The MacLamity

The News That Stays News, Reported Live

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

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What has yet to be done is to write the history of new journalism's birth in the 1960s, without taking Tom Wolfe's word for everything. Like B.S. Johnson, Tom Wolfe has been too nervous to let his work speak for itself. He attaches an instruction manual to almost every book he writes, proving that the work is a work of genius, if not the work of a genius. Should someone criticize his work with an off-hand comment, Wolfe will respond by praising it in a nine-page essay. Should someone award him the prize for the year's worst sex scene, he won't find it funny (as others sensibly have). Wolfe's self-estimation is high; his self-esteem is low. No one has written more about his writing than he has. His critics attack him on his terms, taking his word that his novels' main themes are class status in America.

But he hasn't written about them perceptively. For example he's yet to point out that journalists never replaced the likes of Saul Bellow or Philip Roth as America's literature, as Wolfe claimed they had and would. Similarly, he should point out out that some of his wider insights are way off. Sometimes they're so extravagant that they could apply to any society, at any time. He is obsessed with young people having sex. He thought it defined the 1970s. Twenty years later he said it defined the 2000s. (Well, which?)

So here's to a history of Tom Wolfe's achievements that doesn't rely on Tom Wolfe to do all the reporting, and tell the best anecdotes.

P.S. He wasn't always that way. In the 1960s, he responded to a two-article, two-issue monumental attack from the New Yorker with this. The beauty of it is how annoying it is, because it lets everyone know that doesn't really a give a shit what people say about him. If only he still had it in him. Or rather, if only he'd not have changed so quickly.