Tom Wolfe (1930-2018)

Tom Wolfe, New York City, November 2011Last week, one of the most influential writers of the last part of the 20th Century–Tom Wolfe–died at the age of 88.

He took with him an unmeasurable legacy.  The creator of New Journalism, he spawned a million imitators and no equals.  The Right Stuff is brilliant and non-fiction.  Bonfire of the Vanities is the same, and it is fiction.  Few have mastered both forms as he did.

I was reading his Art of Fiction interview with (of course) George Plimpton.  Notwithstanding the pomposity meter blinking red, it is actually a really interesting piece that anyone would do well to read.

The most interesting thing was something I had forgotten:  that Bonfire of the Vanities was serialized.   In fact, I don’t even think I had what I thought I knew right.  I remember seeing it in Rolling Stone while I was in college.  My roommate was a subscriber.  I’d like to tell you that I was immediately struck with its brilliance, but instead, I was immediately struck with the pages after pages of broadsheet copy and thought “Who does this joker think he is?”

What I assumed at the time was that the book was already written and just being parcelled out every two weeks.  Reading the interview, you learn something different: that Wolfe was literally writing them in real time, providing 6,000 words of copy every two weeks to Rolling Stone.

Which makes it one of the more impressive feats in modern writing.

Wolfe explains it this way:

For eight months I had sat at my typewriter every day, intending to start this novel and nothing had happened. I felt that the only way I was ever going to get going on it was to put myself under deadline pressure. I knew that if I had to, I could produce something under deadline pressure.

Of course. A journalist at heart.


(Note:  of course, he didn’t invent serialization…I give you Dickens and the author of this year’s reading project, to be announced Sunday).

The other thing I thought was interesting was his answer when asked about whether he tried to write cinematically.  He said he didn’t and then said this:

I do very consciously, however, think about how to set up a scene—whether fiction or nonfiction—and often it may coincide with cinematographic technique. For example, I’m often drawn to start a story with a long shot—as they would say in the cinema. It’s an instinctive way of setting up a scene. A wonderful example is the way Truman Capote begins In Cold Blood—a very long shot of a Kansas wheat field, gradually focusing in on a solitary farmhouse on the horizon. Another way is to start with a very tight close-up—which I’ve done especially in my nonfiction. Radical Chic, for example, starts with a description of the aforementioned gadrooned silver platter with cheeseballs on it, and then pulls back—to use another cinematic metaphor—and you see that a person down whose gullet the cheeseball is disappearing is one of the leaders of the Black Panthers.

Which means what everyone thought….that Wolfe is indeed one of the cinematic or at least visually arresting writers ever.

Anyway, one last thing for people who have “writer’s block.”  He quotes Sinclair Lewis in saying that the first step in writing is sitting down to write.

Make the clackety sound people.  Writers write.

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