Tom Wolfe, the master of “New Journalism,” and renowned author of both fiction and non-fiction, has died at age 88. Wolfe was no stranger to Florida: He appeared a couple of times for lectures at the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach. Former Post Books Editor Scott Eyman interviewed him in 2005 before a Four Arts appearance.
Here is his story:
For 40 years now, Tom Wolfe has been a cutting-edge writer, setting literary agendas and demarcating social agendas.
From “The Painted Word” and “Radical Chic” to “The Right Stuff” and “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” Wolfe has transcended the New Journalism that made him famous in the ’70s and enveloped fiction, making strong arguments for novels that address American life and getting into literary arguments with his peers.
Despite negative critical response to his recent novel of sex and campus life, “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” Wolfe remains one of the writers that matter.
Question: Was there ever a writer in your peer group that scared you, that you wouldn’t have wanted to go up against on the same story?
Wolfe: There was one, and he scared me because he would do anything. Michel Mok worked for the Washington Star, and I worked for the Post. The first time I ran into Mok, there was some distraught man in a housing project firing a weapon out the window - a marital dispute. The cops were in another wing that happened to face that wing, trying to talk him out of the building.
I didn’t know who Michel Mok was, but I saw this guy from the Star go through the police line, and down a stairway, not 50 feet from the shooter. He ducked behind a concrete stairway. ‘My God,’ I thought, ‘I’m getting scooped.’ So I did the same thing and ran behind the same concrete stairway.
The next thing you know a gun battle breaks out and we were right under it. The cops eventually shot the guy. Then I realized that this guy from the Star would do anything.
I wondered if I was going to have to risk my life every time I went up against Michel Mok.
He eventually got on the World Telegram Sun in New York, and I was on the Herald Tribune. There was a guy who had tried every diet in the world and nothing worked, so he got into a boat with supply of food and went into a harbor off Long Island and was going to stay there on the boat until he lost weight.
So Mok decides to interview the guy. He hires a motorboat and he’s heading out to the harbor when the motor quits. The deadline is about 7 o’clock and it’s late afternoon. Mok jumps in the water and swims over so he can get the story before deadline! And for a story about a guy losing weight - a nothing story!
A few years later, Mok went abroad and wrote about the 1967 Israel war. He was in the lead tank as they rolled into Egypt. His photographer got blown away, but Mok went on. He took the cake; I didn’t like going up against him. And his writing was very good, too. A hell of a newspaperman.
Q: I would imagine the downside to being a cutting-edge writer is that you constantly have to stay ahead of the parade - has being a literary Faith Popcorn ever worn you down?
W: Everybody wants to stay ahead of the parade, in journalism anyway. But the problem is that it becomes so easy to parody yourself. When I started out, I didn’t know I had a style. Then I started getting publicity and people talked about my style. ‘My God,’ I thought, ‘I’ve got a style!’ I remember writing a whole bunch of magazine pieces that were trapped in the realization that I had a style. I was trying to enforce the mannerisms on everything I wrote. So many of the things I wrote were about new forms of life about young people - communes, discoteques, surfing, so a particular kind of hyped-up style was appropriate. But if you try to do the same thing with every subject, it just doesn’t work. And I realized I was writing bad pieces.
So when I wrote “The Right Stuff,” people asked, What happened to your style? Well, what happened to the hippies, what happened to the people to whom the style was appropriate? And once I got over the notion that I had a style, I’ve tried to fit the tempo and the wording to the subject.
Q: Ever since “The Painted Word,” you’ve been regarded as a cultural conservative; do your contrarian instincts foretell a comeback for Democrats?
W: I really am not knowledgeable on the subject. They only give me one vote. If they thought more of me, they should give me ten. But since you asked, the Democratic party doesn’t show any signs of change. They didn’t do all that badly anyway; they took a lot of votes.
I think the key is something James Wilson wrote in 1965, in “Commentary,” about the politics of Reagan country. Reagan had won as governor in California against the opinions of all the opinionmakers. It was a huge upset. Wilson was a sociologist and political scientist and his conclusion was that during the second world war, California had made the quickest comeback from the depression, mainly because of the aerospace industry. You had a working class population who were making enough money to buy homes and cars. Pretty soon, there was a huge working class that were owners of property of substance. And they began thinking like property owners.
Wilson’s conclusion was that when that happens, you’re no longer a New Deal Democrat. And right now, the constant appeal by Democrats that under them you’ll have better dental care, better Medicare, job protection and so forth, doesn’t automatically appeal to working class people who today are middle class.
The Democratic party has never gotten over the tremendous success of Franklin Roosevelt. Class lines don’t exist in this country; status exists, but not class. But people who walk out of buildings on Park Avenue half the time look worse than factory workers; they can’t get casual enough, and in a truly class-based society that doesn’t happen.
The only way to define upper class in America is if you have three servants or more. You may talk with a cab driver, but having three servants is getting somewhere.
Q: Do you feel that the Internet and the metastasizing blogs are taking over from conventional journalism?
W: I don’t read blogs, but I’m afraid they are. I’ll hear something on the radio and my wife is on the computer. ‘Did you hear what just happened?’ I’ll say, and she’ll say ‘I read it on the computer.’ There’s no question that young people tend to get it faster even before TV and radio. And all the newspapers are worried by the fact that younger people aren’t reading.
The real bad side of that is that in Internet news reports there’s very little explanation given for anything; it’s stripped down. Occasionally, you find news on the blogs, but there’s so much trash. My God! I’ve looked at the things, and you feel like you’re going through the jungle pushing away vines. Maybe there’s something in there, but …
Q: Both “Bonfire of the Vanities” and “I Am Charlotte Simmons” could have been written as journalism; “A Man in Full,” not necessarily. Did you think of writing them as journalism? What was the Rubicon moment when you decided to leave journalism behind?
W: There were two of them. One was when the (New York) Herald Tribune went under in 1966. Then there arose in its place a strange, unremembered paper called the World Journal Tribune. Nor should it be remembered. The Herald Tribune and the Journal American, two products of mergers, pooled their resources, such as they were, and were staffed completely by seniority. The sports department had eight aged golf writers and two other people willing to do other things.
I made the cut because I was working for the Sunday magazine. After eight months, it went under. And that was the Rubicon. ‘I don’t think it’s a stable business,’ I said to myself. I had already published my first book, I wasn’t married yet, so I decided to see if I could make it with magazine writing, something that’s very hard to do now.
Q: What modern writers would you not think of missing?
W: Carl Hiaasen is one; I think he’s so good. He’s not taken seriously because he writes genre, but he’s so good. If he cared about a literary reputation, he could go as far as he wants. I’m also partial to the fact that he stays in journalism.
Another is Richard Price. I think he’s a born talent, and he’s begun to go outside his own life. “Clockers” was an incredible book, the result of getting in with the police and meeting some of these drug dealers and getting into their world. A bravura performance.
In non-fiction, I love Michael Lewis, a very exciting writer. “Moneyball” is essentially a book about baseball statistics, and it was a page-turner.
Q: Generally speaking, has your view of the state of the American novel improved?
W: I first sounded that grave alarm in 1973, in The New Journalism, and nothing has happened to change my mind. Our young writers were Francophied, after the American novel lit up the sky in the ’20s and ’30s, and attracted the attention of Europeans. Sartre was a huge admirer of Dos Passos, and did his trio of war novels as a response to Dos Passos.
Sinclair Lewis and all these men wrote realism, what Zola would have called naturalism. And then suddenly this French fashion hit, that said all this naturalism is vulgar, messing around with the dirt; that a first-rate novel is a novel of psychological nuance. I love the word ‘nuance’; it means if you don’t have it, you’re vulgar.
The essential idea is that great literature is only going to appeal to a charming aristocracy, a term coined by a Frenchman in the 1880s. It’s so ironic that this notion should catch on in MFA programs here.
The American novel has never recovered. Two hundred years ago, nobody would have thought it possible for epic poetry to go out of style, but it has. Poetry has been driven to the fringes, TV has eliminated the short story, and it could happen to the novel, unless a writer goes out into the world, in a country like this, and brings more content to what they’re doing.
Q: I thought there was some truth to what you were saying, but it seems to me that the primary problem of fiction is there seem to be more writers than there are readers - I mean, if you had written your novels at the age of 25 instead of being an established, famous writer of 55, would you have had the same success?
W: I like to think it was the blazing talent that dazzled people at any age. In truth, I don’t know. It certainly helped in getting attention. Young novelists do have a hard time. Publishers are gun-shy; they’re lucky to break even by publishing novels.
You know what never dies? Autobiography. You have the feeling that it’s totally real. Orwell said it’s outrageously unreal, but you feel that its real. Whether it’s Benvenuto Cellini or Bill Clinton. I like to read autobiographies by the wives of men that have done something. They know; they can have an honest appraisal. Remember Maureen Dean, John Dean’s wife? Her book about her husband was one of the best books I read about Watergate.
Q: Do you ever miss non-fiction?
W: I’m thinking of doing the next book as non-fiction. I haven’t settled on the subject. But there are things I’m interested in. One is immigration and the way it’s changed the country. I don’t know who all our citizens are and most people don’t either. I’m really curious.
Who are the Thais? Who are the Koreans? Who are the Russians? I was talking to a high school teacher in Brookline (N.Y.) a few weekends ago. He was telling me that his class has so many ethnic and national groups in it that it’s bewildering to the students themselves. They’re used to being around people like themselves too.
Another thing that interests me is oil. I don’t know what I would find if I went into it. These are both topics that are nonfiction. And I still believe non-fiction is the most important literary form in this country since WWII. Before then, in the era of Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, Faulkner and Steinbeck, the novel was the dominant form.
Q: How did your heart surgery a few years ago alter your parameters about your ambitions?
W: It was realizing that I had to write these damn things faster. And it was then that I hustled and got “The Man in Full” finished, and immediately went to work on “Charlotte Simmons.” I still shouldn’t have taken so long.
Q: Do you write to please yourself, or do you have an ideal reader in mind?
W: I write what I would like to read. And I feel my tastes are enough like other people’s that that’s the thing to do. But to write for an audience, that way lies madness. Mario Puzo had written four or five highly regarded novels that didn’t sell before “The Godfather,” and after it had its enormous success, he said, ‘If I’d have known it was going to be so popular, I’d have written it better.’ I’ve always loved that remark.