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December 22, 2004

Fucking Ironic? OK, I'll Buy That
...Apparently, Then, The Whole Book's "Ironic"

by Ron Hogan

I didn't get around to mentioning Tom Wolfe's receipt of this year's "Bad Sex Award" from the Literary Review a few weeks back, because I was too busy, but I'm happy to pass along reports of his response, namely that the judges were too dense to appreciate what he was doing in I Am Charlotte Simmons:

"While the judges saw only 'ghastly and boring' prose [Dan Glaister tells Guardian readers], Wolfe insists that his use of the term otorhinolaryngological--referring to the ears, nose and throat--clearly indicates his ironic intention."

The article quotes the passage in question, by the way, so you can see just how he uses "otorhinolaryngological" in a sentence. Wolfe is further quoted, "I purposely chose the most difficult scientific word I could to show this is not an erotic scene." And since he talks about the Literary Review editors missing the point, I wonder if he isn't deliberately missing theirs. As I understand it, the point isn't to "reward" the least erotic sex scene published, but the sex scene with the worst prose--or, as Glaister's article says (though it's unclear whether he's quoting Wolfe or the Review), "the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel."

Bad, bad writing, in other words, and that's certainly what's on display among the nominees...all the nominees, not just Wolfe. And in all fairness to Wolfe, giving the award to him is not precisely a slam dunk; you could make a fair case for somebody else getting the prize. What you can't do, at least in my opinion, is make an argument that the passage in question is good ironic writing... unless, as my headline indicates, you want to suggest that such an ironic stance pervades the entire novel (or at least the portions of it I've got under my belt).

Now, Wolfe's just a bad, bad novelist, and not necessarily a terrible one. I have the possible advantage of listening to the unabridged audio version, narrated by Dylan Baker, so I may be missing out on all the creatively spelled dialogue indicating regional dialects. That works in Wolfe's favor, but not even Baker can redeem some of these sentences. Theo Tait of the London Review of Books may have the right idea when he suggests, " If it wasn’t for his self-aggrandising tendencies (and his unpleasant, reductive stereotypes) [Wolfe] would probably just be accepted as a bracing broad-brush satirist, a set-piece artist with a terrific ear." Because he's right: Wolfe can hit the mark occasionally, particularly when he relies on his journalistic powers of observation (and, in fact, the best passages I've heard so far read not as great fiction, but as great magazine nonfiction). Too often, though, he comes up with what Tait describes perfectly as "a very bad Oliver Stone film."

In Wolfe's defense, though, I wouldn't necessarily imagine Malcolm Gladwell has a great novel in him, either. (Which is not to slam Gladwell, who I think is a brilliant journalist, and not to say I wouldn't enjoy being proven wrong...)

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