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.

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

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
  Life
Gaming
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 11:51 PM Should You Freeze Your Eggs? An egg freezing party is not a great place to find answers to this or other questions.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.