Tom Wolfe: An Appreciation

Millions of people were inspired by the writings of Tom Wolfe, and I was one of them. When he died last spring at the age of 88, I lost my one and only role model.

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Tom Wolfe: 1930-2018

A little background: My college career wasn’t the four-year-long bacchanal that popular culture has painted college to be. Instead, it was four-and-a-half very difficult years of studying Cicero, medieval and Renaissance texts, neoclassical books of commonplaces, and other bits of fluff.

However, my profs routinely complained that my writing was too entertaining, too polemical, and sometimes too original. They were right. I couldn’t speak or write that weird hypersensitive academic dialect, which is why I usually saw comments such as very insightful but style is inappropriate scribbled on the margins of my papers. As a result, I knew that there was no way on God’s blue marble that I’d ever work in a university.

Then I discovered Tom Wolfe. He was already almost seventy years old, but in his writing I thought I glimpsed a reflection of myself fifty years in the future.

So Tom Wolfe became my guiding light. An arrow pointing the way. My one and only role model.

“The problem with fiction is that it has to be plausible. That’s not true with nonfiction.” – Tom Wolfe

I gobbled up everything I could find about him. In his twenties, Wolfe too had been a stylish and talented and nonacademic writer while pursuing his Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale. He too had gotten the same tsk-tsking comments from his professors. He too bristled at the restrictions, leaving academia as soon as he could.

This was candy to my eyes. I saw that what Wolfe had done, I could do too, in my own way, somehow, sometime in the future.

Like him, I went into journalism. I chose the field partly because it’s what writers often do, and partly because that was how Wolfe had started his career. In fact, he’d spent a few years at The Washington Post, working on the Metro and Foreign desks. I too got a job at the Post, coincidentally also working on the same Metro and Foreign desks.

However, Wolfe left the paper in his early thirties and moved to New York, where his writing career immediately exploded (along with his propensity for outlandish suits). Mine did not. Here’s why.

  1. At twenty-two years old, I was way too young to succeed as a writer. To write good nonfiction or realistic fiction, you flat-out need to be older. That’s not true for other genres. Fantasy writers, for example, do often succeed when quite young.
  2. My skills still needed work. I’d placed in a short story contest sponsored by Scott Fitzgerald’s estate, but that was a matter of beginners’ luck. I really didn’t get the hang of fiction until age thirty. (And my skills will always need work.)
  3. Three, the media market had totally changed in the forty years since Wolfe had burst out in a fireball of success.

That third point is so very crucial. In the nineteen sixties, there were about ten radio stations and three television channels in every major media market. That was it, nothing else. On the print side, the newspaper business was thriving—there were thousands across the nation, and they were mostly solvent, supported by classified ads and retail advertising. The magazine industry was more or less the same. The book industry relied totally on the “produce” model in which a book was seen as basically a head of lettuce, existing for only a few weeks before going bad and being remaindered.

Whoo boy, have things changed.

On the good side, the average American citizen is now inundated by buckets of news and entertainment every waking second.

On the bad side, the average American citizen is now inundated by buckets of news and entertainment every waking second.

Wolfe enjoyed a couple more advantages as well. One was that he was born in 1930, and thereby escaped service in World War II. Think of this—if he’d been born even seven years earlier, he would’ve been drafted into the service, and the experience would have turned him into a Greatest War author like so many others, and he would’ve written about slogging through calf-deep mud with bullets whizzing past his ears and nights spent gnawing on hard cheese rinds and sleeping on the dirty floors of churches in miserable French villages.

Nope—not in his books! Instead, Wolfe hit his mid-thirties, a time when so many writers finally begin doing good work, in the mid-nineteen sixties—the exact moment when our national social fabric started to unravel. And so that time period became his material, with its many peculiarities.

His other advantage was the fact that he made his name in the Sunday newspaper supplements, thin magazines that were disposable and whose editors gave Wolfe room to experiment. They existed for only a few decades and are almost totally extinct today.

HE WASN’T PERFECT

Before going further, I do have small criticisms of Wolfe.

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One, his output was slow, at least to my eyes. He only published a large book every few years or so. For instance, A Man in Full took him eleven years and clocked in at 370,000 words. Do the division, and you see that he only wrote about 35,000 words per year during that time. For comparison’s sake, I usually write about 500,000 words per year on various novels, ghostwriting projects, editing projects, academic exams, emails, blog posts, and other errata. So in that sense, the pupil has exceeded the master.

Of course, it’s true that quantity does not equal quality—but it’s also true that lack of quantity doesn’t equal quality either. To my eyes, there is a basement level of word production below which we start to wonder—is this person still a writer? Or has he become that ickiest of terms, an author?

What’s the difference, you ask? It’s a question of verb tense: a writer writes, while an author has written.

Some of my favorite writers have gotten sucked into teaching jobs and become authors, never or only rarely returning to their careers. For example, I loved the book Paint It Black by Janet Fitch, but she took her sweet time—eleven full years, same as Wolfe did above—before publishing her next book, The Revolution of Marina M., in 2017. Assuming the new one is a normal length of 70,000 words, the math tells us that she was writing at the breakneck pace of 530 words per month, or 18 words per day. I haven’t read the new book yet, and part of me isn’t really inclined to do so.

Another strange thing about Wolfe is that he never wrote in a series, which is a bit of an anomaly for a bestselling fiction author. Going all the way back to James Fenimore Cooper, you can see that series have always been a popular vehicle for writers. Hell, more so-called “literary” names than Wolfe, such as the highbrow John Updike, wrote in a series. Even the Nobel Prize-winning Southern Gothic whiskey-swilling mad genius William Faulkner wrote in a kind of series, knitting all of his work together in the imaginary setting of Yoknapatawpha County. But Wolfe never did anything like that. That’s partly because he came out of nonfiction journalism, which doesn’t do series. It’s also because his work was so strongly based on different locations.

Different locations, you say?

WHAT I STOLE FROM HIM

Full confession: The Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery series would one hundred percent never have existed without Tom Wolfe’s work.

He was my biggest inspiration as a writer, by far, nobody else was even close—and this series has been my attempt to carry his intelligent, funny, entertaining style into new places. I mean places quite literally. Wolfe is still living rent-free in my mind as I visit and research locations such as Uruguay and Argentina and Puerto Rico and Portugal and many, many more yet to come. In fact, he drilled the importance of research in every interview he ever gave. “Nothing fuels the imagination more than real facts do,” Wolfe told the AP in 1999. “As the saying goes, ‘You can’t make this stuff up.'”

“I do novels a bit backward. I look for a situation, a milieu first, and then I wait to see who walks into it.” – Tom Wolfe

But I did consciously decide to do a few things differently. Here’s a quick list:

  • Ainsley Walker would be my recurring main character, an advantage Wolfe never had.
  • The series would feature the same external goal in every story—find the gemstone—another advantage he never had.
  • The sentences would be less complex and show-offy than Wolfe’s.
  • The chapters would be shorter than Wolfe’s.

So much else, however, I stole shamelessly from the man in the white suit.

  • Remember his colorful, larger-than-life characters, such as Reverend Bacon in Bonfire of the Vanities? I’ve been copying the vibrancy of that character, over and over, in different ways.
  • Remember how he used huge vocabulary words such as sternocleidomastoid muscle? I use them too, once in a while, particularly foreign words and phrases. He taught me to lift the reader up. It’s not insulting to occasionally use a big word, especially if you explain it with context.
  • Remember how the settings of his books played as large a role as the characters? New York, Atlanta, Duke University? I stole that convention too—but I didn’t limit myself to the U.S., the way Wolfe did. I’ve stupidly decided to write about every nation in the entire world.

All of this leads to a single question that has been circling my head for the last two decades: What would Tom Wolfe do if he were trying to make it as a writer right now?

From a business perspective, I guessed that he would’ve begun as a totally independent entity and written whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, held to nothing except his own high standards. This route would mean less money early in life (no advances from traditional publishers), but more money later in life, since books sell eternally now that the produce model has disappeared.

So, thinking of him, I chose that route. It seems to be working.

LOWER THE CURTAIN

Unfortunately, I cannot even name one other writer who inspired me as much as Wolfe did.

The only writer who might come close was Robert Penn Warren—but only for one book, his brilliant All the King’s Men. Michael Crichton’s scientific adventures featured great pacing and good research, but his work was lacking in character and dialogue. James Michener displayed huge ambition and obvious work ethic, but I always found his fiction to be honestly boring. (Warning: I’m a tough critic! Take my opinions with a grain of salt.) Still other classic fiction writers I’ve admired a lot, such as Flannery O’Connor or Agatha Christie or Raymond Chandler or Ernest Hemingway, never inspired me to emulate them.

But Tom Wolfe was a complete writer. Reading his passages over and over (particularly those in Bonfire) taught me how to write fiction—not from a methodical standpoint, but just through sheer osmosis. At risk of sounding like a vegan yoga teacher, I caught his vibes, man. Then I made them my own.

“What I try to do is re-create a scene from a triple point of view: the subject’s point of view, my own, and that of the other people watching—often within a single paragraph.” –Tom Wolfe

If you’re looking for a good title to start with, well, my favorites are everybody’s favorites, the biggest hits—The Right Stuff, Bonfire of the Vanities, and A Man in Full. People older than myself swear by The Electric Koolaid Acid Test, which was linguistically revolutionary but too druggy for me. In college, after I discovered the brilliant The Painted Word, I tracked down From Bauhaus to Our House in the stacks of my library by pulling up dusty old bound copies of Harper’s magazine from the late seventies, when the book first appeared serially in those pages. (I still don’t own a copy of that book, only the printed photocopies of the magazine.) In fact, I blame that book for kickstarting my small obsession with modern architecture. And while studying abroad at Oxford University, I remember finding The Kandy-Colored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby in a bookstore in London and reading it for hours until my back hurt. I only bought it after I’d finished.

As time went on, of course, I slowly grew apart from his work. You could say it was because Wolfe’s last few books, from 2004 onwards, were not quite as brilliant as before. You could say it was because I was changing. You could say many different things.

But that doesn’t take away the very, very important role he played at a very, very important juncture in my life.

This is the only author appreciation I’m going to write. You won’t see me memorializing any other writers, not like this. That’s partly because the ones I’ve liked the most have already died. But it’s also because none of the others mattered quite as much to my life and career as Tom Wolfe. And I’m doing my best to hopefully, possibly, maybe, someday, fingers crossed, if the good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise—match the master. That’s the goal, anyways. And even if that doesn’t ever quite happen, his example will push me to places I wouldn’t ever get to otherwise.

He was my one and only role model. Requiescat in pace, Tom.

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