Once upon a time, when New York—the magazine, not the city—was young, and Rolling Stone loomed as the wave of the future, there was a lot of talk in the literary world about something called the New Journalism. Fiction, we were told, was dead, or at least moribund. The “main event,” as Tom Wolfe famously declared, was this new brand of reportage, which was alleged to be bringing us news of social change that far exceeded the scope of anything to be found in the novel. In a brash book called The New Journalism (1973), Mr. Wolfe effectively buried the novel as irrelevant to our needs, and pronounced himself and other like-minded votaries of the New Journalism the right and inevitable heirs to the tradition that had once, long ago, been seen to reside in the novel. The death of the novel—or rather, the death of its status, which for Tom Wolfe is always a fate worse than death—was indeed pronounced with a good deal of glee, and all sorts of wondrous nonaction epics were confidently predicted to take the place of this once beloved but now deceased and despised fictional genre.
It never happened, of course. Lots and lots of these new-style nonfiction works poured from the press, to be sure, but more often than not they had more to tell us about the vainglorious psyches of the writers who produced them than about the events they were purporting to illuminate. And the self-indulgent prose of the New Journalism turned out to be far too mannered and intrusive to serve as a vehicle for anything but the narcissistic ululations of the writers themselves. The New Journalism did, unquestionably, exert an immense influence—but on journalism, not on literature, and its effect on journalism was to corrupt it. You can see the result in every “lifestyle” feature that now dominates our daily newspapers from coast co coast.
Meanwhile, novels continued to be written, and to be read.
Meanwhile, novels continued to be written, and to be read. Many were even bestsellers, whose authors were paid huge sums of money. True, they weren’t very often good novels. But they were novels, all the same, and they commanded a huge public. So the theory of the New Journalism had to be reconsidered. Maybe the novel wasn’t entirely dead, after all. Maybe a certain kind of novel could still be written—a certain kind of old novel.
It was to this task that our leading apologist of the New Journalism set himself in writing The Bonfire of the Vanities, and, as all the world knows, it was a great success. Not exactly a literary success, but a great success where it counted—in the market. To some readers, alas, Bonfire was an elaborate recycling of the New Journalism in fictional dress. But this hardly mattered. It was a novel of a sort—the sort that had been dominating the best-seller lists for as long as anyone could remember. A realistic novel, complete with brand-name shoes and brand-name characters, and it proved to be a howling success.
Mere success, however, has never been enough for Tom Wolfe. Just like the avant-garde art critics he made a point of ridiculing in The Painted Word, Mr. Wolfe has to feel that he is working under the mandate of Heaven—that history, in other words, is on his side in all of his endeavors. He is thus a man in need of a theory, and in the manifesto he recently published in Harper’s magazine under the title “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” he has given us one. It is a pretty sad, threadbare theory, but it is undoubtedly a theory. Its point is that realism—the realism of Sinclair Lewis, Pearl Buck, and John Steinbeck—is a literary idea whose time has come again. The main argument in its favor seems to be that all of these novelists won the Nobel Prize. (Which is why, perhaps, our greatest realist, Theodore Dreiser, is nowhere mentioned—no Nobel.) Mr. Wolfe does include William Faulkner on his roster of realist writers, but this is mere persiflage. If As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury can be said to be realist novels, then Tolstoy can be said to be a minimalist and Balzac a writer of fairy tales. No, Lewis and Steinbeck are more what Mr. Wolfe has in mind—and he’s right. The Bonfire of the Vanities is a politically inverted Grapes of Wrath. If that is the standard Mr. Wolfe aspired to in Bonfire, he can confidently be said to have met it.
But all of this has little or nothing to do with the future of literature. If the novel really has fallen on hard times—and who will deny that it has?—neither Sinclair Lewis nor John Steinbeck nor Tom Wolfe is going to save it. Mr. Wolfe was wrong about the New Journalism, and he is wrong again in believing that a tricked-up fictional version of it is going to save our literary souls. It is simply going to make its practitioners a lot of money, and leave the problems of contemporary literature untouched.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 5, on page 3
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