Haruki Murakami, one of the world's most respected and popular writers, is well-used to extreme reactions when he releases new work. Last year in Japan, when Colourless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage went on sale with an initial print run of 500,000 (one copy for every 250 people in his native country), thousands of people queued overnight, showing a dedication that puts even iPhone mania in the shade. His books sell in the millions. Everything from the cover art, to the blurb, to (especially) the title is dissected in great detail. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone wonders aloud why he hasn't yet been given the Nobel prize. Or, everyone except the judges of the bad sex award and the New York Times's Janet Maslin. So by this stage the 65-year-old novelist probably thought he'd seen it all – until the townsfolk of Nakatonbetsu in Japan demanded that he apologise for insulting their honour.
The offence, it seems, is that the novelist appeared to suggest Nakatonbetsu's residents throw cigarettes from car windows. This was a mistake becase, as Shuichi Takai, head of the local assembly's secretariat, told AFP, nothing could be further from the truth: "In early spring, the town people gather of their own will in a clean-up operation to collect litter on roads. We also work hard to prevent wildfires as 90% of our town is covered with mountain forests. It is never a town where people litter with cigarettes every day. We want to know why the name of a real town had to be used like that."
The offending passage appeared in the writer's new short story, Drive My Car – Men Without Women when a character observes a woman throwing a cigarette from a car window and thinks to himself: "Probably this is something everyone in Nakatonbetsu commonly does."
It's yet to be known whether Murakami intends to apologise for the fact that residents have chosen to take such offence. But if he doesn't, the outraged burghers can at least take consolation from the fact that they have now become part of a rich and noble tradition. Writers have been insulting towns since the days the authors of the Bible smote the reputation of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Going back 2,000 years, the poet Ovid would have landed in even worse trouble after Augustus exiled him to Tomis, had the locals been half so touchy as those in Nakatonbetsu. "This is a place – damn it," wrote Ovid, "that no fortunate man should visit." He complained that he had to eat pieces of frozen wine, that he had to live among Barbarians, that "ven when there is there is peace, everyone's terrified of another war and nobody bothers to do any ploughing … the soil here is lifeless, abandoned in stark neglect. There are no grapes, no fruits. There isn't even any paper. All you can see are naked, empty plains; leafless, treeless." He called the book he based on his experience there Tristia.
Closer to home, one William Shakespeare had a good line in complaining about blasted heaths and stews of corruption. His vision of Pontefract as a place of pain, fear, suffering, humiliation and death remains relevant to this day. I imagine most people who know the town well simply nod in agreement when they hear the lines:
Pomfret, Pomfret! O thou bloody prison,
Fatal and ominous to noble peers!
Within the guilty closure of thy walls
Richard the second here was hack'd to death;
And, for more slander to thy dismal seat,
We give thee up our guiltless blood to drink
Mind you, Pontefract did have a poetic defender. John Betjeman was a fan of the local licorice fields, which he said "gave off the sweetest smells". But that's one of the teddy-clutching poet's lesser-known works. More famous, of course, are the words: "Come, friendly bombs and fall on Slough / It isn't fit for humans now."
Nearby Reading has also come in for a good bit of stick, labelled "as pit of shame" by Oscar Wilde and "a carbuncle on the Thames" by Jerome K Jerome. Talking of the Thames, meanwhile, mention must go to TS Eliot watching the dead flow over London Bridge, his vision of London as an "unreal city" full of slim-bellied rats, its waters clogged with cigarette ends and empty bottles.
That London, rightly enough, has come in for endless stick as "the Great Wen". Possibly the only writer who loved it was Dr Johnson - although he himself had good form when it came to disliking other cities. Brighton, he found "dull", and dubbed "The World's End", a sentiment reciprocated by Graham Greene who dedicated an entire novel to hating it .
Elsewhere, there's Bill Bryson's glorious summary of poor old Bradford whose "role in life", he says, "is to make every place else in the world look better in comparison". And who could forget Martin Newell on the Yorkshire city's neighbour? "I'll tell you once and I'll tell you briefly, I don't want to go to Keighley."
Finally, insults to local pride don't have to be so blunt. One of my favourite's is Philip Larkin's gentle destruction of the town he called home for most of his life: "I wish I could think of just one nice thing I could tell you about Hull, oh yes … it's very nice and flat for cycling."
By now, the residents of Hull are well-used to such mockery . So far as I know, they have never asked for apology. Instead, they've turned the tables on their detractors and come out fighting as a UK city of culture, cognisant of everything art has thrown at them and eager and able to throw it right back. Maybe Nakatonbetsu should take a leaf from their book.