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BooksMay 8, 2023

The greatest literary feuds and gossip of all time… ever


Most literary gossip does nothing for Hera Lindsay Bird. These rare historical morsels are the exceptions.

There’s nothing better than a good piece of gossip. Sadly, in the literary world, most gossip either falls into one of two categories: boring, or depressing. Blistering correspondences between great men of letters? Boring. Unhappily married poets? Depressing. Who cares who Phillip Larkin cheated on his girlfriend with, besides presumably Phillip Larkin’s girlfriend. 

Nasty biographical revelations don’t constitute gossip. We all know David Foster Wallace threw tables. That Dickens, Eliot and Fitzgerald spent staggering amounts of time trying to send their wives to asylums. I don’t want to hear about Virginia Woolf’s horrible polycule, or Anaïs Nin fucking her own estranged father.

Anyway, the purpose of gossip isn’t to depress. It’s to astonish and uplift and edify. In no particular order, then, here are my top ten pieces of literary gossip

Dan Brown’s Friesian love horse

Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown and his wife had an extremely acrimonious divorce, after he cheated on her with her Dutch horse-trainer, giving the horse-trainer a $350,000 Friesian horse named LimiTed Edition as a romantic gift. His wife, an art-historian, sued him, claiming she thought up all the premises for his major literary works.

A Friesian horse not unlike the kind Dan Brown gifted to his wife’s horse trainer (Photo: Supplied)

Ian McEwan heckled by ex-wife at Cheltenham Literary Festival

In 2014, Ian McEwan was heckled at Cheltenham Literary festival by his ex-wife Penny Allen and her new partner, who showed up to his festival event in gags (and some sort of giant prop blunt?) and yelled derisively at him during question time. The heckling seems to be regarding a historic custody dispute between McEwan and Allen, which McEwan won. Allen complains of being legally unable to discuss their custody case to this day (hence the gag), while McEwan has managed to write a not-inconsiderable number of novels about bitter custody disputes and collapsing marriages. Apparently Allen is currently working on publishing her journals from around the time of the custody battle. Very ominous stuff. 

Hans Christian Andersen overstays his welcome

I learned about this from a Guardian articleAnderson was a huge fan of Charles Dickens and came to stay with him for five weeks in 1857. After the visit (which appears to have been excruciating for Dickens and relaxing for Andersen) Dickens wrote to a friend that Andersen: 

  • Spoke French like “Peter the Wild Boy”
  • Complained it was too cold, and there was nobody to shave him 
  • Lay down on the lawn and cried, following negative reviews of his work in the paper 
  • Gathered weird little posies of flowers in the woods
  • Cut creepy patterns out of paper 

My favourite part: after Hans left, Dickens wrote on the guest room mirror “Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks — which seemed to the family AGES!” 

Timothy Bobbin

One of the reasons literary feuds are almost always boring is because one of the feuding parties is almost always Gore Vidal. But there’s something infinitely delightful about the blistering personal acrimony between P. G. Wodehouse and A. A. Milne. They were friends, before the Second World War, when Wodehouse and his wife were interred in France by the Nazis. Wodehouse was kept in a Paris hotel, where he made a series of satirical broadcasts about life as a detainee.

Though his broadcasts weren’t pro-German, their inevitably lighthearted tone brought criticism from Wodehouse’s contemporaries in Britain, particularly his friend A. A. Milne, who publicly reprimanded Wodehouse, calling him naive and irresponsible. Wodehouse, who had thought people would be sympathetic to his plight as a prisoner, considered this a grave personal betrayal, and later said “Nobody is as anxious as me that Alan Alexander Milne should trip over a loose bootlace and break his bloody neck.” 

He then spent the rest of his career throwing in snide references to whimsical children’s authors in his novels, and “Timothy Bobbin” going “hoppity-hoppity-hop,” saying, “When we authors have infant sons, our first thought is to cash in on them.” 

Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh et al.

From Rodney Has a Relapse: “What it comes to,” said William, “is that he is wantonly laying up a lifetime of shame and misery for the wretched little moppet. In the years to come, when he is playing in the National Amateur, the papers will print photographs of him with captions underneath explaining that he is the Timothy Bobbin of the well-known poems.”

This was as mean as it was prophetic. Milne’s son, Christopher, famously resented his famous father who barely spent any time with him, and his adult life was haunted by references to the Hundred Acre Wood. More details to come in a future article: Children’s authors are all miserable and depressing losers, or at least the good ones are. 

Julian Horses

Q: Where do Julian Horses sleep?

A: Julian Barnes. 

Usually I can’t get interested in literary affairs. Authors leaving their author spouses for other authors is the stale bread and butter of British literature. But there’s something kind of charming about Julian Barnes’s wife and literary agent Pat Kavanagh temporarily leaving Barnes for Jeanette Winterson, of whom she was also the literary agent. Jeanette Winterson, one of the first female writers to describe herself as a genius since Gertrude Stein, has since married and divorced Susie Orbach. 

Extremely dumb and incredibly predictable

Jonathan Safran Foer leaving his wife, the novelist Nicole Krauss, for the already-married Natalie Portman, based on a fatally incorrect belief about unspoken but reciprocated feelings of romantic love, following some sort of pretentious email correspondence, is a staple on any literary gossip list. Also did we all know that Natalie Portman is married to a guy called Benjamin Millepied? Cute. 

James Joyce’s wife’s hot farts

I never want to see Hemingway on a literary gossip list, unless he’s being punched in the face by Wallace Stevens, or being used as a human shield by James Joyce. Apparently Joyce would go around carousing and picking fights on the streets of Paris, and then jump behind Hemingway and cry “Hemingway protect me!” Also cute. But the real reason Joyce deserves a place on the list, are for his delightfully tender and horny letters, about his wife’s hot farts. Consider this excerpt: 

I think I would know Nora’s fart anywhere. I think I could pick hers out in a roomful of farting women. It is a rather girlish noise not like the wet windy fart which I imagine fat wives have. It is sudden and dry and dirty like what a bold girl would let off in fun in a school dormitory at night. I hope Nora will let off no end of her farts in my face so that I may know their smell also.”

Joyce’s wife was called Nora Barnacle, which is as good, if not better than Benjamin Millepied. Almost enough to make one consider reading Ulysses.  

James Joyce and Nora Barnacle

Everybody vs. Nicholas Sparks

One of the best things I discovered while researching this list, is how universally disliked Nicholas Sparks is. Not only did he try to shut down the LGBTQIA club at his local school, to quote some guy on Reddit: 

“A friend of mine is related to Nicholas Sparks and has always talked about what a jerk he is. He shows up during the holidays and talks about himself and how much money he has the entire time. It annoys his kids. I crack up every time my friend talks about him.”

In the past, Sparks has gone on record calling himself a greater novelist than Cormac McCarthy, and that his novels are like Greek Tragedies. In the course of my research I discovered that:  

  • Sparks jumped in the shower when his wife began labour with their first child, so he could look fresh for the birth photos.
  • Most if not all of his books are set in North Carolina. 
  • When asked in a recent interview “What assumptions do you think readers make about you that aren’t true” he said “I would say they might not know that I exercise as much as I do.” 
  • After Sparks’s recent divorce, he is writing a television show about a bestselling author named BEN DIAMOND who must find the strength to love again. 

Ayn Rand’s entire biography

Read it and weep.

Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman

Amanda Palmer, Neil Gaiman and Neil Gaiman’s Goodreads account

Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer were briefly living (and being publicly applauded) in New Zealand during the pandemic. They appear to have had several public break ups – the worst of which occurred when Neil Gaiman’s Goodreads account was allegedly hacked – and a book titled “Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder” was added to his public “to read” list. This can happen through password hacking OR if you accidentally link your Amazon purchases to your Goodreads account and don’t notice. As soon as Palmer’s fans saw this, they sent her a message, causing her to make a public statement confirming their break-up. Gaiman later claimed his Goodreads account was hacked. 

Whatever you believe, it just goes to show that supporting Amazon and Amazon subsidiaries doesn’t pay. Another good reason to support your local bookshop.

Keep going!