Tom Wolfe calls Irving, Mailer and Updike "the Three Stooges"

"Bonfire of the Vanities" author fans literary feud.


Craig Offman
January 21, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

Tom Wolfe has ratcheted up the hostilities between himself and three of his fellow novelists: John Irving, John Updike and Norman Mailer. Last year, the author of "A Man in Full," talking to the Sunday Gazette Mail of Charleston, W.Va., called Updike and Mailer "two piles of bones." Now, in an upcoming television appearance, Wolfe lumps his new adversary, John Irving, with Mailer and Updike, dubbing the literary troika "the Three Stooges."

"I think of the three of them now -- because there are now three -- as Larry, Curly and Moe," Wolfe says on Friday's episode of the Canadian book show "Hot Type." "It must gall them a bit that everyone -- even them -- is talking about me."

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Last month, Irving fired a salvo at Wolfe on the same program, dismissing Wolfe's novels as "yak" and "journalistic hyperbole described as fiction." In turn, Wolfe offered some equally unflattering descriptions of Irving's literary powers. While he conceded that Irving, along with Updike and Mailer, was talented, he said that the three of them weren't "engaging the life around them." Wolfe describes Irving's comments, and negative reviews from Mailer and Updike, as "a lineup" and says the novelists are attacking him because they're "frightened" and "panicked."

"Let's take Irving," Wolfe told host Evan Solomon. "He's our prime subject today. His last [novel], "A Widow for One Year," is about some neurotic people in the Hamptons. They never get to town. They're in the house. They're neurotic."

"Irving is a great admirer of Dickens," Wolfe added. "I think he would like to be compared to Dickens. But what writer does he see now the last year constantly compared to Dickens? Not John Irving, but Tom Wolfe ... It must gnaw at him terribly." Irving declined requests for comment.

John Updike also takes a few hits from Wolfe. "He's an old man, he's my age, and he doesn't have the energy left to be doing something about the year 2020 in a town north of Boston," Wolfe said, referring to Updike's 1997 novel, "Toward the End of Time." Wolfe also maintains that Mailer had most of the material he used in "The Executioner's Song," a novel about convicted killer Gary Gilmore, "handed to him in a book by [O.J. Simpson co-author] Lawrence Schiller."

As a bonus, Wolfe also slams "Midnight's Children" author Salman Rushdie, saying that Rushdie creates "an unnecessary screen between the reader and the reality that he's talking about."

Wolfe's name-calling does have a deeper literary agenda. Referring to his much-discussed 1989 essay for Harper's magazine, "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast," he reiterated that the future of the American novel depends on "full-blooded realism," and touted Sinclair Lewis, Imile Zola and Honori de Balzac as shining examples of the genre.

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If he doesn't care for the work of the "Three Stooges," whose writing does Wolfe like? "I happen to be an extravagant admirer of ["Generation X" author] Douglas Coupland, who I think is one of the freshest, most exciting voices of the novel," Wolfe said. "So I'm not sitting here saying you have to do it my way."

Those who want to catch Wolfe's TV appearance in the United States will need a satellite dish. DirecTV runs "Hot Type" on Newsworld International on Thursday Jan. 27 at 11:30 p.m. Eastern Time.


Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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