Last week saw the publication in English of France’s resident literary bad boy Michel Houellebecq’s newest novel, The Map and the Territory, heralded by some as his magnum opus. The resurgence of the literary great got us to thinking about other literary bad boys who rocked the boat and won notoriety for it — most of them buoyed by endless talent, or just star power. After all, everyone loves to hate (or in some cases, loves to love) the literary rebels and the scandalous men of letters. Click through to check out our list of legendary literary bad boys — and if we’ve forgotten your favorite enfant terrible, be sure to let us know in the comments.
To his admirers, the controversial author is the pinnacle of the provocative literary luminary; to his detractors, he’s a nihilistic writer of vulgar trash. True, his novels are unrelentingly salacious, and he has a reputation for trying to seduce his lady interviewers, but that’s never stopped us from liking an author. More importantly, he sticks to his idealistic guns, even when under heavy attack. In 2002, he was sued by four Islamic organizations on charges of “inciting racial hatred” after he called Islam “the dumbest religion” in an interview about his novel Platform. “I have never displayed the least contempt for Muslims,” he told the court, making sure to add, “I have as much contempt as ever for Islam.” He won the case, the court citing freedom of expression.
Unlike Houellebecq, there’s not too many naysayers when it comes to Amis’ literary prowess — he was lauded almost universally as one of the greatest comic novelists of the late 20th century, and won several awards, including a Booker prize and um, knighthood. After the publication of his first novel, Lucky Jim, Amis became associated with the writers known as the “Angry Young Men” — a nebulous group of working and middle-class British writers, often characterized by a disillusionment with society. Plus, like any self-respecting literary bad boy, he was a serious drinker, writing in one of his memoirs, “Now and then I become conscious of having the reputation of being one of the great drinkers, if not one of the great drunks, of our time.”
Like father, like son. In some ways at least: the younger Amis is a little less bullheaded British drunk and a little more purposefully incendiary snob — perhaps it’s a function of being a child of such literary privilege. The Guardian called him “the most argued over novelist in the UK,” and no wonder: just picture him in the ’70s, cigarette dangling from his lip, Ian McEwan at his side, brash and haughty and on everyone’s bad side, but lousy with talent.
The bad boy of post-war American letters was a literary giant for more than six decades — and he came with an ego to match. Leaving almost as many controversies and literary sideshows in his wake as novels, including running for mayor of New York City in 1969, he had (often unpopular) opinions on everything, and no problem letting everyone know about them. Pugnacious (he reportedly once clocked a man on the street because Mailer thought he had insinuated that his dog was gay), incendiary (in 1961, the 92Y dropped the curtain on him for the first time in 20 years, for reading some “obscene” poems), and always ready to lash out against the prevailing order with his crackling intellect, he is the epitome of a literary lion.
There’s no wondering how James Frey made this list, though we give him the title of “bad boy” quite a bit less lovingly than we give it to some of the others here — maybe because we actually have to live through him. First causing a scandal when his acclaimed autobiography of addiction, A Million Little Pieces, turned out to be untrue, and then fighting with Oprah about it, Frey more recently founded an exploitative publishing company called “Full Fathom Five,” which New York Magazine called “Frey’s Fiction Factory.” He’s also extremely abrasive in interviews and public speech, to the point of being alarming — but who knows, perhaps one day history will laud him as one of the great game-changers. Let us know.
Salman Rushdie is the picturesque literary bad boy — an froggish intellectual who always seems to have a beyond-gorgeous girl on his arm and some controversy up his sleeve. He’s keeping himself relevant these days by doing things like courting (“you look so gorgeous and hottt!”) and then breaking up with his lovers on Facebook. But look, Salman, if you’re going to be contemporary literature’s Lothario-in-residence, at least make your flirty messages a little more lyrical! That’s all we ask.
Newsweek called Franzen “the writer we love to hate,” and the description is apt — he is almost universally acknowledged as one of the greats of our time, the first novelist to appear on the comer of Time in ten years, there’s something off-putting about him. Part of the ’90s literary brat pack that also included David Foster Wallace, Mary Karr, and Jeffrey Eugenides, he routinely challenges the conventional canon even today, once calling Times critic Michiko Kakutani “the stupidest person in New York,” eschewing Oprah’s honors (sometimes), and proclaiming that he doesn’t “understand the fuss” about Graham Greene. Which, ultimately, all comes off as sort of bitchy — not that that fact dampens the public’s fascination with the slightly a-social literary great. He even has his own dark side Twitter handle.
The bad boy of Romanticism, Lordy Byron is known to have had a life full of excess and an arrogant, rebellious attitude to go with his poetic genius. One of his mistresses called him “mad, bad and dangerous to know,” and he even considered himself to be “a strange mélange of good and evil.” He incurred huge debts, had many scandalous love affairs (including a supposed fling with his half-sister), and, when he got sick of fame, voluntarily exiled himself to have a little peace and quiet.
Kureishi, who started his career in the ’70s as a pornography writer (under a pseudonym, of course), caused many a stir with his provocative novels and screenplays in the ’90s. “If that shocks you, then it shocks you,” Kureishi told the LA Times, “I try to reflect the world as I see it. The world contains lesbian people, black people, gay people and straight people and they do all kinds of dirty stuff together that sometimes you put in a movie.” Well said.
Sardonic and smug, the Austrian bad boy was forever thumbing his nose at the industry in which he worked, leading critics to call him a Nestbeschmutzer, which translates to “one who fouls his own nest.” He was involved in many major public scandals over the years, including one set off when, after being presented with a national award in 1968, he sighed, “Everything is ridiculous, when one thinks of death!” Irreverent to be sure, and highly controversial, but like many others on this list, you can forgive the hyper-talented almost anything.