Deborah Schoeneman reports that Richard Ford spat on Colson Whitehead (The Intuitionist) at a Poets & Writers party, having nursed a grudge for two years over Whitehead’s negative New York Times review of A Multitude of Sins:
In any event, at a March 2 party in New York for Poets & Writers magazine, Whitehead says, Ford approached him and said, “I’ve waited two years for this! You spat on my book.” “Then he spat on me,” says Whitehead. “We had a few heated words — he said, ‘You’re a kid, you should grow up,’ which coming from him was a bit funny — and then he stalked off. This wasn’t the first time some old coot had drooled on me, and it probably won’t be the last. But I would like to warn the many other people who panned the book that they might want to get a rain poncho, in case of inclement Ford.” Ford was in New Zealand and unavailable for comment.
Yep, that’s right, he called him “a kid.” And Ford was defensive even before the review came out, telling Powell’s:
I haven’t read the review yet that’s in this coming Sunday’s Times, but apparently somebody [Colson Whitehead] took me to task for the very thing I want to do…. To make all the words count, and to put the words in the right order. I don’t want to be e.e. cummings. I don’t want to be interesting because all of the words are in the wrong order. I want to be interesting because all the words are in the order that I think make sense to the reader. And at the same time not sacrifice complexity, not sacrifice good sense, not sacrifice felicity, not sacrifice intelligence.
Actually, Whitehead’s critique had as much to do with the substance of the stories as with the ordering of the words. He alleged that the characters in Ford’s collection were interchangeable, friendless, upper-middle-class white men engaged in adulterous affairs. The review concluded this way:
These stories, placed back to back, start to show their strings, although puppet master is perhaps not the way Ford would describe himself. When asked last year by The Kenyon Review what kind of relationship he has with his characters, Ford replied: “Master to slave. Sometimes I hear them at night singing over in their cabins.” Singing. So that’s what that was. It sounded like whining.
I’ve liked some of Ford’s work, but the stories from this collection failed to move me — essentially for the reasons Whitehead articulated. Amy Reiter of Salon had a similar, but slightly more positive, reaction. Her review was published at the end of February, 2002; Whitehead’s review appeared in March of that year.
Addendum: For more on Ford (and his history of racist remarks), see How publishing likes its Southerners?