John Irving blasts Tom Wolfe, Wolfe blasts back

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

Published December 21, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

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."

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."

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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