernest Hemingway, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, 1933
“Remarks are not literature.”