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Issue 100

Shock of the New

One of most iconic and controversial writers of the past 40 years, Tom Wolfe discusses writing, art and intellectual fashion

BY Michael Bracewell in Interviews | 15 MAY 06

Tom Wolfe is one of most iconic and controversial writers of the past 40 years. Since the publication in Esquire magazine in 1965 of his feature on the American custom car scene, ‘The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby’, Tom Wolfe has written some of the most influential cultural and social studies of the last 40 years. These include ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’ (1968), ‘Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers’ (1970), ‘The Painted Word’ (1975), ‘The Right Stuff’ (1979), ‘From Bauhaus to Our House’ (1981) and ‘Hooking Up’ (2000). Wolfe’s first novel, The Bonfire of The Vanities (1987), was both a huge international commercial success and a bravura assertion of his belief that the modern novel needed to return, by way of traditional journalistic reporting skills, to the naturalistic realism of Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy and Honoré de Balzac. This was followed in 1998 by a second novel, A Man In Full, the first American printing of which, in hard cover alone, ran to 1.2 million copies. (There were seven subsequent editions of 25,000 copies each.) In 2003 Wolfe published a third novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, concerning the sexual politics of the contemporary American university campus.

Michael Bracewell met Wolfe at the George V Hotel in Paris to discuss writing, art and intellectual fashion.

Michael Bracewell  What was the subject of your doctorate at Yale? 

Tom Wolfe  It was in American Studies, which was created at Yale with the idea of bringing the concepts of economics and sociology into the writing of history. So this made the subject ‘America’. Also, I think ill-advisedly, it brought in the subject of literature, the supposition being that great literature reflects the society in which it is written – which I personally think is a very shaky assumption. I mean, think of literature today. What does it tell us about society? Almost nothing! Because writers now make it a point of honour to write only psychological novels or experimental novels, which, if they have any reality at all, have to do with bad marriage or bad family or some kind of twisted love. But the idea that any of this could be said to reflect society! It’s like contemporary art: the notion that any prestigious art since 1900 has reflected anything in the real world is absolute nonsense.

MB You have written that the modern novel is dying of anorexia – a need for substance. Do you still believe this to be the case?

TW  It needs content. I don’t claim to have catholic knowledge of what’s going on in the novel in English, but the kind of thing Jonathan Franzen did in the United States with his novel The Corrections (2001) was a step in the right direction. Also I admire the work of Richard Price, who has made a point of doing what I like to see done, which is going out to research into what for him was an absolutely new world of drug dealers and petty criminals in Union City, New Jersey.

MB  Throughout your own writings you have used language in a wholly new way – part stream of consciousness, part naturalism and part linguistic cartoon – almost a literary equivalent of pop art. How did you acquire your distinctive prose style?

TW  There was this one piece I wrote for Esquire on customized automobiles. I already considered myself a very flashy newspaper writer – as newspaper writers went. But I had never even done a magazine piece at that point. So I blocked, and they said, ‘Well, just turn in your notes, and we’ll get a competent writer to put them into some sort of shape’. So with a heavy heart I sat down and just wrote it like a letter, like a memo to this particular editor. I was up all night writing it and brought it over to their office before they’d even opened. Then I was woken up at about four o’clock in the afternoon by this editor saying, ‘We’re running your memo – we’re just taking the salutation off the top’. Now that really did show me that you could cut loose! I was reasonably creative as a newspaper writer, but this was like, hey, you can get away with anything! I then started doing all sorts of things with the writing to try to bring alive the emotions of situations and gradually to start shaping them like short stories, going from scene to scene.

MB  Who were your literary influences?

TW  I was influenced by some early Soviet writers, whose books I had come across by accident in the stacks at the Yale library. At that time only the graduate students could roam the stacks of the library, which was marvellous. I think most of us do most of our reading when we’re still in school. And so I came upon these writers known as the Brothers Serapian – Serapian being a character in The Tales of Hoffmann, a hermit. They were much influenced by French Symbolism – Mallarmé and Rimbaud – which is rather precious stuff; the theory being that all this ‘meaning’ only gets in the way and you have to create wafts of sensibility, which leads to a lot of straining for effects. But the Brothers Serapian were writing about the Soviet Revolution and its aftermath, so we’re going back to the early 1920s. Now the cross-hatching of Symbolism, this very precious form and style, and these gritty facts of the Russian Revolution, I found absolutely entrancing. The best-known of the group was Yevgeny Zamyatin, who wrote this marvellous novel, We (1921), which George Orwell, whom I also admire a lot, stole body and soul to write 1984 (1948). I’m surprised that nobody’s ever commented on this. I mean, Orwell didn’t take an idea; he took an entire plot! But that’s OK, they’re both great books. So if you ever read We, you can see a lot of things, stylistically, that I picked up. A lot of sudden breaking-off of thoughts with a dash – which I am convinced is more or less the way people think. We think in words, but we don’t think in whole sentences.

MB  You manage to move the authorial voice from an individual character’s internal consciousness and then back into descriptive view of their surroundings: for instance, your descriptions in your essay ‘Radical Chic’ (1970) of the paranoia over etiquette at the Bernsteins’ party for the Black Panthers.

TW  It’s what I call ‘the downstage voice’. Since I can’t, in most cases, really get inside the minds of these people but at the same time don’t want to lose the feeling that you are inside the characters, but it also has to be truthful, I will adopt their voice, their intonations. In ‘Radical Chic’ I was describing the preciousness of their language and society. I knew that more and more well-to-do liberals were very embarrassed by having black servants. Felicia Bernstein grew up in Chile – her father worked for a smelting and refining company in Santiago – and so she had a lot of links with Latin America and she would hire light-skinned Latins as servants. And so other people who knew her would call her up and ask if she could find them some light-skinned Latin servants. And it became known as ‘The Spic and Span Employment Agency’, and, as I said in ‘Radical Chic’, ‘with an easy-going ethnic humour of course’. Also, when I wrote about stock car racing, the narrative would be written in the intonations, the voices, of these country people, because it’s an easy way of creating the notion that you are with these people. Then if you suddenly break off and write a perfectly proper narrative historical style, you’ve broken the spell and changed the mood. All of that came to me after I had done the piece on customized cars, ‘The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby’. Incidentally, on that same topic of the authorial voice, ‘Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers’ [the companion essay to ‘Radical Chic’], which is about black protest groups in California during the Poverty Program, is written in their voice, the voice of the protesters. So that in ‘Radical Chic’ you hear the somewhat precious, Upper East Side, New York society voice, and in ‘Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers’ you hear a street voice. If nobody gets it, I like to point out the difference in the two approaches! But ‘Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers’ is less about politics than the fact that black protest groups realized the only way to get money out of the Poverty Program was to act like maniacs.

MB  To what extent were your long essays on art and architecture ‘The Painted Word’ and ‘From Bauhaus to Our House’ intended to dismantle the accepted models of cultural taste-making? The observations in both, regarding the ravenous relationship between the art world and social status, seem even more true now than they did 25 or 30 years ago.

TW  ‘The Painted Word’ is about intellectual fashion, as is ‘From Bauhaus to Our House’. As regards the latter, it suddenly struck me that architects are able to change the styles of buildings that today can cost over a billion dollars, simply by seeming absolutely certain about what they want done. And the corporations cower from this certainty! I think it’s marvellous. They have no political apparatus behind them; they have no money behind them; they are just certain about the way it should be. And so if they’re going to make an addition to an old building, they will persuade the corporate owners that the only way to do it is to add a glass and steel box. And they seem so absolutely confident about it that it makes the businessmen doubt their own senses. In the case of CBS, for example, one of the three major television networks in America, they had Eero Saarinen design a very modern building – in fact one of the better modern buildings – and then appointed a woman named Florence Knoll, the head of a very modern, very expensive, furniture design company, to design the interior. And they would not allow any variation! If somebody brought in a pot of flowers, they wouldn’t confiscate them or throw them away, they’d have someone come in and cut the flowers off at pot level, and just leave them there. So pretty soon it became obvious that it was pointless trying to bring such things in. But in the office of the head of CBS, William Paley, it was all 18th-century antiques! Including the panelling – all British – with marvellously expensive bergeres, and so forth. He wasn’t going to have any of it! I actually find that encouraging, that people just with ideas – like these architects – can influence the spending of billions of dollars.

MB  In the essay that you wrote in 1976 for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, ‘Chester Gould versus Roy Lichtenstein’, you make the very interesting point that commercial artisan craft can be more sophisticated, artistically, than the work of a lot of fine artists that is based on similar subject matter and techniques.

TW  That was all part of the general theme of ‘The Painted Word’. And that brought on the most rabid, angry response that I’ve ever got for anything. I define the ‘art world’ as 3,000 people in America, and 10,000 people in the world. Of the ones in America, only 300 of the 3,000 do not live in the New York metropolitan area. And the ones in New York determine all the prestigious taste in art. As a result, artists who wanted prestige would treat illustration, comic books, the famous Brillo boxes, as if they were objects found on Easter Island. As in: ‘You don’t exactly know how they got there, but they’re interesting – they must be religious in nature.’ And it became considered primitive material. In the case of the essay you mention, Chester Gould, the illustrator who created Dick Tracy, was a very sophisticated artist. He understood the limits of that particular graphic process of printing comics. If you look at the chiaroscuro in the Tracy comic strips, it’s brilliant! And it hadn’t been done before, as far as I know. Also some of the colouring - Dick Tracy wore a yellow hat; well, nobody has ever worn a yellow hat! So how could this be treated as primitive? He had more skill than Roy Lichtenstein. There is a line I love in Tom Stoppard’s play Artist Descending a Staircase (1988), when one of the characters says, ‘Imagination without skill gives us modern art’. And I think it’s quite true. Someone like de Kooning couldn’t draw a cat on a fence; but he was considered to have true genius because he painted like a child – a very young child, I’d say.

MB  In your essay ‘The Luther of Columbus Circle’ (1964) you describe the ‘Gallery of Modern Art’ set up by G. Huntington Hartford II, a multi-millionaire, to demand a renaissance in purely representational art. Are you in sympathy with his views?

TW  As a matter of fact, I have recently been very much concerned with this whole subject. It looks like the Gallery of Modern Art that Hartford established at Two Columbus Circle is going to be torn down. I’ve been part of the Gideon’s Army that’s been trying to save it, and we’re going to be unsuccessful – it will come down. The museum that Hartford set up [in 1960] only lasted for five years. Hartford was so rich and so remote that he had no concept of networking or anything like that. He could never get donors to come in with him to support that museum. So after five years he simply couldn’t afford to keep it going. Incidentally, he’s still alive; I spoke with him two months ago. He’s 94; he lives in the Bahamas. He’s not in good health, but he’s with us, and concerned about things. Anyway, I always felt that that building was a step forward for modern architecture. Edward Durell Stone, the architect, had been the most famous American modern architect in the 1920s and ’30s. He had built the first International Style house on the East Coast – that’s how much of an orthodox Modernist he was. But after World War II he decided, wait a minute! Architecture is running on the principle of being ‘anti-bourgeois’ – this is supposed to be architecture for workers. Consequently you don’t use any rich materials like marble, and certainly not walnut or ebony panelling in the interiors. That’s all bourgeois luxury. Even carpets are bourgeois, and easy chairs! Too plush! So you start having this practically unusable modern furniture, such as the Barcelona chair [by Mies van der Rohe]. So Stone says, what is it with all this anti-bourgeois stuff? We’re building monuments to capitalism in New York! Come on! So without adding exterior decoration, he designed the entire building for Hartford in a sculptural form. The whole façade is a concave curve; it’s the first building of any size to be built that way. It’s white marble, like an enormous piece of modern sculpture. On the interior, it was panelled in walnut and ebony; and he added plush red and gold carpets and many comfortable easy chairs – he wanted to create the atmosphere of the private home of a very wealthy person. And I consider this a brilliant step forward for the modern style. Well, of course, it was derided beyond belief, because it departed from the orthodoxy of the International Style. Anyway it turns out that Hartford, who I’m not claiming as a genius, was in fact ahead of his time in many things. Today in the US all the young art students are painting representational subjects. Abstract Expressionism, abstract art in general, is finished in terms of popularity among young artists who want to be cool. Now finally the purpose of Hartford’s museum seems to be acceptable; because he was trying to say, ‘There’s modern art, but if it is not representational it’s simply wallpaper.’ Which is a pretty good definition of non-representational painting.

MB  At the end of your most recent novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, there seems to be the suggestion that Charlotte, having strayed from her academic promise in the desire to be a popular student, and consequently taken a dip in the social mire, is now beyond redemption. Is that the case?

TW  I saw three possible endings to the book, and I think that I ended it with the most degrading of the three possibilities. One possibility was that Charlotte would become a drunken slut; a totally ‘fallen woman’, as they used to say. Another was that she would suddenly realize the error of her ways and start a campus movement to help others from falling as she had. And the last was that she would give in to the prevailing social pressures, and I thought that was the worst thing of all. At least if she was a ruined woman, she would be an object lesson to others. As it turns out, she’s content to be known as an athlete’s girlfriend, even though she obviously doesn’t like the sport and she’s not really in love with the guy. But he gives her a lot of status.

MB  It seems fair to say that there is a gathering darkness of outlook in your fiction. Wasn’t it Alexander Pope, at the end of The Dunciad (1728), who observed ‘universal darkness’ burying all? Do you feel despairing when you look across contemporary society?

TW  No, not at all. When I wrote The Bonfire of the Vanities people said this was an attack on the greed and political and financial corruption of New York. Whereas in my mind, I was in awe of the people I was writing about – ‘Look at that one! Look how that one lives, I mean, my God! It’s amazing!’

MB  Has there been a significant rise of the political right in America, do you think?

TW  I don’t think there has been a rise of the American right or of the American left, come to that. In my mind the United States government is so stable it’s like a train on a track. And there’s all these people on the left yelling at it and all these people on the right yelling at it, and the people of the right are beginning to yell more and more now, about the seeming failure of the war in Iraq. But they can yell all they want, as the train just keeps going down the track. It can’t decide to go some place else. I remember so well when Ronald Reagan came to power, he was going to get rid of the Department of Education, and the government was going to be slimmed down until it was like the Army special forces. And nothing happened. In the same manner Bill Clinton, when he came to power, was going to create socialized medicine – a National Health Service, as you have it in Britain. And that never happened either. The train just kept plodding away. It’s probably a good thing that there are only two political parties in America; because it works so well – checks and balances, checks and balances. Even in the 1960s, when there really was a radical movement, there was absolutely no danger of anything actually happening. It was mostly theatre – theatre by people who didn’t want to be drafted into the military. And then one day, it was suddenly all over. When it was obvious that the draft was no longer going to be enforced, the whole radical movement vanished – it was in the autumn of 1970. And the train just kept on going. 

Michael Bracewell is a writer based in the UK. His most recent book, The Space Between: Selected Writings on Art, is published by Ridinghouse, London.