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The Best Literary Insults (that really aren’t that good)

August 2, 2012


English: Gore Vidal at the Union Square Barnes...

Gore Vidal: “Half of the American people have never read a newspaper. Half never voted for president. One hopes it is the same half.” Oh yeah? Well, you… you suck! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I could never be a literary writer because my prose isn’t very good and my insult repertoire is too limited.  When somebody impugns my character, I choose one of three responses: 

“You suck.” 

“(Derogatory term) you!” 

“Your mom _____  ______  ______ last night.” 

That’s pretty much all you need to get through life. 


Gore Vidal died last night/week/month/year/decade (depending on when you read this).  He was a little before my time.  I read Lincoln, not because Gore Vidal wrote it, but because I went through a phase where I was fascinated by Abraham Lincoln (but not fascinated enough to write stories about him hunting vampires or to write an alternate history where he gets impeached), so I’m not a Gore Vidal expert, and this is not a tribute. 

Gore Vidal liked to insult people, and some of his fans find that endearing.  Gore Vidal might not fit in anymore in this era of anti-bullying, but he wasn’t the only author of his time (or earlier times) to be like that.  Famous authors used to be known for their put downs, and a lot of their insults got a bit personal.  

For example, Vidal supposedly said/wrote this about Ernest Hemingway: “What other culture could have produced someone like Hemingway and not seen the joke?” 

My writing instructors would have said that was not constructive criticism.

Gore Vidal allegedly said/wrote this about Truman Capote: “He’s a full-fledged housewife from Kansas with all the prejudices.”

I know a few housewives from Kansas, and all of them could come up with a better insult than that. 

That’s just it; a lot of literary insults really aren’t that good.  Their insults might be clever (maybe), but their snootiness and condescension makes them ineffective to the average (non-literary) person. 

Dorothy Parker was another writer (before Gore Vidal’s time) famous for her insults.  Since I wasn’t around then, I don’t know if her targets deserved her nasty remarks.  Dorothy Parker might have been the wrong chick to start playing the dozens with, or she might have been a literary bully who needed sensitivity training. 

When Dorothy Parker (allegedly) insulted Katherine Hepburn by saying, “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B,” had Katherine Hepburn done or said something to Dorothy Parker first? 

Another problem with classic literary insults is that we rarely get to hear the comeback.  When Dorothy Parker insulted Atlas Shrugged (“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”), what was Ayn Rand’s response?  Whatever it was, it probably wasn’t a sound bite. 

When Dorothy Parker called her husband “queer as a billy goat,” did her husband respond by boycotting Chick-Fil-A? 

Even with the internet, it’s difficult to find answers to these questions. 


Earlier I mentioned my limited repertoire of three comebacks.  They’re not creative, but the weapons in my crude limited rhetorical arsenal can be effective, and I’ll apply them to a few of the more well-known classic literary insults. 

Oscar Wilde : “He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends.” 

Comeback:  “Go (derogatory term) yourself, and get a haircut while you’re at it.” 

Mark Twain (about a Henry James book): “Once you put it down, you simply can’t pick it up.” 

Comeback: “You suck, and so does Tom Sawyer, Detective.” 

Dorothy Parker: “And there was that wholesale libel on a Yale prom. If all the girls attending it were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.” 

Comeback:  “Oh yeah?  I saw your mom at the Yale prom.” 


You have to be careful when mentioning an adversary’s mother.  When I was in high school, I described my previous night’s sexual exploits with my adversary’s mother and thought I had won the insult exchange because of the sudden silence of the crowd.  I then learned that my adversary’s mother had died in some tragic fashion a couple years earlier. 

Sometimes you’re better off just saying “(Derogatory term) you!” and walking off.


Just so you know, I hardly ever really talk to people like that (maybe once every ten years or so).

  1. I saw your mom at the Yale prom! Lmao! Classic.

  2. I would have gone with “you’re from Kansas”. That would have showed him!

    • Ha! And then you can say, “And your mom is from Kansas too!” Personally, I like Kansas, but that’s the state that Gore chose to impugn, so there you go.

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