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Updike-Mailer-Irving-Wolfe: Blood in the lit giants' eyes?


Don't let national political tedium cloud your mind. Everybody loves a fight -- a good, nasty, freewheeling slugfest. So, when the Updike-Irving-Mailer vs. Wolfe brawl went very public, bookish fans from the bleachers to the skyboxes leapt up in standing waves, screaming for blood. "Book biggies break bones!" World Wrestling Federation thugs crumpled in limp-wristed shame.

There's history behind it. But the spark that ignited this one was Tom Wolfe's novel "A Man in Full." John Updike's review in the New Yorker dismissed it as beneath even "literature in a modest aspirant form." John Irving, on a Canadian television program, said, "Wolfe's problem is he can't [bleeping] write. He's not a writer."

Norman Mailer's long New York Review of Books piece rejected the book as not a novel at all, but journalism, in the contemptuous connotation of that term.

Wolfe struck back. He titled his chapter on their criticisms, published in "Hooking Up" (Farrar Straus, 293 pages, $25), "My Three Stooges." His kindest words were to quote himself on a later segment of the program on which Irving had been serially bleeped: "John Irving is a talented writer. Norman Mailer is a talented writer. John Updike is a talented writer. All I'm saying is that they've wasted their careers by not engaging the life around them."

The battle is, to oversimplify, between reflection and reportage. Wolfe insists that the other school has used itself up on introspection and self-indulgence. They, in turn, inveigh that Wolfe -- by getting out and doing intricate reporting and making fiction of it -- is turning out shallow journalism.

I have almost limitless respect and fondness for Wolfe's work, both nonfiction and fiction. Though we have never been close friends, I have known him since the mid-1960s, when we were both on the New York Herald-Tribune. Most of all, I shamelessly suspect my spontaneous sense of alliance with Wolfe has to do with the fact that he is a reporter -- an indisputably great one. I have spent my entire working life as a reporter as well. (Oh, yes, some of that I have spent as an editor, but all really serious editors are simply reporters helping other reporters hone their skills.)

But I also admire Wolfe's detractors, especially Updike and Irving. I have read Updike's fiction and nonfiction -- often in a state of awe -- for almost as long as I have known Wolfe. Irving is a distinguished, accomplished novelist, much of whose work I deeply respect.

As to Mailer, with the exception of his first book, the immortal 1948 "The Naked and the Dead," I have always felt his most impressive accomplishments have been journalism, which raises questions about his use of the term as a pejorative.

So I found myself a bit apprehensive when, about 10 days ago, I had an opportunity to spend some time with Updike, on a separate mission. When we had covered the main ground, and with apologies, I cried Wolfe.

Updike didn't bark -- or bite. "Wolfe's notion that we should all be Emile Zola," he said, quite quietly, "seems to me to put the novel back a hundred years, and I don't find it utterly convincing. Nor was I fully persuaded by his admirably energetic and ambitious novel. It wasn't a book I sought out to review. It is a book I was asked to review. I shied from it."

Updike's impressive, and undoubtably genuine, civility seemed to me to make implicit mockery of the widely publicized warfare motif. "Wolfe's kind of writing is not my kind of writing," he said, softly, with no snideness. "Still there was much to admire in the book, as I said. But I don't really agree with his prescription for all of us. Nor can I accept the idea that we have all been contemplating our navels while only he has been facing the American reality. I think all of us in our way -- Joyce Carol Oates, John Barth, Philip Roth, the list of main writers -- are all trying to write about the real America."

Updike is immensely sophisticated. He would not be goaded into combat. He went on, his generally cheerful face soberly thoughtful.

"It's an America for most of us mediated by our personal experience. And I think Wolfe is wrong to think that good journalism can be the driving force. There has to be some personal enthusiasm, some personal cause, if you will, that leads us to write the way we do. But, no, I am all for writing about America. The more you can know the better."

Updike's fingers intertwined, his hands not wringing, exactly, but working hard as if to fashion something. "Would it be a help to mankind," he asked, seeming to explore his rhetorical device, "if I were to try to write a book about the super-rich in New York, or the very poor also in New York? Or rural sharecroppers or any of the other worthy citizens of our republic?" His gaze swept out his library window, toward evergreens and late-autumn Massachusetts leaves. "No, I try to expand what I know as much as I can, but it would be foolish of me to try to replace personal experience or personal insight with reportage."

So, in that case, I asked, what is the future of the American novel?

"Tom Wolfe," Updike cited him again, "and Norman Mailer before him -- they were putting down the novel as an obsolete device, to be replaced by journalism in one form or another, by the real. I would only cling to the notion that there is a kind of reality that you can get into a piece of fiction that you can't get into anything else, however confessional, or reportorial."

A difference, yes. But so much for battle.

Updike did not convince me that one of these two visions of the novel form is absolute. On other occasions, I have spent a good deal more time listening to Wolfe. Today, I am as certain as I can be that Updike's fundamental civility and devotion to the pursuit of truth are no less -- or more -- complete than Wolfe's.

I'm not ducking this issue. I just don't think there's an easy answer. If this be pusillanimity, make the most of it.

As a reader, I am very grateful they both -- they all -- are doing precisely what they do.

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