Poisoned Pens: Literary Invective

Let me correct you impression that trolls are an invention of the internet. Better, I let someone else do it for me. A book I found will disabuse you of any such preconception. It holds a collection of truly vicious comments that were written by writers about other writers. The book is a must read for any troll aspiring to do it in style; it’s a necessary guide on how to be truly insulting.


“English has one million words; why confine yourself to six?” Virginia Woolf directed this vitriolic comment at D.H. Lawrence. It holds pride of place over any trollish comment I read on the internet so far. But I do hope you appreciate style in crabbiness. The book is presenting a collection of crabby, cutting, stylish, and well aimed insults directed by writers at fellow writers. Even trolls could attain a form of literacy by applying the rules of the well honed insult.

Gary Dexter has signed as editor to the compilation called Poisoned Pens: Literary Invective from Amis to Zola which was published by Frances Lincoln Limited. It covers a potpurri of the snide and the snippy from ancient classical authors to modern time cat fights. The book is organised in chapters which don’t necessarily need to be read in the order presented. If you have a preference for venomous Victorians, feel free to start there.

To the aspiring troll, it gives invaluable inspiration in examples like Oscar Wilde's assertion about Meredith: “As a writer he has mastered everything except language: as a novelist he can do everything except tell a story: as an artist he is everything except articulate.” That is what I call a well honed insult, too long for Twitter, though. Or take Thackery on Swift: “Some of this audience mayn’t have read the last part of Gulliver, and to such I would recall the advice of the venerable Mr. Punch to persons about to marry. Don’t.“

Poor Jane Austen is one of the most revered and enduring English authors but not universally loved. Mark Twain, the American writer, was so irritated by Austen's writing that he wrote in one letter: "Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin bone." You might attribute this to cultural differences. I for my part am able to enter into his feelings; I would like to do the same for each of her books.

Maybe you prefer to stay with the poets in expectation of more refined reading. Byron described Keats' work as "neither poetry nor anything else but a Bedlam vision produced by raw pork and opium." He even offered his publisher to skin Keats alive. Shelley in turn described Byron’s work as “mischievous insanity” brought on by Byron’s taste for “bigoted and disgusting Italian women”.

I recommend this book especially to all new online writers. It will help to deal with their trolls. If a comment is not as well written as Oscar Wilde did, ignore it; if it is, take it as a compliment. I enjoyed reading the book from beginning to end; it also stops me from answering comments I get on my writing.

Further reading
High Literature: Being Politically Incorrect
Language Barriers
Poking Fun at Book Critics

http://flowerpa.com/sympathy.html