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Tom Wolfe's Literary Manifesto: A Response

November 12, 1989|JACK MILES

Tom Wolfe, the lionized author of "The Bonfire of the Vanities" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), whose still unpublished second novel recently commanded an advance estimated at $7 million, is not satisfied with amor y pesetas. He wants salud as well. He would be the bringer of health to a sick American literature. Alas, he cannot: Tom Wolfe is the disease of which he pretends to be the cure.

In a "literary manifesto" just published in Harper's magazine, Wolfe begins with a diagnosis. Influential critics, he claims, have contaminated a generation of American novelists, luring them away from the practice of realistic fiction. Wolfe himself, already famous as a "new journalist," stood in wonder, he tells us, as the years of the '60s and '70s passed, and no novelist saw fit to exploit such irresistibly colorful and challenging subject matter. When he began "Bonfire," his novel of New York City in the '80s, Wolfe says, he still had the field of realistic fiction improbably to himself. Implicitly, he takes the success of that novel as proof of the correctness of his diagnosis. And his prescription, to be only slightly more plain about it than he is, is that other writers should write as he does.

Wolfe's manifesto makes, in literary criticism, the same mistake that his books "The Painted Word" and "From Bauhaus to Our House" made in art and architecture criticism, respectively. That mistake is what we might call the bright-student mistake. After reading a clever theory, the bright student finds evidence for it simply everywhere and becomes its champion, or else finds evidence against it everywhere and becomes its consecrated foe. Agreement is not decisive. Obsession is.

In "The Painted Word" and "From Bauhaus to Our House" Wolfe finds evidence everywhere that artists and architects have taken art and architecture criticism as prescriptive. He disagrees with the prescription, but in the process he shows himself to be, more than any other American novelist with a comparable popular success to his credit, obsessed with critical opinion. He may assume a rollicking manner. He may wish to be the joker who calls the professorial bluff. But the smile is forced, the act unconvincing. As ever, not to philosophize is to philosophize.

The professors who obsess Wolfe in the Harper's article, entitled "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast," are George Steiner and the late Lionel Trilling. Their thesis, in his formulation, is that the realist novel "was the literary child of the nineteenth-century industrial bourgeoisie. . . . But now that the bourgeoisie was in a state of 'crisis and partial route' (Steiner's phrase) and the old class system was crumbling, the realistic novel was pointless. What could be more futile than a cross section of disintegrating fragments?"

The toxic idea now in place, Dr. Wolfe (Ph.D., American Studies, Yale, 1957) sets out to discover whom it has intoxicated. He contrasts an older, still realist generation of writers to a younger, post-realist one. Thus, "Writers who had gone to college before 1960, such as Saul Bellow, Robert Stone, and John Updike, found it hard to give up realism, but many others were caught betwixt and between. They didn't know which way to turn. For example, Philip Roth. . . made a statement (in 1961) that had a terrific impact on other young writers. We now live in an age, he said, in which the imagination of the novelist lies helpless before what he knows he will read in tomorrow morning's newspaper. 'The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures daily that are the envy of any novelist'."

This paragraph is downright goofy. Robert Stone, whom Wolfe places in the older generation, is four years younger than Philip Roth, whom he places in the younger generation. Updike is Roth's senior by only two years. All three of these writers (along with Tom Wolfe himself, for that matter) were in college at the same time. It is nonsense to divide such near contemporaries into generations.

Bellow is older, of course, but no writer had a greater influence on aspiring novelists in the '60s than he did. Roth's 1961 essay is reprinted in a volume entitled "Reading Myself and Others" which is dedicated to Bellow as "the other from whom I have learned most." Bellow's "Herzog" (has Wolfe forgotten?) was a critical and popular sensation in 1964. It was with that book, more than with any of his earlier ones, that the future Nobel Prize winner became what he would remain: the lord of the literary manor.

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