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The joys of a literary spat

Dorothy Parker, possibly lining up a zinger. New York Times/Getty

One of the sad side effects of cancel culture, says Rosemary Jenkinson in The Critic, is the demise of the literary spat. The critic Dorothy Parker used to brag that the first thing she did every morning was “brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue”. And what a good thing too. Without Parker’s sharp tongue we’d never have had her “delicious” barbs. She was, after all, the woman who quipped that the actress Katharine Hepburn “ran the gamut of human emotions all the way from A to B”.

That’s the thing about writers “venting in public”: it’s not only a release for professional frustration, but also an opportunity to showcase their talents. Derek Walcott and VS Naipaul had a 20-year feud that culminated with Walcott writing a vitriolic poem about his opponent. It boasted such “comic couplets” as: “I have been bitten, I must avoid infection/Or else I’ll be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction.” And when Norman Mailer punched his nemesis Gore Vidal in a fit of rage, Vidal gave the world the immortal retort: “Once again, words fail Norman Mailer.” Ridicule and wit have always been the deadliest weapons in a writer’s armoury. Our “anodyne literary world” is blander without them.