Cavalcade Of Literary Jerks: Part 1
Original Shakespeare portrait via Wikipedia Commons, public domain
All author photos via Wikipedia Commons, public domain
Hero worship is a dangerous proposition, especially in literature. Writers are a notoriously temperamental bunch, and few are suited to a Brad Pitt level of public scrutiny. By putting your favorite author on a pedestal, you are setting yourself up for disappointment should you ever choose to peer behind the curtain. This is especially true in our futuristic computer world. The majority of my research for Cavalcade consisted of me Googling "[author's name] is a jerk." The zeroes and ones did the rest. Used to be in the old days you had to have an altercation with a celebrity on the street to get a bad impression of them. Now it's as easy as tapping a few keys.
And in less strokes than Billy Squier, here it is—the rotten fruits of my labor. The ten biggest jerks in all of literature. Consider yourself warned— your favorite author may well be on this list. So if you don't want to be exposed to the awful truth, click HERE to be whisked away to a happy place.
If you had written what is considered by many to be one of the greatest novels of all time, wouldn't you be a little conceited? Probably. Trouble is, Joyce was a pompous jerk before achieving literary canonization, years before he'd written his defining works.
This is best illustrated by a meeting that took place between Joyce and the poet Yeats some time around 1902. 20 year old Joyce showed no respect for his elder statesman, behaving like a right cad and an insolent young whippersnap. When the venerable Yeats offered to read some of Joyce's coffee house poetry, the young man had this to say: "I do so since you ask me, but I attach no more importance to your opinion than to anybody one meets on the street." Ouch. After firing off a number of similar indignities, Joyce ended the conversation with an equally offensive valediction. "We have met too late. You are too old for me to have any effect on you."
But the joke's on Joyce. His literary accomplishments will forever be overshadowed by his feminine flatulence fetish. In 1975, a series of dirty love letters between Joyce and his wife were published, detailing the "ins and outs" of their odiferous love making. It is the single greatest thing the man ever wrote.
At every fuck I gave you your shameless tongue came bursting out through your lips and if I gave you a bigger stronger fuck than usual, fat dirty farts came spluttering out of your backside. You had an arse full of farts that night, darling, and I fucked them out of you, big fat fellows, long windy ones, quick little merry cracks and a lot of tiny little naughty farties ending in a long gush from your hole. It is wonderful to fuck a farting woman when every fuck drives one out of her. 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.
9. Charles Dickens
From Pauline Frommer's London, concerning her visit to The Charles Dickens Museum:
As you watch the half hour biographical video... an unpleasant realization sets in: Charles Dickens was a compelling character but kind of a jerk. Tough on his kids and unfaithful to his wife, his greatest possession seems to have been his ego.
Child abuse (my spicy extrapolation) and adultery certainly qualify you for jerkdom, but these are minor infractions in the scheme of this list. More damning would be the allegations of anti-Semitism leveled at the man. I submit for your consideration, exhibit A—the character of Fagin in Oliver Twist. Fagin ran a school for juvenile pickpockets and is considered one of the most egregious caricatures of Jewish people in all of literature. He is repeatedly referred to as "The Jew," and is described as a "loathsome reptile, engendered in slime and darkness."
It sounds bad, but Dickens was quick to remedy the situation when criticized. Eliza Davis, wife of the man who purchased Dickens's home and the Al Sharpton of her day, called him out on his anti-Semitism in a strongly worded letter. As a result, Dickens yelled "Stop the press!" and omitted the offending terminology from all sections of the book yet to be typeset (this being the era of the serial).
Of course, it seems he didn't quite learn his lesson. A few years later in the travelogue, American Notes, he included an insensitive anecdote about a black coachman which I have never read, but imagine to rival the runaway winnebago scene from Sullivan's Travels in its casual racism. He also used this platform to make clear his position on the 15th amendment, saying, "the melancholy absurdity of giving these people votes, at any rate at present, would glare out of every roll of their eyes, chuckle in their mouths, and bump in their heads." Yikes.
James Ellroy is the badass crime novelist behind The LA Quartet and The Underworld USA Trilogy. As anyone who's seen the man live can attest, he knows how to work a room. He is a larger than life personality prone to fits of rhyming, alliteration, and vainglorious boasting. He's the demon dog, the foul owl with the death growl, the white knight of the far right, the slick trick with the donkey dick, and by his own account, the greatest crime novelist who ever lived.
But does being over-confident make him a jerk? There's a fine line between dick and shtick, and Ellroy gets immense pleasure out of blurring it. There have been accounts of the bristly author bullying journalists and storming out of interviews. He also doesn't have much of a filter. When social commentator Mike Davis criticized his work, he said, “Being taken to task by Mike Davis in the ‘Chicago Review’ is like being date-raped by a premature ejaculator with a two inch dick.”
Then there are the allegations of misogyny, homophobia, and racism. All three run rampant in Ellroy's work, and there are those who feel this reflects the man's true nature. Anyone who's read The Hillicker Curse knows he worships women in his own sick and twisted way, so I would hesitate to call him a misogynist. As for homophobia and racism... I do detect a certain amount of glee on Ellroy's part when he uses pejorative language, but I would still argue that it is the characters who are racist, not the writer. Although, I can see why people would suspect. The first line of The Cold Six Thousand always gave me pause. "They sent him to Dallas to kill a n*gger pimp named Wendell Durfee." When your unspecified third person narrator is a racist, you might be overdoing it just a little.
Ellroy's response to that? "If that offends you, fuck you. Put the book down. If you think I'm a racist, fuck you."
I'm a little hesitant to brand Ellis a jerk, as I'm a big fan and he's a friend of The Cult (the website, not the band). The omnisexual bad boy behind Less Than Zero and American Psycho has never been anything but gracious with us, but in all fairness he has been known to make an inflammatory statement from time to time.
Case in point: in 2010, while discussing film adaptations of his work, Ellis said that women couldn't direct because they aren't stimulated by the visual, like men. "There's something about the medium of film itself that I think requires the male gaze." The interviewer was quick to point out that the director who brought his own American Psycho to the silver screen was, herself, a woman. Ellis responded by implying that director Mary Harron hadn't done the best of jobs with the material, and it was probably because she had a vagina.
Shocked? This is nothing new. Ellis has always been a provocateur, but since the advent of social media, it seems he's redoubled his efforts to piss people off. Most recently, he's come under fire for insensitive and rabble-rousing statements made via Twitter, where every stray syllable is the shot heard 'round the world. He likened watching Glee to stepping in a puddle of HIV and called Pride "Gay Shame Weekend." In response to the "It Gets Better" campaign, he wrote, "Not to bum everyone out, but can we get a reality check here? It gets worse."
Then there was the infamous J.D. Salinger tweet: "Thank God he's finally dead. I've been waiting for this day for-fucking-ever. Party Tonight!!!" Was this to be taken literally, or was it more of the author's satirical wit? In an interview with the man, I asked him what he meant by the remark, but he was evasive, saying only, "What do YOU think it meant?"
I think the man likes fucking with us.
6. Laura Albert aka J.T. Leroy
J.T. Leroy was an HIV positive, transgender, recovering addict of a literary sensation who was forced into truck stop prostitution by his mother at the tender age of 12. Subjected to a bevy of hairy bellies and alcohol drenched breath, who would dare call such an unfortunate a jerk? Notice the use of the word "was" in that first sentence. I say "was" because J.T. turned out to be the creation of an unknown writer named Laura Albert, who used his sad tale of addiction and abuse to launch her own literary career.
He/she suckered in a whole host of well-meaning literary types via fax (this was the mid 90s), including novelist Dennis Cooper and poet Sharon Olds. As notoriety built and the masquerade continued, Albert recruited her 18 year old sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, to play Leroy in public. Knoop would go on to inhabit the character for 6 long, gender-bending years.
There were skeptics, but celebrities flocked to defend the damaged recluse. According to Wikipedia, Garbage singer Shirley Manson wrote to J.T., "I have held hands with him, I know he is for real." (Not sure why J.T. would need convincing, as he was the one perpetrating the hoax, but whatever.) Asia Argento, director of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, would hold more than just hands with the diminutive waif. She claims she didn't know. Others say she did.
That's some heavy shit for a teenage girl to handle (she would go on to write a book about it). Not only that, but according to an interview with The Paris Review, Albert claims crew members on the set of Heart would offer J.T./Knoop drugs to get closer to him/her. I don't know what's worse, offering drugs to a recovering addict, or putting a teenager in such a dangerous position to further your own career.
Still, Albert isn't the worst offender on this list. The literary hoax is a grand tradition, dating all the way back to the beginning of time when God wrote the Bible. I kind of admire her resourcefulness, as self-serving as it was. The emotional collateral damage of Knoop, however, is less easy to forgive. But don't worry, my vengeful minions, Albert's uppence would come. In 2007, she was found guilty of fraud for falsifying legal documents and forced to make monetary reparation to some rinky-dink film company. Small victories.
Thus concludes part 1 of LitReactor's epic Calvalcade of Literary Jerks. You can thank my bloated word count for the cliffhanger. Stay tuned to these pages for our second glorious installment. If you think these guys were bad, just wait until you see the top five. Things get downright nasty.
Predictions? Disagreements? Outrage? Sound off in the comments, people. That's what they're there for.
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