“Hitch, Did You Read My Novel?”
Julian Barnes remembers an excruciating conversation with Christopher Hitchens.
Photograph by Amanda Edwards/Getty Images
In 1980, I published my first novel, in the usual swirl of unjustified hope and justified anxiety. I gave copies to my friends, including some of those I had worked with until recently on the New Statesman. Most of them acknowledged receipt; most attempted to make the encouraging noises the skinless first novelist needs to hear. But there was no response from the Hitch.
After a few weeks had passed—and we had met several times in the course of them—I said to him (and I suspect there was a touch of aggression in my voice), “Hitch, did you read my novel?” Almost as soon as I had said it, I knew it was a mistake.
He looked at me, looked away, paused, assumed a deeply reflective air. “Did I read your novel?” He nodded a little to himself, as if sifting through a vast archive of recent fiction. He knew he had me—and there was nothing he liked more than the sort of conversation/discussion/argument in which one person might wield an advantage over another. And the wielder, in almost every case I saw, would always be the Hitch.
The only time I saw him bested in argument--not in the argument itself, but in how the argument was perceived—was on British television when he was up against a right-wing American politician (this was in the days before Hitch became a neocon). Hitch dazzled and displayed, provoked and riled. But the American politico simply declined to react as expected; instead he played the whole thing in an aw-shucks, I-may-be-slow-but-I-usually-get-there-in-the-end kind of way. This drove the Hitch into a further frenzy of superior argumentation—the result of which was to make any normal viewer conclude that Hitch was far too clever to be allowed to run the world, and therefore best suited to journalism, while slow, drawly, pragmatic aw-shucks guys safely did the job instead.
But with me, back then, well, there was no competition. “Did I read your novel?" he repeated, looking at me directly. “Give me a clue. Was it—Was it about these two boys who are at school together—something like that?” He watched me twirl on the hook, then added little bits he half-remembered from my book—unless they were from someone else's book—and played with me until he had enough. He raised my neediness high for all to see—though luckily only he and I were present. And he was careful not to let slip a single word of anything that might resemble praise.
Cruel? Of course it was cruel. Justified? Maybe. Useful? Yes. From that day on I have never asked anyone what they thought of a book of mine. And I also waited—oh, several decades—in the tiny hope that the Hitch, who would occasionally send me his book, might seek my opinion of one of them. But he was always far too clever for that.
Julian Barnes is a novelist and the winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize for The Sense of an Ending.