What's the Big Deal About Tom Wolfe?
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.
In a series of reviews they dished out scorn. John Irving, unaware of pop culture cliches, wrote that on each page he found something that "made him gag." Norman Mailer compared reading Wolfe to making love to a 300 pound woman, "Once she gets on top it's all over. Fall in love or be asphyxiated." Updike went the damning with success route:
"A Man in Full still amounts to entertainment, not literature, even literature in a modest aspirant form. Like a movie desperate to recoup its bankers’ investment, the novel tries too hard to please us."
Wolfe answered in an essay found in his 2000 book Hooking Up. (There are some excerpts online, but none do the essay justice.) Wolfe dubbed them his "three stooges,” and argued that they write beautiful prose about nothing. Wolfe respects their pretty prose but thinks it is not a compliment that only earnest readers of the New Yorker want to read their books. They are foolish to look down on a culture that does not care for masterful navel gazing. Merely competent prose will sustain a great story (which explains the success of Harry Potter and Twilight.) As the stooges should have learned, however, perfect prose won't save drudgery. The story will rule.
Wolfe's realist novels give us interesting stories with more than competent prose. Wolfe is a joy to read. Furthermore, because he connects to reality while researching, he has a talent for anticipating the stories that will occupy the American mind. Bonfire has stood the test of time, seeing a revival of interest after the banker excesses of the 2000's. His last novel from 2004 was I Am Charlotte Simmons a story about the hook up culture. Back to Blood is about the turmoil around our southern borders (a topic unfortunately absent in last night's foreign policy debate). Given the recent cartel activity along the US Mexican border and immigration debate, Wolfe has chosen his topic well. This is why Wolfe is relevant, while the stooges are not.
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