NOS4A2 and Dr. Sleep

Joe Hill vs. Stephen King, and 4 More Father-Son Literary Rivalries

NOS4A2 and Dr. Sleep

When the nominations for the 2014 Bram Stoker Award for Best Horror Novel were announced last month, it was a very good day for upstart novelist Joe Hill—his second full-length book, NOS4A2, earned a nomination for the year’s top honor. Also on the ballot: Stephen King’s Dr. Sleep, the mega-selling sequel to The Shining. In case you didn’t know: King and Hill are father and son.

Awkward.

Undoubtedly King is one proud papa: he already has all the awards (and all the fame), and his son has made a name (well, a pseudonym) for himself even while following in his old man’s rather dinosaur-sized footprints. But you can’t tell me there’s no deeply buried Oedipal conflict at play here (minus the incest part). Even if they’d never admit it, I’d wager a little tiny part of Stephen King would rankle at being beaten by his progeny, and a little tiny part of Hill would thrill at toppling his legendary father.

No matter how friendly (or entirely existing in my mind) this rivalry is, it got me thinking about friction between other famed father/son writing duos, some a bit more fractious than others.

Kingsley Amis and Martin Amis
File this one under “My wallet is too big for my $50s, and my diamond shoes are too tight.” Even though Martin Amis is widely considered one of the defining voices of his generation in British literature (Money, London Fields, The Information), he still occasionally rankles at the fact that he’s the son of Kingsley Amis (Lucky Jim, The Old Devils), a guy who was equally lauded, telling interviewers that his career remains tainted by early presumptions of nepotism. All signs indicate the irritation was mutual—in 2000, five years after his death, a collection of the elder Kingsley’s letters were published, including a passage in which he calls his son a “little s***” for selling so many books and expressed disapproval of his postmodern style. Martin aired many of his own grievances in his memoir Experience, published that same year, though he also took care to paint an ultimately loving portrait of dear old dad, which is perhaps more than I would have done for a guy who loudly proclaimed that’s he didn’t like my second book and never bothered to read my third.

Alexandre Dumas père and Alexandre Dumas fils
This one requires a little historical context. In the 1800s, writers were the rock stars of their day, to judge by the lifestyle of Alexandre Dumas. The beloved French author of classics like The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, he was a well-known and incredibly prolific author and playwright, penning an estimated 100,000 pages throughout his career while still managing to find time to conduct a reported 40 extramarital affairs, fathering four illegitimate children. One of those children bore his name. In 1831, when the boy was 7, Dumas legally recognized Alexandre Dumas fils (French for son), ensuring that, from that point on, the boy received the best education money could buy. He also took him away from his mother, causing her great anguish, and subjecting the child to schoolyard taunts about his parentage. Dumas fils eventually became a writer himself, for a time eclipsing the fame of his father with a string of successful plays. One of them, The Illegitimate Son, espoused his belief that men who fathered children out of wedlock had a moral duty to recognize the child and marry the mother. Oh, snap!

John le Carré and Nick Harkaway
Admittedly, this one isn’t much of a rivalry, but I do find it telling that, like Joe Hill, Harkaway, whose surrealist literary sci-fi thrillers The Gone-Away World and Angelmaker rank among my favorites of the last decade, chose to write under a pseudonym instead of cashing in on his father’s cred. After all, when you’re writing political thrillers (albeit political thrillers with ninjas and reality-warping super-weapons), what better marketing gimmick is there than to be the son of John le Carré, who practically invented the genre (again, minus the ninjas)? “What book do you write if your father has a famous name?” Harkaway said. “Your own.”

William F. Buckley and Christopher Buckley
Whether you think this one qualifies will depend on your particular beliefs about the afterlife, but it’s hard to imagine there wouldn’t have been a few awkward family dinners in store for the Buckleys had William F., founder of the National Review and widely considered one of the fathers of the modern conservative movement (and also the author of 11 well-regarded spy thrillers, including Stained Glass, which won a National Book Award in 1980), lived to see the day his son Christopher went public with the fact that he voted for Barack Obama, creating a minor kerfuffle. (The title he gave to the article in which he did it—“Sorry Dad, I’m Voting for Obama”—probably wouldn’t have helped matters.) The younger Buckley, best known for satirical political novels like Thank You for Smoking and No Way to Treat a First Lady, resigned from his position as a columnist with the National Review in the wake of his “coming out.”

What famous father/son rivalries are we forgetting?