Tom Wolfe, the great conquistador of New Journalism who died last week at the age of 88, had a problem with modern fiction. For the most part, he thought it stunk. To his way of thinking, all the American novelists of the later 20th century were too stuck in their abstracted heads. That was why he blowtorched the literary establishment with the 1989 Harper’s essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.”
In it, he issued a call for a return to the great reported fiction of the 19th century, in the mold of Dickens and Zola:
Emerson said that every person has a great autobiography to write, if only he understands what is truly his own unique experience. But he didn’t say every person had two great autobiographies to write. Dickens, Dostoyevski, Balzac, Zola, and Sinclair Lewis assumed that the novelist had to go beyond his personal experience and head out into society as a reporter. Zola called it documentation, and his documenting expeditions to the slums, the coal mines, the races, the folies, department stores, wholesale food markets, newspaper offices, barnyards, railroad yards, and engine decks, notebook and pen in hand, became legendary…
Wolfe followed that rule for his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, using the same tools of close observation that served his nonfiction so well. Later novels like A Man in Full suffered from his preconceived notions overtaking what he saw on the ground.
But still, Wolfe’s call to get out into the tumult of life is as necessary as ever. You can only learn so much from your desk.