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Instead of acting like Kidney Person, be more like these 19th-century literary haters.

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October 7, 2021, 2:24pm

Today, for no reason in particular, I’m thinking about writerly infighting. It’s alarming to know that your insulting groupchat messages could become public—especially in a culture of networking, where negative feelings about fellow writers are mostly expressed through texts, emails, and bar hangs. But if the contents of your groupchat can be subpoenaed and published at any time, maybe it’s better to cut out the middleman and air your gripes directly—like five naturalist writers in 1887, who took to the newspaper to publish a group-authored manifesto about how much they hated Emile Zola’s new book.

When this drama went down, Zola was already properly famous: he was well-known for both his novels and plays and was considered to be at the forefront of the naturalist movement. His latest novel, La Terre, was an unflinching portrait of peasant life in Second Empire France—it featured many upsetting events, including scenes of rape and parricide. These scenes didn’t sit well with Paul Bonnetain, J.H. Rosny, Lucien Descaves, Paul Margueritte and Gustave Guiches, all self-proclaimed naturalist writers, who published the excitingly named “The Manifesto of the Five” in Le Figaro. The manifesto deemed Zola’s work vulgar and attempted to renounce him as the founder of naturalism: “The master has descended to the depths of filth.” (This critique is a bit surprising, as three of them had books out about masturbation, incest, and lesbianism—at the time, salacious topics.)

But that wasn’t all: in their manifesto, “The Five” didn’t shy away from, well, anything. They insulted La Terre’s prose: “[its observations are] superficial, its technique old-fashioned, and the narrative is vulgar and commonplace, while the filthiness is exaggerated.” They roasted his experimental, document-based novels: “[Zola is] armed with faked documents picked up at third hand, full of Hugoesque bombast . . . and lapsing into perpetual repetition and stereotyped phrases.” They outed him as being preoccupied with his sales numbers: not only did his work seem sales-oriented, they said, but “those of us who have heard him talk are not unaware of it.” They said he was psychologically unstable: “Some attributed [his writing] to a disease of the lower organs of the writer, to the mania of a solitary monk.” They also claimed that his bad writing was due to a balance disorder from his kidney disease (?!).

Ultimately, the Five’s manifesto rejected Zola as their influence and mentor as naturalists: “We energetically repudiate this imposture on real literature . . . we repudiate these rhetorical mouthpieces, these gigantic, superhuman and incredible figures, devoid of all subtlety . . . we refuse to be parties to a shameful degeneration.” They protested La Terre—“a literature without nobility”—“in the name of healthy and manly ambitions, in the name of our worship, of our deep love, of our supreme respect for art.” (Amazingly, Zola himself was a contributor to Le Figaro. Who was the shady editor who approved this manifesto?!)

Happily, Zola was able to knock the Five down a peg by snubbing them in in an interview in Le Gil Blas:

“I do not know what is thought in Paris of this protest which has brought me some very kind letters from my confrères, but it has stupefied me. I do not know those young men. They do not belong to my entourage, they have never sat at my table, they are not my friends. If they are disciples of mine—and remember I do not seek to make disciples—they are so without my knowledge. Why then do they repudiate me? The situation is original. It is as if a woman with whom a man never had any intercourse were to write him: “I have had quite enough of you, let us separate!” The man would certainly reply to that: “It’s all one to me.” Well, the position is very similar.”

(I don’t know her!)

The Five were clearly drama queens, but this literary feud feels ideal to me: everyone got to say their piece. I do believe in niceness, but in a way, I wish more writers acted like this—then, at least people wouldn’t worry about how they appear to others. Plus, it’s fun to read about. More brutal honesty! More self-important pans! Instead of being a Bad Art Friend, consider being a Good Art Enemy.

[h/t The New Republic, Le Figaro, Jewish Social Studies, Modern Language Association]

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