The most useful classes I took in college were not in politics or economics but in creative writing. My professor schooled us in the ways of Raymond Carver. I endeavored to write the sparest prose imaginable. This was a very useful skill in graduate school; the value of clear writing applies with equal force to nonfiction.
Tom Wolfe, who passed away Tuesday, was not spare with his prose. But my, oh, my, he made his points clearly. According to Ben Zimmer of The Atlantic: “Wolfe’s contributions to the English language go far beyond the most obvious catchphrases that he popularized. The Oxford English Dictionary includes about 150 quotations from Wolfe’s writings, and in many cases, he is the earliest known source for words and phrases that have worked their way into the lexicon.”
The highest compliment I can pay Wolfe is that it was only after reading Bill Morris in The Daily Beast that I learned Wolfe had earned a PhD in American studies from Yale. By which I mean, Wolfe did not write like someone who had spent time in grad school. As I noted in “The Ideas Industry,” graduate school can take the best writers and turn them into jargon-spouting automatons.
According to Morris, Wolfe getting his doctorate was a near-run thing:
[Wolfe] enrolled in Yale’s American Studies program, where he interviewed Archibald MacLeish, James T. Farrell, and other leftist heavyweights for his doctoral thesis, which was rejected because… well, because it was too much like the writing of Tom Wolfe—“journalistically tendentious,” in the sniffy estimation of one professor, “reactionary,” “consistently slanted” and “full of “polemical rhetoric.” Disgusted by what he called “these stupid f—s,” Wolfe excised the offending passages and copped his degree, but through the writings of Max Weber he had found his true subject, the thing that would sustain his entire career: the dissection of the peculiarly American lust for status.
This certainly helps to explain Wolfe’s acid take on academia.* Laura McKenna pointed me to Wolfe’s amazing one-paragraph description of graduate school in 1972. I defy anyone to improve upon it:
I had just spent five years in graduate school, a statement that may mean nothing to people who never served such a stretch; it is the explanation, nonetheless. I’m not sure I can give you the remotest idea of what graduate school is like. Nobody ever has. Millions of Americans now go to graduate schools, but just say the phrase — “graduate school” — and what picture leaps into the brain? No picture, not even a blur. Half the people I knew in graduate school were going to write a novel about it. I thought about it myself. No one ever wrote such a book, as far as I know. Everyone used to sniff the air. How morbid! How poisonous! Nothing else like it in the world! But the subject always defeated them. It defied literary exploitation. Such a novel would be a study of frustration, but a form of frustration so exquisite, so ineffable, nobody could describe it. Try to imagine the worst part of the worst Antonioni movie you ever saw, or reading Mr. Sammler’s Planet at one sitting, or just reading it, or being locked inside a Seaboard Railroad roomette, sixteen miles from Gainesville, Florida, heading north on the Miami-to-New York run, with no water and the radiator turning red in an amok psychotic over boil, and George McGovern sitting beside you telling you his philosophy of government. That will give you the general atmosphere.
Jeet Heer correctly observed in The New Republic that, “Wolfe’s great mission in life was to remarry literature with journalism.” He did that both in his essays in the 1960s, his nonfiction novels in the 1970s and then in his kaleidoscopic first piece of fiction, “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”
After that success, Wolfe engaged in a running literary firefight with novelists like John Irving and John Updike. He outlined his position in a great Harper’s essay, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” in which he argued for fiction to return to realism from the fabulism of postwar American literature. This required a lot more reporting than most novelists had done in the latter half of the twentieth century.
I doubt that there is a writer over forty who does not realize in his heart of hearts that literary genius, in prose, consists of proportions more on the order of 65 percent material and 35 percent the talent in the sacred crucible. …
If fiction writers do not start facing the obvious, the literary history of the second half of the twentieth century will record that journalists not only took over the richness of American life as their domain but also seized the high ground of literature itself. Any literary person who is willing to look back over the American literary terrain of the past twenty-five years-look back candidly, in the solitude of the study-will admit that in at least four years out of five the best nonfiction books have been better literature than the most highly praised books of fiction. Any truly candid observer will go still further. In many years, the most highly praised books of fiction have been overshadowed in literary terms by writers whom literary people customarily dismiss as “writers of popular fiction” (a curious epithet) or as genre novelists. I am thinking of novelists such as John le Carre and Joseph Wambaugh. Leaving the question of talent aside, Le Carre and Wambaugh have one enormous advantage over their more literary confreres. They are not only willing to wrestle the beast; they actually love the battle.
If the 1980s were ripe for injecting journalism into fiction, imagine what a good writer could do with today’s material.
I hope the successors to Wolfe present themselves as soon as possible. We are not lacking in acidic takes on American society right now. Nonetheless, it would be wonderful to read ones as well-written and well-researched as Wolfe’s.
*It is a shame that Wolfe’s prejudices against the academy calcified when they did. Had he paid attention to trends in social science research, he would have learned that academics were doing the kind of research he demanded of all writers.