My Future Nemesis

July 31, 2009 | 8 2 min read

When I was in graduate school, a good friend of mine decided I needed a nemesis. She already had one – or many, depending on the day – but my particular nemesis would be chosen on aesthetic grounds. This would be a classmate whose work in some way hurt my own: their short stories and mine, for one reason or another, could not comfortably coexist in the literary world. It was a fun, even philosophical, conversation; I can’t confirm this, but I’m pretty sure it occurred at a bar. To this day, my nemesis has no idea of our fraught relationship.

Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Times wrote about famous literary feuds, such as the one between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. At the paper’s book blog Jacket Copy, you’re invited to add your own favorite feuds in the comments section.

At dinner last night, my husband Patrick and I discussed this with a friend. She pointed out that though literary feuds are fun to talk and read about, being in one must feel really terrible. I didn’t think so; I’m itching for a fight, maybe. We talked about ways I might get involved in one. First thing’s first, I would need to publish a book – otherwise, nobody will care. Next? “Just call Keith Gessen a douchebag,” Patrick suggested. I’ve never read the guy, but we agreed he’d probably be game for some literary mudslinging. I would definitely need an enthusiastic participant. My friend suggested Zadie Smith, but I’m not sure I want to get the English involved. Plus, I’ve heard Smith is tall, and as the little sister of two tall women, I understand their fighting capabilities – I’d get my ass kicked. The three of us finished dinner, still uncertain how to proceed.

Do you have any ideas? And if you could be in a literary feud with an author, dead or alive, who would it be?

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. I think I'd want to feud with Vladimir Nabokov. I have a feeling I could take him in a fight. He studied butterflies after all, so how tough could he have been. Plus, I love tangling with someone who has an accent I can mock – it would be very Bullwinkle vs. Boris Badenov. Too bad for me (and him, I suppose) that he's dead.

  2. I'm on the side of your friend in graduate school– I like to have numerous nemeses, always completely one-sided relationships. Mine usually develop due to jealousy, and I've relaxed a bit with age, I must say. But once again, Edan, you're right– until we publish our books, who will care? Unless, perhaps, we can be each others! Let's fight! We'll both end up famous!

  3. Do you guys remember that piece where Curtis Sittenfeld was so jealous of Nell Freudenberger. A must-read on imagined literary feuds!

  4. Another classic was that anonymous Granta piece a few years ago by an ex-girlfriend of Jonathan Franzen's where she talked about how jealous she was of The Corrections.

  5. Nell Freudenburger — who wouldn't want to start a feud with her?! If I called her work re·cher·ché, do you think she'd whip me? Anyway, this reminds me, I used to eat at the Old Curiosity Malt Shop, and I took great delight when other patrons' burgers were undercooked, a lamentable solecism I like to call a Little Nell Schadenfreudeburger; then there was the time I blasted Beethoven's 9th on my boombox in McDonald's, and nearly leapt to plateau phase straightaway the very moment the woman at the register winked knowingly at my order for An die Freudeburger. But YES! If you don't piss at least one other writer off, you are failing miserably. Seen in this way, the acquisition of nemeses needn't be voluntary; instead, it is the inevitable adjunct of doing something right. Write well and honestly and you'll have enough nemeses, both at home and overseas, to provide all sorts of inciteful (and occasionally insightful) reviews. Even bad reviews can sell books, so long as they tickle the curiosity. Speaking of shopping curiosity about, what's this about Nell again?

  6. With the new, (maybe) improved "A Moveable Feast" out, I submit Hemingway's deprecating (and, I think, closeted jealous) depiction of Scott Fitzgerald.

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