Saturday 23 March 2019

Tom Wolfe 1930 - 2018: ‘You can’t make this stuff up’ – the man who defined new journalism

Writer Tom Wolfe. Photo: REUTERS
Writer Tom Wolfe. Photo: REUTERS Newsdesk Newsdesk

Tom Wolfe, the white-suited wizard of 'New Journalism' who exuberantly chronicled American culture from the Merry Pranksters through the space race before turning his satiric wit to such novels as 'The Bonfire of the Vanities' and 'A Man in Full,' has died aged 88.

Wolfe's literary agent, Lynn Nesbit, said he died of an infection on Monday in a New York City hospital.

An acolyte of French novelist Emile Zola and other authors of "realistic" fiction, the stylishly-attired Wolfe was an American maverick who insisted the only way to tell a great story was to go out and report it. Along with Gay Talese, Truman Capote and Nora Ephron, he helped demonstrate that journalism could offer the kinds of literary pleasure found in books.

His hyperbolic work was a gleeful fusillade of exclamation marks, italics and improbable words. An ingenious phrase-maker, he branded such terms as "radical chic" for rich liberals' fascination with revolutionaries, and the "Me" generation of self-absorbed baby-boomers of the 1970s.

Wolfe was both a literary upstart, sneering at the perceived stuffiness of the publishing establishment, and an old-school gentleman who went to the best schools and, when attending promotional luncheons with fellow authors, would make a point of reading their latest work.

He scorned the reluctance of American writers to confront social issues and warned that self-absorption and Masters programmes would kill the novel. He was astonished no author of his generation had written a sweeping 19th century style novel about contemporary New York City, and ended up writing one himself, 'The Bonfire of the Vanities'.

His work broke countless rules but was grounded in old-school journalism, in an obsessive attention to detail that began with his first reporting job. "Nothing fuels the imagination more than real facts do," Wolfe said in 1999. "As the saying goes, 'You can't make this stuff up.'"

Wolfe's interests were vast, but his narratives had a common theme. Whether sending up the New York art world or hanging out with acid heads, Wolfe presented man as a status-seeking animal, concerned above all about the opinion of one's peers. Wolfe himself dressed for company - his trademark a pale three-piece suit, high shirt collar, two-tone shoes and a silk tie. And he acknowledged he cared very much about his reputation.

Wolfe began his journalism career as a small-town reporter in 1957. But it wasn't until the mid-1960s, while a magazine writer for 'New York' and 'Esquire', that his work made him a national trendsetter. As Wolfe helped define it, the 'new journalism' combined the impact of a novel, analysis of the best essays and factual foundation of hard reporting.

He had many detractors, including fellow writers Norman Mailer and John Updike and the critic James Wood, who panned Wolfe's "big subjects, big people, and yards of flapping exaggeration".

But his fans included millions of readers, literary critics and fellow authors.

Irish Independent

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