A Critic in Full

Carol Ianonne, National Association of Scholars, August 11, 2008.


Iannone: Today is February 28, 2008, and we are privileged to begin a conversation with Mr. Tom Wolfe. I want to start by saying how impressed I was by your novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons. I can’t believe how much of the contemporary university you have captured. How did you get interested in higher education?

Wolfe: Easiest way in the world—all the wacky stories I started hearing! Most of them had to do with coed dorms and political correctness. This must have been about 1990, 1991. The term political correctness was in the air by then, but I had never seen it in print. At the time, I was working on a long novel called A Man in Full. Struggling with it, to be more accurate. More than once I was tempted to throw it under a bus and do a college novel. But I kept slogging away until I finished it. In hardcover it weighed exactly three pounds. Then I headed off to do the research for what became I Am Charlotte Simmons. Stanford was my first stop. I must have visited a dozen colleges across the country after that.

Iannone: I see.

Wolfe: I was amazed from the beginning how little literature there was about contemporary college students and how they actually live. You would have thought somebody would have gone out and exploited the salacious potential of the coed dorm, if nothing else. There were some faculty novels, and a couple of them, David Lodge’s Changing Places and John L’Heureux’s Handmaid of Desire, were pretty funny. A few lonely souls who were so reactionary as still to believe in objective scholarship were decrying political correctness in books like Tenured Radicals and The Diversity Myth. But these were faculty books, too. Full takeouts on undergraduate campus life simply didn’t exist—despite the fact that the coed dorm was a moral earthquake, when you think about it.

National Association of Scholars