Merciless reviewer Kirn slams himself -- and Tom Wolfe

The New York magazine critic agrees that his own book is "narcissistic."

By Craig Offman
September 15, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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As New York magazine's controversial book critic, Walter Kirn has skewered plenty of novels, most notably Tom Wolfe's "A Man in Full" last November. But in an upcoming review in the literary journal Tin House, Kirn has launched the most surprising attack of all -- on himself.

In a review titled "Wolfe Bite," the 37-year-old Montana resident takes a few shots at his own forthcoming novel, "Thumbsucker," which will be published by Anchor Books on Oct. 19. In the review, Kirn pronounces "Thumbsucker" to be a prime example of "a potentially harmful literary contagion," the coming-of-age novel, which threatens to replace "manly reportorial realism" with "a feminized, lightweight lyricism." Toward the end of his critique, the Time, Vanity Fair and GQ contributor concludes, "'Thumbsucker' could use more patriarchy."


The essay makes several barbed references to Wolfe, who last year in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution fired a salvo in response to Kirn's cranky review of "A Man in Full." "A man [who] has just written a novel called 'Thumbsucker' about someone who sucks his thumb for the first 21 years of his life," was how Wolfe described Kirn. "Somehow, 'Thumbsucking' sums up most of American fiction today."

In many respects, Kirn's review of "Thumbsucker" is as much Wolfe bait as wolf bite.
Wolfe "denounced the book as narcissistic, implicitly contrasting its triviality with his own sprawling supernarratives," Kirn writes, noting that Wolfe had not read "Thumbsucker" at the time he delivered this verdict. "Initially, I laughed off Wolfe's remarks as self-serving and uninformed, but after rereading my novel I agree with him ... 'Thumbsucker,' as Wolfe so bravely noted without so much as opening its cover, is as juvenile and unfulfilling as the activity it takes its name from."

"It ticked me off that he'd pick this book that he reads about in a publishing gossip column to tee off on," Kirn told Salon Books. "I at least do authors the courtesy of reading their books before I hold forth. I just thought, what a cheesy thing to do for someone who's always complimenting himself on his reportorial exactitude." (Wolfe did not respond to requests for comment.)


Kirkus called "Thumbsucker" "one of the year's most charming books" and said that "Kirn has little to fear from fellow reviewers." It seems that Kirn may be his own worst critic. Asked to respond to his unflattering Tin House review, Kirn evinced a measured disdain for the reviewer. "He has a reputation for doing this sort of thing, and it's no doubt to get attention."

Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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