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Tom Wolfe's Literary Manifesto: A Response

ENDPAPERS

November 12, 1989|JACK MILES

Like Wolfe, Krantz has a background in journalism. Like him, she has a lively interest in fashion. She wrote, in her journalistic years, for McCall's and Cosmopolitan. Like him, she does her homework. Wolfe admires Zola for going into an actual mine to do research for his novel "Germinal." Krantz, for her novel "Scruples" drew on a lifetime of contact with fashion retailers. "I'm a stickler for detail," she once told the Washington Post; "I don't know anybody doing the so-called commercial fiction researches as thoroughly as I do." Like him, she takes sex, class and power as her subject matter.

Most of all, Krantz, like Wolfe, revels in the brand name as telling detail, which is to say, of course, in the telling detail that tells you nothing unless you already know. At one point in his manifesto, Wolfe mentions Scully & Scully address books. If you've never heard of Scully & Scully address books or don't know how they differ from other kinds of address book, well, help yourself to another Bud Light.

In a passage on writers whom he chooses to call "K-Mart Realists," Wolfe summons up the memory of the late Raymond Carver in every way but by mentioning his name, mocking this widely admired writer's style and sneering at his settings ("Rustic Septic Tank Rural"). As it happens, however, in places like Klatskanie, Ore., where Carver was born, and Port Angeles, Wash., where he died, rusty (did Wolfe really intend the redundant "rustic"?) septic tanks are what they use, and K-Mart is where they shop. Inconveniently for our literary manifestant, none of this is less real than Scully & Scully address books. It is simply less luxurious.

Here we come to the heart of the matter. After criticism, what Tom Wolfe is obsessed with is luxury. He's not the first. He won't be the last. The joy of goods, the mirth of merchandise, is the subtext in all his books just as it is in those of Judith Krantz. The difference between them is that while Judy laughs all the way to the bank, Tom, on the same trip, preaches.

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