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Thursday, August 7, 2014

August 7, 2014: Virginia Voices: Tom Wolfe

[In about a week I’ll be taking my annual August pilgrimage with the boys to my home state of Virginia. So here’s another annual Virginia-inspired series, this one focused on interesting voices from the state and leading up to my next Guest Post!]
On the author who redefined what novels could be, and then turned instead to more conventional ones.
In a post from almost exactly three years ago, I called Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History (1968) “one of the great works of 20th century American literature.” I stand by that statement and post, but it’d be important to add that many of the stylistic and formal techniques and innovations that make Mailer’s book so interesting came directly out of an existing literary movement, New Journalism. This blending of conventional journalism and experimental storytelling, third-person reporting and autobiography, non-fiction and fiction had been pioneered a few years earlier by Tom Wolfe (1931- ), the Yale American Studies PhD turned journalist whose first collection, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965) was one of the decade’s most influential works.
In Kandy, as well as the subsequent The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970), Wolfe contributed (as certainly did Mailer and others, including Truman Capote with In Cold Blood [1965]) to a radical redefinition of the novel and American literature more generally. Sometimes called “non-fiction novels,” a term that is purposefully contradictory and slippery, such works generally foreground their factuality while utilizing narrative and stylistic techniques that are typically found in works of fiction. They seek to inform their audiences about very real and usually contemporary social and cultural topics, yet at the same time challenge readers to decide what is fact and what is fiction, and indeed to question what kind of book they have in their hands. While most of the genre’s influential individual works have faded in prominence (other than Capote’s, probably because of the true crime appeal), its overall impact on late 20th century American writing can’t be overstated.
Yet interestingly, Wolfe’s own later writings have significantly moved away from the genre. Starting with his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), Wolfe has published almost exclusively more conventional works of fiction: A Man in Full (1998), I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), and Back to Blood (2012). By conventional I don’t mean traditional, as these books are full of the kinds of narrative and stylistic experimentation associated with postmodern fiction. But they’re nonetheless all clearly novels, not nonfiction novels or New Journalism or the like. So has the genre run its course, having achieved its impacts, and is no longer as necessary? Is Wolfe simply becoming more conservative in his literary as well as political perspectives late in life? Does a current writer like Dave Eggers qualify as a new form of nonfiction novelist? All possibilities—and in any case, Tom Wolfe is a Virginia voice who has unquestionably left his mark on our literature and culture.
Last voice of mine tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Voices from your home you’d highlight?

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