Radical Wolfe, an upcoming documentary about my late father, the author Tom Wolfe, covers Dad’s upbringing in Richmond, Virginia, his pioneering New Journalism, his second act as a best-selling novelist, and, not least, his many literary feuds.
Dad, a soft-spoken, polite Southern gentleman, was the least argumentative or confrontational person I knew. But he delighted in defending his style of writing and reportage and had no qualms about throwing barbs at other writers, or even, in the case of his article “Tiny Mummies!,” which ridiculed William Shawn’s New Yorker, an entire magazine.
In doing so, he was upholding something of a tradition. In 1947, William Faulkner complained that Ernest Hemingway “has no courage, has never crawled out on a limb.” Hemingway replied, “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?” During the 1968 election, William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal debated each other on television and subsequently sued each other. In 1979, Mary McCarthy told the talk-show host Dick Cavett that “every word [Lillian Hellman] writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” Hellman responded by suing her.
I fear that, with my father’s passing in 2018 and the aging of his contemporaries, this kind of spirited literary fight is a thing of the past. Such feuds may have been petty, prickly, and even pompous at times, but they were witty and sporting. The authors at odds shared a concern for their craft. Those who have replaced them are angry and amorphous. Writers who read each other’s work once parried with one another. Today, authors have a new adversary: the mob.
These days, feuds over books are often started by special-interest groups, whether it be governments telling schools which books they cannot teach, or readers trying to convince others to stop buying allegedly offensive works. The end goal is not an acknowledgment of a superior writing style or journalistic method, but a ban on the consumption of an author’s work, whether it’s Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt or the novels of J. K. Rowling.
Granted, in my father’s prime, readers who bristled at a book’s content had fewer options to air their complaints. They could write a letter to the editor, or call their congressional representative, but for most of the 20th century, ordinary people had no real platform from which to proselytize.
He had no qualms about throwing barbs at other writers, or even, in the case of his article “Tiny Mummies!,” which ridiculed William Shawn’s New Yorker, an entire magazine.
The democratization of criticism enabled by digital technology has had many benefits. There’s something refreshing about anyone being able to share their views from wherever they sit. But the new critics aren’t putting their own reputations on the line. Often, they aren’t using their real names, and many haven’t read the works they’re attempting to suppress. These fights are unfair to both the writer and the reader. Neither gets to engage in any kind of meaningful argument when they are drowned out by bots and memes.
Sometimes my father’s feuds were personal. Dad had never forgiven journalist Anthony Haden-Guest for offering him up over dinner as a profile subject to Christopher Hitchens, who went on to skewer him in the press, so he got his revenge by painting Haden-Guest as the drunken hack Peter Fallow in The Bonfire of the Vanities. Decades later, though, according to a column Haden-Guest wrote for Spear’s magazine after Dad died, the two ran into each other at a party. Apparently, they had a polite conversation in which Dad reassured Haden-Guest, “The hatchet is buried.”
Other times, Dad’s feuds were over the importance of reporting, my father pitting his love of leaving his desk against John Updike’s and John Irving’s focus on the inner world of their subjects. Dad dismissed Irving’s 1998 book, A Widow for One Year, as a story “about two neurotic writers who seemed unable to get out of a house in Bridgehampton, Long Island … instead of going out into the world, instead of plunging into the (to me) irresistibly lurid carnival of American life today in the here and now.” In turn, Irving criticized Dad’s writing as mere entertainment rather than literature. “It’s like reading a bad newspaper or a bad piece in a magazine. It makes you wince,” he said.
With Dad’s last book, The Kingdom of Speech, the fight was over the very origins of language itself. But before my father criticized Noam Chomsky in writing, he spent hours talking with him on the phone, making sure he understood his linguistic theories.
Today, feuds seem to have shifted from author-to-author combat to reader-to-author annihilation. Before he died, my father used to marvel at the vitriol spewed by swarms of social-media aliases. He sensed a common glee in moral outrage. How I wish he had lived long enough to write about it.
In July, Helen Lewis reported in The Atlantic that most reviewers on Goodreads have rarely even read the works they are skewering, such as Cecilia Rabess’s Everything’s Fine, a novel about a Black woman who falls in love with a Trump supporter. Of the negative reviewers Lewis spoke to, only one had actually read an advance copy of the book and discovered many who didn’t even know Rabess was Black herself.
In fear of these faceless social-media voices, publishers extensively re-wrote much of Roald Dahl’s life’s work—out went “fat” and in went “enormous”—and stopped publishing several early books by Dr. Seuss. Unfortunately, the deceased cannot mount a defense, but at least these instances prompted a backlash.
Fear has created a culture of pre-emptive cancellation. In June, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the best-selling book Eat, Pray, Love, canceled her forthcoming historical novel because it was set in Russia, which apparently was insensitive to the plight of living Ukrainians. The public would have to search long and hard for the names of any of these aggrieved Ukrainians, but whoever they were, one might think they’d have other things to worry about besides a novel published 5,000 miles away.
My father used to marvel at the vitriol spewed by swarms of social-media aliases. He sensed a common glee in moral outrage.
When I read such stories, I’m reminded of one of my father’s favorite poems, a nonsense schoolyard rhyme: “One bright day in the middle of the night, two dead boys came out to fight. Back to back they faced each other, drew their swords and shot each other. A deaf policeman heard the noise and came to stop the two dead boys.”
I say all this, yet years ago when it became my turn to come face-to-face with my father’s literary nemesis Norman Mailer—Dad once called Mailer, Updike, and Irving “my Three Stooges”—I was more than a little bit nervous. After all, Mailer had stabbed his second wife. I could only imagine what he’d do to me.
Mailer’s son John Buffalo and I had become friends in our early 20s, and one evening in the mid-aughts, we were to meet Norman and Norris Church, his sixth wife, at Elaine’s. The beginning of the evening went smoothly. Norman was reliving his boxing days with his fists in the air. Norris Church was charming and demure.
Relieved, I thought for a minute that he might not realize who my father was. Norman had compared reading my father’s novel A Man in Full to “making love to a 300-pound woman … fall in love or be asphyxiated,” and my father had dismissed Mailer and Irving as “two old piles of bones.” When the topic finally did come up, I braced myself. “Oh, your father and I were just having fun with each other!” he said, laughing. Maybe all was forgiven. The writers of their generation were amicably sparring, I thought, not trying to end one another’s career.
But then Norman suddenly barked, “I don’t have a problem with your father—it’s your mother I’m furious with!” I was shocked. I’d never known my mother to fight with anyone, save a 13-year-old me when I considered my hip an appropriate length for a skirt. My mother was the art director of Harper’s magazine, the first outlet to publish Mailer’s 1971 book The Prisoner of Sex. For the cover of that issue, my mother had chosen to print the title in type so big that she had to hyphenate “Prison-er.”
“That was the best title I’d ever come up with,” Mailer raged. “And your mother ruined it!”
Alexandra Wolfe, a former staff reporter at The Wall Street Journal, is the author of Valley of the Gods: A Silicon Valley Story