Why Tom Wolfe Matters

What more can I add to the multitude of tributes to literary legend Tom Wolfe? Certainly nothing unique, but given the inspiration he has provided me, it would seem irresponsible not to add a few personal notes.

Wolfe is one of my favorite authors of all time. He was a writer who changed my life. I never met him, but I always felt like I knew him. Now I will miss him, but the library of his life’s work will forever be near me.

It was his invention of New Journalism that changed the way we heard and told stories. He crafted a new set of norms meant to break all the rules that desperately needed to be broken. The storyteller belonged in the story, fact or fiction, a hard break from the false mandates of objective absolutes. He proved by example that a writer and his story are inseparable, no matter the subject matter. His biting critiques of hypocrisy are funny, eye-opening, and actionable. His characters are equally outrageous and believable. The unique style and consistent unpredictability of his prose are seldom short of stunning.

When I first read his 1989 manifesto in Harper’s, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” I knew the coming shift in literature was more than cosmetic. Allow me to borrow a passage from that essay on how the call to relevant storytelling so lit up my life with hope and gravitas:

By the early 1960s, the notion of the death of the realistic novel had caught on among young American writers with the force of revelation. This was an extraordinary turnabout. It had been only yesterday, in the 1930s, that the big realistic novel, with its broad social sweep, had put American literature up on the world stage for the first time. In 1930 Sinclair Lewis, a realistic novelist who used reporting techniques as thorough as Zola’s, became the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize. In his acceptance speech, he called on his fellow writers to give America “a literature worthy of her vastness,” and, indeed, four of the next five Americans to win the Nobel Prize in literature—Pearl Buck, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck—were realistic novelists.

Wolfe reminded us of our American legacy and tradition in creating words that matter. To combine that public statement of reborn intent with a social novel as demonstrative as The Bonfire of the Vanities would have itself constituted a life achievement, but he was just getting started. Ironically, this was years after he wrote The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Right Stuff in his relative youth. Whether the narrative was reported, invented, or a combination of both, his voice exploded from every page he published and lifted us to reconsider the controlling norms crowding every corner of our lives.

He was already in the club when he dusted off the house rules. To be fair, it was less of an edit about purpose than it was a bold restatement of the rules of engagement. These were the kind of “new rules” that deeply appealed to young writers like me who weren’t sure if it was still okay to address the injustice of our surroundings with purely accessible plots and characters.

Could an author be both mainstream and thoughtful, both entertaining and aspirational? Wolfe told us yes, showed us how, and begged us to beat him at the game. Eleven years after Bonfire he proved he could tackle the social novel in different geography with A Man in Full, bringing realism and nuance to an equally vibrant cast of characters in the financial machinations of Atlanta. Again he beckoned all comers to rise to a more demanding creative standard. We couldn’t beat him, but we sure could take out pen and pad and play along as if the contest were open for anyone brave enough to enter.

What did I learn most from this erudite iconoclast?

Current events become history. Tell even the simplest stories with flair. What you chronicle for the present becomes a time capsule that can be unwrapped in ten years or a hundred. Reporting on contemporary events is a noble calling, but framing them within multiple prisms of context transforms ordinary happenings into perpetual discussions of culture and significance.

Story and storyteller are inseparable. Voice is alive whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction. To pretend otherwise, that there is somehow an ideal objectivist viewpoint, is to deny the reality of the music in your head and the muse speaking through you. Acknowledge it, confess it, embrace it.

Style is content. What you write and how you write it are also inseparable. So many of us studied his eclectic, eccentric style of phrasing to adopt his craftsmanship and tone. If you want to use nonsense syntax to land a point, to hell with copyeditors, be a writer, accentuate at will and rise to the iconic. Like this, from Bonfire: “On Wall Street he and a few others – how many? – three hundred, four hundred, five hundred? – had become precisely that … Masters of the Universe.”

How big a deal was Tom Wolfe? I can’t identify a single reductive adjective. Enormous is a good start. Unique is another. I’d toss in galvanizing as well. His writing changed the entire playing field for a churning generation. He showed us how words become possibility. Yes, he was that big a deal.

Important works of literary fiction that are fully absorbing may not be in the same demand today as they were a generation ago when readers of another time learned to love words as life inspirations. When we remember Tom Wolfe as author and provocateur, we remember what is possible when we demand as much of our artists as they demand of themselves.

Words matter. Stories matter. Storytellers matter.

Tom Wolfe matters.

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Photo: TomWolfe.com

Learning from Mars

If you went to elementary school circa the 1960s, you remember that one of the few times TV was brought into the classroom—likely a dusty, early model, enormous 21-inch Zenith B&W CRT with bent rabbit ears, strapped to a prison issue, grey steel rolling wheel cart—was for the Apollo lift offs, splash downs, and moon walks. During those turbulent years of hard-won civil rights and compounding economic expansion, you might have dreamed about growing up to be the next Mick Jagger, but it is equally possible you aspired to have The Right Stuff and be the next Neil Armstrong.

The Space Race captured our imaginations. We watched in awe as the first boot imprint and an American flag were planted in the Sea of Tranquility. We lost sleep with the good people at Houston who had “a problem” bringing home Apollo 13. It was all so captivating, the science in our textbooks was made real, technology was cool, and the Warp Factors of Star Trek seemed someday plausible. I’m glad I got to experience that as a child—it made childhood more childlike and less childish. The Little Prince would have been proud.

Much has been written about the fall off in public enthusiasm for the space program after the tapering Apollo missions and the less grandiose but still near miraculous Space Shuttle missions. As we left The Cold War behind with the collapse of the Soviet Union, we came to worry less about controlling our Solar System. Satellites became our path to better television and radio entertainment, not so much a magic portal to the future as a manufactured bridge to enhanced convenience. It all became ordinary, and then expensive, a difficult pair to keep at the high-end of federal funding without public enthusiasm. We moved on, to the information age, to the PC revolution, to the wildly lucrative internet. NASA was scaled back year after year, and although we knew that wasn’t optimal, we were largely okay with it.

Too often we forget all the ancillary learning that occurred as part of space exploration—not just the nifty consumer products like cordless power tools and vastly improved athletic shoes, but the processes of working together in high function teams. Getting tonnage into and out of space safely has never been a job for individual heroes as much as it sets the tone for working together in groups, combining scientific work methods that emphasize cooperation, breaking down gigantic projects into manageable tasks. Engineering is a profession of shared ideas, where the accuracy of each single contribution matters immensely, but the compiled knowledge of all participants matters even more. We take so much of that kind of process for granted now when we bite off big chunks. I wonder if we take appropriate time to digest just what the process of doing the incredible really means.

As we took a brief intermission from the Games of the 30th Olympiad these past few weeks to observe the otherworldly, never before tried jet-softened hard landing on Mars, I was left pondering if perhaps we were being a bit too casual about the successful parachuting of the Curiosity Rover. No, there were no astronauts on board, and yes, we had landed on Mars before—but not this way, and not with a nuclear powered craft of such immense size and scale. I think everything that involves operating with precision at distances of this magnitude is astonishing, and no matter how clear the physics, we should celebrate with the geniuses at JPL and NASA anytime they pull off the near impossible. Getting to Mars and sending back data to Earth is not a little thing no matter how many times we do it.

This one left me thinking even further. In the midst of a floundering economy and awful recession, precisely the opposite of the Apollo climate, our national tech teams did more with less and made us proud. What were the business lessons, I wondered—more ancillary byproducts of this adventure in science—from which we can additionally benefit in learning by example? I am sure there are many, but three leap out for me:

  1. Difficult is Good.  Paraphrasing President Kennedy’s challenge to set an arbitrary deadline without a known roadmap, the Curiosity team chose their path not because it was easy, but because it was hard. This was wide-eyed enthusiasm for a mission about something other than personal gain. Want people to rally around a task? Give them something where they need each other, where failure is acceptable in concept, but not in approach. Big problems are always worth solving.
  2. Resilience is Rebound.  Here was a team that had just put the Shuttle in mothballs, experienced colossal layoffs, and had no choice but to accept for the immediate future that our astronauts would have to hitchhike across the galaxy in the form of renting seats from former competitors. They put this behind them by committing to the project at hand.
  3. Sharing Triumph is Personal.  How do you get a team fired up and motivated? Bypassing cynicism is a decent route. This mission was about proving what was possible, about intrinsic meaning as much as the survival of equipment. The Curiosity team built pride because they did something together they will forever share, advancing progress, continuing exploration. Often you forget the details of a project, but you don’t forget people who matter. This is where emotion has a clear role in that which is otherwise objective.

I hope enough people at home were paying attention, partly because the landing was worthy of our attention, but more because when you think about it in the abstract, there is more application than meets the eye. Getting out of this recession is no small task, and it won’t be our government who gets the job done. It will be teamwork, commitment, creativity, motivation, and entrepreneurial spirit. Our move forward will be economic, but satisfaction has come from more than that. It will be of the human spirit, with celebration in the process of innovation as well as getting some problems solved.

I like that they named the rover Curiosity. It’s a good, real world metaphor. It sings aspiration. It’s worthy of our attention, a form of pedagogy that really does come from another planet.