War of Words
Volume 20 Issue 06 2012-02-10
Of all the literary contests and book clubs out there, nothing sounds quite so benign as “Canada Reads.” From the title alone you can tell it involves Canadians, a famously polite bunch, and reading, a notably non-violent pastime. So what the heck happened when a Canada Reads judge started accusing authors of being “bloody terrorists” and liars? The truth about literature’s hidden dark side turned, roaring, into a very public fray.
The ruckus started during a recent episode of the CBC’s popular literary contest, Canada Reads. The premise is that several well-known Canadians defend the merits of their chosen books, and one title is knocked out of the contest each day until a winner is declared. It’s generally a civil event, with participants taking (and giving) good-natured literary barbs.
For this year’s contest, all the nominated titles are non-fiction books—things like The Game, by Ken Dryden, and Prisoner of Tehran, by Marina Nemat. So it’s understandable that there might be a little more intensity surrounding discussions about war and politics than, say, chick lit. But when Anne-France Goldwater, a Quebec lawyer and TV host, declared that author “Carmen Aguirre is a bloody terrorist,” it sank the tone to a new and unpleasant level. (She was referring to the Vancouver-based Aguirre’s memoir, Something Fierce, about growing up within the Chilean resistance movement.)
Goldwater also went on the attack about the memoir Prisoner of Tehran, which discusses author Nemat’s arrest and imprisonment in Iran at the age of 16. As the Globe and Mail writes , Goldwater claimed that Nemat “tells a story that’s not true and you can tell it’s not true when you read it.”
Startling allegations, to be sure, and not the usual stuff of Canada Reads. But literature, far from inspiring nothing more than imaginary adventures, has a history rife with real-life feuds and fisticuffs. Indeed, as The Daily Beast site notes, “The greatest literary feuds begin as a response to words, preferably written ones.”
Sometimes the battles are confined to the written word, like when Harold Bloom slammed J.K. Rowling’s prose. In a Wall Street Journal piece in 2000, Bloom called her writing “heavy on cliché,” and wondered whether “more than 35 million book buyers, and their offspring” could be wrong. He answered his own question with a resounding yes, and said they’ll continue to be wrong “for as long as they persevere with Potter.” Apparently, the millions of faithful Potter readers missed his review.
Other times, things get decidedly physical; the confrontation between Gore Vidal and Normal Mailer has become the stuff of legend. The story goes like this: besides insulting a book of Mailer’s, Vidal compared him to Charles Manson. In reply, Mailer “head-butted him in the green room of the Dick Cavett Show in 1971,” and several years later tossed a drink—and a punch—at him during a party. But proving that words really are mightier than the sword, Vidal struck back with the perfect response: “As usual, words fail him.”
And then there was the 2004 spat between Richard Ford and Colson Whitehead, one in which Ford quite literally spat on Whitehead for giving a poor review of Ford’s Multitude of Sins. Ford replied in style in The New York Times, writing that it “wasn’t the first time some old coot had drooled on me, and it probably won’t be the last.”
So should Anne-France Goldwater’s comments on Canada Reads pass unremarked? No, if only because they lowered the discourse of a national broadcaster’s program to the juvenile, inflammatory level of the worst kind of reality show.
But when it comes to a war of words, it was hardly a glancing blow.
S.D. Livingston is the author of several books, including the new suspense novel Kings of Providence. Visit her website for information on her writing (and for more musings on the literary world!).