How to alienate friends and boost book sales

Literary feuds are nothing new but they are almost always entertaining.

Powered by automated translation

"Every word Lillian Hellman writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'." So, famously, spat the best-selling author Mary McCarthy about her fellow American writer in 1979. This particular literary feud ended in a lawsuit and was a very modern story: McCarthy tore into Hellman on a prime time American TV show. But this week's publication of previously unseen letters written by Lord Byron in the early 19th century reveals that such warring over words is almost as old as words themselves. Writers, it seems, have always loved a good row.

What's amusing about these "new" letters from Byron is how utterly childish the English writer and poet was in his dismissal of his rivals. You might expect someone widely regarded as one of the greatest British poets that ever existed - a man for whom the phrase "mad, bad and dangerous to know" was literally invented - to come up with withering but urbane put-downs for his writerly peers. But no. In the letters up for auction at Sotheby's, he calls William Wordsworth, William "Turdsworth". It's the kind of thing you might hear in the school playground.

So what inspires such ridiculous behaviour? Ego? Jealousy? Rivalry? Probably all three. How else can you explain Ben Jonson's famously competitive relationship with William Shakespeare? This wasn't quills at dawn, not least because the Bard's company produced some of Jonson's plays. But legend has them arguing fiercely in The Mermaid Tavern, and perhaps Jonson's most famous line is his most derogatory. He was a more considered writer, and found Shakespeare's frenetic turnover of plays baffling: when told that the Bard never blotted out a line, he wished Shakespeare "had blotted a thousand".

It's one of the first examples of literary friends falling out - and it is far more serious than the likes of Truman Capote dismissing Jack Kerouac's counter-cultural opuses as "not writing, but typing". The most famous example of friends feuding is the ongoing stand-off between Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. The ingredients for animosity are certainly there: both have been vying for the throne of best modern Latin American author for decades. García Márquez has the Nobel Prize; Vargas Llosa has the Miguel Cervantes Prize. But these two legends of the modern novel were once so close that García Márquez was godfather to Vargas Llosa's son, Gabriel.

That was until Vargas Llosa punched García Márquez in the face more than three decades ago, and even though these men are in their 70s and 80s, the rancour remains. They've disagreed on politics, and the punch was said to be over a woman, but they've managed to keep a dignified distance from each other's literature. Probably just as well. But as far as headlines go, nothing beats a neat sound bite from an author about someone's else's work. So the fact that Capote didn't stop at Kerouac makes him the author to turn to if you want entertainment from your literary feuds. Beginning in the 1940s, the In Cold Blood writer had particular fun with Gore Vidal, who was insanely jealous of Capote's new-found position as the pre-eminent young American novelist. He called Capote a "dumpy little lowbrow" with "a public relations campaign masquerading as a career".

Capote was something of a New York socialite, so it didn't suit him to ignore such barbs. "Of course, I'm always sad about Gore," he said. "Very sad that he has to breathe every day." Capote regretted his remarks, though - so much, in fact, that he tried to bury the hatchet in 1969, only for Vidal to say Capote's death was a "good career move". Crikey. All of this makes that fact that writers such as Alain de Botton get upset about the mean things that are said about them in the blogosphere seem rather tame, if not precious. Who, then, is a guarantee of 21st-century bile? None other than Martin Amis.

Literary feuds these days are often sparked by poor reviews: in the British press particularly it's often authors themselves who pass judgement on new novels rather than journalists. And while Amis's 2003 book, Yellow Dog, certainly wasn't one of his finest, it was savaged by the novelist and Booker Prize nominee Tibor Fischer: "Yellow Dog isn't bad as 'in not very good' or 'slightly disappointing'. It's 'not-knowing-where-to-look' bad... someone should have said something to Amis." It really wasn't a surprise when Amis retorted that Fischer was a "creep and a wretch ".

And if that takes us back to Byronic playground taunts, then it's just the start as far as Amis is concerned. He's fallen out with his great friend, the writer Christopher Hitchens, after (rather oddly) attacking him in Koba the Dread. He's had a long-running row in the British press with the Catholic-Marxist critic Terry Eagleton over religion and terrorism. And to top it all off, he admitted to unleashing an "eisteddfod of hostility" after winning himself a huge book deal. This wasn't with one or two writers, a la Capote. It was with, basically, the entire literary community.

And what, in the end, do these feuds do? They gain column inches. They're an easy way if not to make friends then to influence people into buying your forthcoming book. William Turdsworth, though... it's still quite funny, isn't it?