“Tom Wolfe, Author of ‘The Right Stuff’ and ‘Bonfire of the Vanities,’ Dies”
By Deirdre Carmody and William Grimes
The New York Times
May 15, 2018
An obituary of journalist and novelist Tom Wolfe (1930-2018) was published in today’s New York Times.
A few thoughts of my own about Wolfe.
I am not that qualified to comment. I was never a big fan his and am not that well acquainted with his works. But, I do know something about writing, and I would like to comment from that angle.
The Times obituary notes: “In his use of novelistic techniques in his nonfiction, Mr. Wolfe, beginning in the 1960s, helped create the enormously influential hybrid known as the New Journalism.” It goes on to say, about Wolfe’s best-selling novel (his first) The Bonfire of the Vanities:
Although a runaway best seller, “Bonfire” divided critics into two camps: those who praised its author as a worthy heir of his fictional idols Balzac, Zola, Dickens and Dreiser, and those who dismissed the book as clever journalism, a charge that would dog him throughout his fictional career. [italics added] …
Mr. Wolfe’s fictional ambitions and commercial success earned him enemies — big ones.
“Extraordinarily good writing forces one to contemplate the uncomfortable possibility that Tom Wolfe might yet be seen as our best writer,” Norman Mailer wrote in The New York Review of Books. “How grateful one can feel then for his failures and his final inability to be great — his absence of truly large compass. There may even be an endemic inability to look into the depth of his characters with more than a consummate journalist’s eye.”
“Tom may be the hardest-working show-off the literary world has ever owned,” Mr. Mailer continued. “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.”
Mr. Mailer’s sentiments were echoed by John Updike and John Irving.
I read The Bonfire of the Vanities. I was caught up in it at first, but by the end was getting bored. Wolfe’s characters are stock figures. They are completely uninteresting. They have no humanity. They do not come alive.
A character like Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities has no depth or personality. He is meant to merely represent a stereotype, and the same is true of other characters in the book, such as the black youth injured in an auto accident for which McCoy is arrested and a reporter for the New York Post type tabloid. The novel left me feeling, by the end, profoundly unsatisfied and empty.
Wolfe is decidedly not worthy of comparisons to Balzac, Zola, Dickens, or Dreiser, all of whom I have read (though, in the case of Zola, not as much as I would like to have) and admire greatly.
The Times obituary states that “Mr. Wolfe became one of the standard-bearers of the New Journalism, along with Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese, Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion and others.” It is my opinion that most of them — with the exception of Gay Talese — were seriously overrated. (Breslin could not write.) The reason I would qualify this statement of mine with regard to Gay Talese is that Talese — unlike, say, Didion, and Wolfe — never had pretensions to be anything but a journalist. And, Talese’s nonfiction works were well researched and well written.
The Times obituary states:
Every morning [Wolfe] dressed in one of his signature outfits — a silk jacket, say, and double-breasted white vest, shirt, tie, pleated pants, red-and-white socks and white shoes — and sat down at his typewriter. Every day he set himself a quota of 10 pages, triple-spaced. If he finished in three hours, he was done for the day.
“If it takes me 12 hours, that’s too bad, I’ve got to do it,” he told George Plimpton in a 1991 interview for The Paris Review.
This kind of dedication to writing is impressive. It reminds me of Anthony Trollope, who, as he famously noted in his autobiography, had to do his “allotment” of pages every day. Wolfe’s daily writing routine seems to be what would amount to very good advice for would be writers.
“There is this about Tom,” Byron Dobell, Wolfe’s editor at Esquire magazine, is quoted in the Times obituary as saying. “He has this unique gift of language that sets him apart as Tom Wolfe. It is full of hyperbole; it is brilliant; it is funny, and he has a wonderful ear for how people look and feel. He has a gift of fluency that pours out of him the way Balzac had it.”
Balzac did not have the “gift of fluency.” Like Dreiser, he wrote clumsily (but not as badly as Dreiser did). I love Balzac, but not for his style. And, incidentally, Balzac is the polar opposite of Wolfe, in that his characters are completely believable, unforgettable, totally human. I never cared for Tom Wolfe.
— Roger W. Smith
May 16, 2018