John Irving blasts Tom Wolfe, Wolfe blasts back

Irving says Wolfe can't write, Wolfe says Irving's all washed up.

Topics: Books,

On a promotional swing to publicize his new book, “My Movie Business: A Memoir,” John Irving took another kind of swing — at author Tom Wolfe. And Wolfe isn’t taking the criticism lying down.

On the Dec. 17 episode of the television show “Hot Type,” a Canadian book program, host Evan Solomon referred Irving to an article that appeared in Charleston’s Sunday Gazette Mail on Dec. 5 in which Wolfe called Norman Mailer and John Updike “two old piles of bones.”

“I can’t read him because he’s such a bad writer,” Irving said of Wolfe. When Solomon added that “Bonfire of the Vanities” author Wolfe is “having a war” with Updike and Mailer, Irving dismissed the notion out of hand: “I don’t think it’s a war because you can’t have a war between a pawn and a king, can you?”

Irving described Wolfe’s novels as “yak” and “journalistic hyperbole described as fiction … He’s a journalist … he can’t create a character. He can’t create a situation.”

When asked if his dislike for Wolfe’s writing springs from its popularity (Wolfe’s last novel, “A Man in Full,” was a bestseller and Irving compared Wolfe to legal thriller writer John Grisham), the “World According to Garp” author retorted: “I’m not using that argument against him. I’m using the argument against him that he can’t write … It’s like reading a bad newspaper or a bad piece in a magazine. It makes you wince.”

By the end of the interview, Irving was declaring that he could open a Tom Wolfe book at any page and “read a sentence that would make me gag,” and generally sounding more like Stone Cold Steve Austin than a gentleman of letters: “If I were teaching fucking freshman English, I couldn’t read that sentence and not just carve it up.”

You Might Also Like

Reached through his publisher, Wolfe responded in writing. “Why does he sputter and foam so?” he asked about Irving. “Because he, like Updike and Mailer, has panicked. All three have seen the handwriting on the wall, and it reads: ‘A Man in Full.’”

If the literary trio don’t embrace “full-blooded realism,” Wolfe warns, “then their reputations are finished.” He also offers Irving some additional literary advice: “Irving needs to get up off his bottom and leave that farm in Vermont or wherever it is he stays and start living again. It wouldn’t be that hard. All he’d have to do is get out and take a deep breath and talk to people and see things and rediscover the fabulous and wonderfully bizarre country around him: America.”

The feud between Wolfe and the “two piles of bones” probably started after two reviews of “A Man in Full” appeared in the winter of 1998. In his review for the New Yorker, John Updike slighted Wolfe’s tale about the decline of an Atlanta real-estate magnate, describing it as “entertainment, not literature, even literature in a modest aspirant form.”

One month later, in the New York Review of Books, Norman Mailer also walloped Wolfe’s novel: “At certain points, reading the work can even be said to resemble the act of making love to a three-hundred-pound woman. Once she gets on top, it’s over. Fall in love, or be asphyxiated.”

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    DAYA  
    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    MORELLO   
    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CINDY   
    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CAPUTO   
    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    BOO   
    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    SOSO
    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    POUSSEY
    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    PENNSATUCKY
    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CHANG
    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    HEALY
    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NORMA
    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NICKI
    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>