Ending a Literary Feud

Question: Do you feel that literary feuds, such as yours with Tom Wolfe, help writing?

John Irving: I don't know, I think that they are all generated by a kind of compiled misunderstanding. I give Wolfe the benefit of the doubt that he did not write that sort of white paper manifesto about how the rest of us should be writing the great American novel, the piece he published in Harper’s, I believe, after “Bonfire of the Vanities” was first published. I don't imagine when he wrote that, that he was aware of how many writers who've been writing fiction longer and writing it better than he does, might have been offended by that prescriptive piece. Maybe he didn't know, maybe he was just, you know, speaking from the heart, and he didn't know it was, it would be irritating.

But I know that was the source of what provoked me at him and I know it was also the source of what provoked Updike, with him, too. I remember a letter from John saying that he never would've taken Wolfe so much to task in that New Yorker piece if it hadn't of been for that earlier manifesto.

But, you know, I think it's an overrated feud. He and I ran into each other, he was with his wife, I was with one of my children, we ran into each other on Washington Mall a few years ago, after all this squabbling had been much published, over-publicized in my opinion, in the media, and I didn't think it was an especially awkward or hostile meeting. I mean, we got through it without spitting and scuffling and kicking dirt on each other's shoes and, you know, they said nice things to my son and I believe that we were both perfectly cordial to one another. So not much of a feud in my opinion.

There are certainly people that you, in the media, don't know about that if I ran into them, more sparks would fly.

Recorded on: October 30, 2009

The tension between John Irving, John Updike and Tom Wolfe was overplayed and misguided, says the novelist. The real sparks would fly, he says, if he ran into a few fellows well outside of the media’s purview.

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