The Novelist Julian Barnes Remembers an Excruciating Conversation He Had With Christopher Hitchens

A wartime lexicon.
Dec. 16 2011 1:21 AM

“Hitch, Did You Read My Novel?”

Julian Barnes remembers an excruciating conversation with Christopher Hitchens.

3466981
Christopher Hitchens passed away Thursday, Dec. 15 at age 62.

Photograph by Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

See Slate’s full tribute to the life of Christopher Hitchens.  Read Slate’s complete collection of  Christopher Hitchens' columns.

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.

Advertisement

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.

See Slate’s full tribute to the life of Christopher Hitchens.  Read Slate’s complete collection of  Christopher Hitchens' columns.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?