Michael Lewis, New York Times, November 8, 1998.
In the Norton Simon Museum, in Pasadena, Calif., there hangs a self-portrait of the 18th-century French painter Maurice Quentin de La Tour. The artist wears an expression of intense self-satisfaction and the foppish attire of the flaneur. Just below him is a note from the curators that tells you who he was and why he looks so pleased with himself. Unlike most academy painters of his day, the note explains, Quentin de La Tour chose to work in pastels rather than oils. Pastels were widely dismissed as superficial by the oil painters, but the effects this artist achieved were so powerful that the oil men were forced to take notice. And with each new pastel the oil painters became more fearful that Maurice Quentin de La Tour would put them all out of business.
Reading the note, I couldn’t help thinking of Tom Wolfe. Wolfe has spent the better part of 35 years sketching America with pastels. Time and again his work has achieved effects as impressive as those of oil-based prose. In the early part of his career he was treated by serious literary people as an annoying distraction. But then he went deep in 1987, with his first novel, ”The Bonfire of the Vanities,” and he wrote a flamboyant end zone jig of an essay in Harper’s Magazine, in which he argued that his sort of novel writing was the best sort of novel writing. At that point Wolfe ceased to be merely annoying. He became a public nuisance…
New York Times