This week Tom Wolfe, iconic American author in the white suit, reenters our cultural scene with his new book, Back to Blood. His return at the same time as Camille Paglia is a happy coincidence. Two of our sharpest culture critics both think that art and literature should mean something. (As they are both atheists, they need art to mean something, but that is one of Paglia’s arguments and so I will address it in my Glittering Images review, hopefully later this month.) Established fans of Wolfe know of his reputation as a cultural critic, but for younger readers for whom Back to Blood is their first knowledge of the author, a brief introduction to Wolfe’s massive influence:
Wolfe started out writing news as stories. He used a narrative, historical fiction style but, since he wrote on current events, he could interview the players and observe the events rather than creatively fill in gaps in the historical record. His first books were news stories about cultural phenomenon such as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test about the hippie culture and The Right Stuff on NASA culture. He expected that those true stories would inspire related fiction. They didn’t.
So in 1987 he penned an explosive essay for Harpers, “Stalking the Billion Footed Beast.” He argued that if modern American authors insisted on writing novels about nothing, then they would cede American literature to realist authors like himself. His first fiction novel, Bonfire of the Vanities, was his proof. A story about wild New York City financial life in the ’80s, Bonfire was a fabulous success. By the time he published his next novel, A Man in Full, the old guard authors were annoyed — and ready to strike back.