The Flap Over Tom Wolfe: How Real Is The Retreat From Realism?

Robert Towers, New York Times, January 28, 1990.

I cannot offhand recall an article in a small magazine making a bigger splash in the literary pool than Tom Wolfe’s manifesto, ”Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” in the November 1989 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Mr. Wolfe, an old hand at self-publicizing, has been busy widening the ripple effect by lecturing to full houses in places as disparate as Columbia University and the Century Club in New York City; he has appeared on ABC News’s ”Nightline” in his ice-cream suit and high-necked shirt, his demeanor, as always, bland and gentlemanly, to spar tangentially with Margaret Atwood while taking some gratuitous swipes at university writing programs. For its February issue, Harper’s solicited responses from Philip Roth, Walker Percy and other novelists. And on Feb. 5, Lewis H. Lapham, the editor of Harper’s, will moderate a discussion between Mary Gordon and Mr. Wolfe on Mr. Lapham’s public television program, ”Bookmark.”

What has created such a sensation? Mr. Wolfe’s piece has irritated some readers and amused others by the extraordinary complacency with which the author holds up his own ”Bonfire of the Vanities” as the perfect exemplar of everything that he advocates in fiction. But self-congratulation apart, Mr. Wolfe, writing out of the current literary Zeitgeist, has a serious point to make about the failure of contemporary novelists to write so-called big novels that grapple exuberantly with the ”rude beast” of end-of-the-century America, ”to head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping Baroque country of ours and reclaim it as literary property.”

As it happens, in November 1988 I delivered a University Lecture at Columbia deploring the tendency of so many young writers to concentrate on the small, the personal and the domestic while shrinking from the public, political and intellectual aspects of our collective life. I advocated a return to ”large-audience” fiction instead of what I called ”closet” fiction, doomed to be read only by fellow writers and academics. I urged an ambitious realism, with attention to its historical, narrative and documentary functions as one of the most promising avenues of escape from the labyrinth of fictional dead ends. My lecture concluded with a section on ”The Bonfire of the Vanities” that, after certain qualifications, praised it for its energy, its variety and its willingness to tear off for its purposes a considerable chunk of public life…

New York Times