Tom Wolfe, 1931–2018

Tom Wolfe died yesterday at age eighty-eight. Between 1965 and 1981, the dapper white-suited father of New Journalism chronicled, in pyrotechnic prose, everything from Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters to the first American astronauts. And then, having revolutionized journalism with his kaleidoscopic yet rigorous reportage, he decided it was time to write novels. As he said in his Art of Fiction interview, “Practically everyone my age who wanted to write somehow got the impression in college that there was only one thing to write, which was a novel and that if you went into journalism, this was only a cup of coffee on the road to the final triumph. At some point you would move into a shack—it was always a shack for some reason—and write a novel. This would be your real métier.” With The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe wrote a sprawling, quintessential magnum opus of New York in the eighties. His first two novels were runaway best sellers, and his success won him the bitter envy of Norman Mailer, John Updike, and John Irving, among others. “Tom may be the hardest-working show-off the literary world has ever owned,” writes Norman Mailer, in a 1994 review of A Man in Full. “But now he will no longer belong to us. (If indeed he ever did!) He lives in the King Kong Kingdom of the Mega-bestsellers—he is already a Media Immortal. He has married his large talent to real money and very few can do that or allow themselves to do that.” Although Wolfe’s later two novels, I Am Charlotte Simmons and Back to Blood, won him more accolades from The Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award than anything else, his cutting portrayals of America earned him a lasting and well-deserved place in literature. In his 1975 book of art criticism, The Painted Word, Wolfe describes the “Art Mating Ritual” in a way that still feels perfectly current: the artist must perform what Wolfe dubs the “BoHo Dance.” She must move to Lower Manhattan and perform her bohemian disdain of wealth. In short, she must get close enough to the people uptown—“the Museum of Modern Art, certain painters, certain collectors”—to spit on them. When George Plimpton sat down with Wolfe for his Art of Fiction interview in 1994, at Wolfe’s favorite Italian restaurant, Isle of Capri on the Upper East Side (still open—and still relatively highly reviewed on Yelp), “the author arrived wearing the white ensemble he is noted for—a white modified homburg, a chalk-white overcoat—but to the surprise of regular customers looking up from their tables, he removed the coat to disclose a light-brown suit set off by a pale lilac tie. Questioned about the light-brown suit, he replied: ‘Shows that I’m versatile.’ ” Although Wolfe’s wide-ranging interests and stylistic leaps were indeed versatile, he did have a singular focus: our hypocrisy, our greed, and our status-obsessed culture. His is an incisive voice we would have been grateful for in 2018 and beyond. Below, read some of our favorite moments from his interview, which subscribers can enjoy in full. —Nadja Spiegelman 

Tom Wolfe, The Art of Fiction No. 123
Issue no. 118 (Spring 1991)

INTERVIEWER

Readers have always followed your fascination with clothes, material goods, and so forth. Where does that come from?

WOLFE

I couldn’t tell you in any analytical fashion, but I assume I realized instinctively that if I were going to write vignettes of contemporary life, which is what I was doing constantly for New York, I wanted all the sounds, the looks, the feel of whatever place I was writing about to be in this vignette. Brand names, tastes in clothes and furniture, manners, the way people treat children, servants, or their superiors, are important clues to an individual’s expectations. This is something else that I am criticized for, mocked for, ridiculed for. I take some solace in the fact that the leading critic of Balzac’s day, Sainte-Beuve, used to say the same thing about Balzac’s fixation on furniture. You can learn the names of more arcane pieces of furniture reading Balzac than you can reading a Sotheby’s catalogue. Sainte-Beuve said, If this little man is so obsessed with furniture why doesn’t he open up a shop and spare us these so-called novels of his? So I take solace in this. After all, we are in a brand-name culture.

*

INTERVIEWER

I can’t resist asking whether, when you were in the holding pens talking to criminals and so forth, you wore the white suit.

WOLFE

Now we’re getting down to cases! I’d like to be able to say that I went attired all in white. I didn’t. I always wore a suit though and usually a double-breasted suit. That was pushing my luck enough right there! I found early in the game that for me there’s no use trying to blend in. I might as well be the village information-gatherer, the man from Mars who simply wants to know. Fortunately the world is full of people with information-compulsion who want to tell you their stories. They want to tell you things that you don’t know. They’re some of the greatest allies that any writer has.

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INTERVIEWER

It wouldn’t be a Paris Review interview unless we asked you about your work habits.

WOLFE

To tell you the truth, I always find that a fascinating part of the Paris Review interviews. That’s the kind of thing writers always want to know: What are other writers doing? I use a typewriter. My wife gave me a word processor two Christmases ago that still stares at me accusingly from a desk in my office. One day I am going to be compelled to learn how to use it. But for the time being, I use a typewriter. I set myself a quota—ten pages a day, triple-spaced, which means about eighteen hundred words. If I can finish that in three hours, then I’m through for the day. I just close up the lunch box and go home—that’s the way I think of it anyway. If it takes me twelve hours, that’s too bad, I’ve got to do it. To me, the idea “I’m going to work for six hours” is of no use. I can waste time as handily at the desk as I can window-shopping, which is one of my favorite diversions. So I try to be very methodical and force myself to stick to that schedule.

INTERVIEWER

Is there any mnemonic device to get you going?

WOLFE

I always have a clock in front of me. Sometimes, if things are going badly, I will force myself to write a page in a half an hour. I find that can be done. I find that what I write when I force myself is generally just as good as what I write when I’m feeling inspired. It’s mainly a matter of forcing yourself to write. There’s a marvelous essay that Sinclair Lewis wrote on how to write. He said most writers don’t understand that the process begins by actually sitting down.

*

INTERVIEWER

What denotes a “good” novel?

WOLFE

To me, it’s a novel that pulls you inside the central nervous system of the characters . . . and makes you feel in your bones their motivations as affected by the society of which they are a part. It is folly to believe that you can bring the psychology of an individual successfully to life without putting him very firmly in a social setting. After The Bonfire of the Vanities came out I was accused of the negative stereotyping of just about every ethnic and racial type known to New York City. I would always challenge anyone who wrote that to give me one example. I have been waiting ever since. I think what I actually did was to violate a rule of etiquette—that it’s all right to bring up the subject of racial and ethnic differences, but you must treat it in a certain way. Somewhere in the tale you must find an enlightened figure, preferably from the streets, who shows everyone the error of his or her ways; a higher synthesis is created and everyone leaves the stage perhaps sadder but a good deal wiser and a good deal kinder and more compassionate. Well, this just simply isn’t the way New York works. The best you can say is that New York is held together by competing antagonisms that tend to cancel one another out. I tried to face up to that as unflinchingly as I could.

*

INTERVIEWER

How would you categorize your political outlook? After Radical Chic and to a certain extent after The Bonfire of the Vanities you were called reactionary, conservative.

WOLFE

I think of myself as a seer! Those two words, reactionary and conservative, are part of the etiquette of intellectual life in New York City—simply a way of saying “you’re bad,” or “I disagree with you.” Some time ago I attended the twenty-fifth anniversary of the National Review at a big party at the Plaza. About twenty-five hundred people there. A reporter came up and asked if I would say that this was a gathering of the neoconservative clan. First I asked him if he spelt clan with a k. When he assured me he was going to use a c, I answered him. I said that what we were looking at in the room were twenty-five hundred people, most of whom had never laid eyes on each other, who for one reason or another had not gone along with the official gag for the last quarter-century. I think that’s about what it amounts to.

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