This week saw the release of Farther Away, Jonathan Franzen’s newest collection of essays and speeches, covering the last five years of his non-fiction output. Well, in those last five years, he has become increasingly grumpy, griping about things like Twitter and ebooks, and building a reputation as an unrepentantly prickly author with a constant bone to pick. To celebrate the release of another book filled with Franzen’s complaints, we’ve put together a list of the ten grumpiest, crankiest and most cantankerous authors still living today. Click through to read about the exploits of our favorite literary curmudgeons, and let us know — as un-crankily as you can, please — if we’ve missed anyone in the comments.
While there are a few things Franzen actually likes, the author has stirred up a lot of controversy recently with his high-profile tirades against Edith Wharton, e-books, literary critics, and Twitter, of which he grumbled: “It’s a free country. People can do whatever they want within the law, and even some things not within the law… I personally was on Facebook for two weeks as part of a piece of journalism I was writing — it seemed sort of dumb to me. Twitter is unspeakably irritating. Twitter stands for everything I oppose… it’s hard to cite facts or create an argument in 140 characters… it’s like if Kafka had decided to make a video semaphoring The Metamorphosis. Or it’s like writing a novel without the letter ‘P’… It’s the ultimate irresponsible medium.” Not to mention the fact that he totally called out his supposed (and deceased) friend David Foster Wallace for fabricating his essays. We get it — everyone still likes him better than you, and that hurts. Let it rest, dude.
Maurice Sendak, author of highbrow kids’ book standbys Where the Wild Things Are, Outside, Over There, and The Nutshell Library, among others, may just be the most charmingly cantankerous author living today. Like Franzen, he’s not into ebooks, explaining, “I hate them. It’s like making believe there’s another kind of sex. There isn’t another kind of sex. There isn’t another kind of book! A book is a book is a book.” Better still is his stance on children, which he outlined in an interview on the Colbert Report: “I didn’t set out to make children happy, or make life better for them, or easier for them… I like them as few and far between as I do adults. Maybe a bit more more because I really don’t like adults, at all, practically.” But we can’t effectively explain the brilliant grumpiness of Sendak here — do yourself a favor and watch the full interview with Colbert (in which he also calls Newt Gingrich “an idiot of great renown”) here.
When famously cranky and outspoken Doris Lessing, author of The Golden Notebook, found out that she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007, she reacted thusly: “Oh, Christ. It’s been going on now for thirty years, I can’t get more excited,” adding, “I’m sure you’d like some uplifting remarks of some kind,” but refusing to give any. Then she continues to be truly, adorably perplexed at these reporters who want her to make a big deal out of a literary prize, when, she protests that she has nothing to say on the matter before finally telling them, “Look, I’ve won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one, so I’m delighted to win them all.” No, Doris Lessing does not have time for all these silly Nobel Prize shenanigans. She needs to put away her groceries and have some tea. Run along now.
Science fiction’s favorite curmudgeon, Harlan Ellison is so grumpy that his TV Tropes page has an entire section entitled “Things He’s Famously Grumpy About Include, But Are Certainly Not Limited To.” He’s particularly irked by “cultural illiteracy,” it seems — in a 2008 interview with the Toronto Sun, he launched into a classic “these darn kids these days” rant about a lecture he gave at UCLA, bellowing, “It is part of that automatic cultural response in this age of slackers, or Y generationals, or millennials, or whatever the fuck they’re calling themselves these days. Not only are they ignorant of everything — everything! — but they’re arrogant about their ignorance. They take great pride in not knowing or bestoying geezerdom on anything or anyone who achieved anything prior to their emergence.” Now that’s a grumpy old man if we’ve ever heard one — never mind if he’s right or not. Bonus: read the crankiest response to a fan letter that anyone has ever received, ever.
Naipaul always seems to be stirring up trouble with the kind of statements that make you want to roll your eyes and say “oh, Grandpa” — or they would, if they weren’t coming from an accomplished and influential author in a high-profile public forum. Maybe that’s why Paul Theroux wrote an entire book about how unpleasant he is. In a 2011 interview at the Royal Geographic Society, Naipaul made waves when he declared that he didn’t consider any female writer his equal — not even Jane Austen, as he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world.” He added, “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.”
In true grumpy grandpa form, when Amis became a grandfather, he complained that it was “so uncool,” kind of like “getting a telegram from the mortuary.” Indeed, it seems like Martin Amis is always making one grouchy and ill-advised remark after another, our favorite being the time he told the BBC that he’d have to be brain damaged to write a children’s book:”If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children’s book, but otherwise the idea of being conscious of who you’re directing the story to in anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable… I would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I can write.”
Garrison Keillor is a grumpy old writer with a radio show. He’s also really into Christmas, and not messing with it, according to this 2009 missive, wherein he grumps, “Christmas is a Christian holiday. If you’re not in the club, then buzz off. Celebrate yule instead, or dance around in Druid robes for the solstice. Go light a big log, go wassailing and fa-la-laing until you fall down, eat figgy pudding until you puke, but don’t mess with the Messiah. Christmas does not need any improvements. It is a common, ordinary experience that resists brilliant innovation. Just make some gingerbread persons and light three candles and sing softly in dim light about the poor man gathering winter fu-u-el and the radiant beams and the holly and the ivy, and you’ve got it.” Apparently, he’s also really annoying to have as a neighbor.
Bret Easton Ellis
Though younger than most of the curmudgeons on this list (and way more into Twitter), Ellis makes the cut for his incendiary commentary, in which he seems to delight. Need we remind you about the time J.D. Salinger died, and Ellis tweeted, “Yeah!! Thank God he’s finally dead. I’ve been waiting for this day for-fucking-ever. Party tonight!!!” He’s officially the nouveau-grump of our time.
Legendary Indian novelist Khushwant Singh has every right to be cranky — the man is 97, after all. And boy is he — after all, his weekly column is entitled “With Malice towards One and All,” so you know he’s not all flowers and sunshine. Like any grumpy old man worth his salt, Singh just wants to be left alone — a sign next to his apartment door reads “Please do not ring the bell unless you are expected.” Fair enough, and it’s really for the good of everyone. “I am trying hardest to see no one, because I find it tiresome,” he told IBN Live. “I have people descending on me and flattering me. I fall for flattery.” Well, who doesn’t?
L’enfant terrible of French literature, Houellebecq is as cranky as they come. 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, adding, “I have as much contempt as ever for Islam.” He won the case, the court ruling for Houellebecq on the grounds of freedom of expression. Well, if you’re going to be cranky about religion, you might as well do it right.