Writer’s Desk: Get Out There

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.

TV Room: ‘Fahrenheit 451’

Michael B. Jordan in ‘Fahrenheit 451’ (HBO)

Indie director Ramin Bahrani (Goodbye Solo, 99 Homes) takes a detour into the land of splashy classic literature adaptations with his take on the great Fahrenheit 451, which premieres on HBO this Saturday.

My review is at The Playlist:

There’s a lot left out in this noisy and luridly shot but thin adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel. A prescient fable about the death of the imagination and individuality in the postwar war, it imagines a world where the houses have all been fireproofed and firemen race through nighttime streets looking for books to burn..

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Stay Out of Fashion

Just weeks before his assassination, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech at Amherst College in which he talked eloquently about the role of the artist in society:

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. And as Mr. MacLeish once remarked of poets, there is nothing worse for our trade than to be in style…

So be free and let your writing take you where it wants to go, whether you think it’ll sell or not. As Kennedy said elsewhere in the speech, that’s your duty as an artist. Society depends on you.

Reader’s Corner: Box of Norman Mailer

My article on the new box set, Norman Mailer: The Sixties, is at The Millions:

At nearly 1,400 pages packed into two volumes, it’s all too much at once, like a supercut of Mailer’s TV appearances, those bright dark eyes and halo hair, his machine-gun sentences snapped out one after the other until the white flag is waved….

And just for kicks, here’s Mailer and Gore Vidal going at it on the Dick Cavett Show—the last time a talk show guest could talk about The New York Review of Books and not get laughed off the set:

Writer’s Desk: Get It Right

They say writers should keep it basic. Don’t do too much. Stay in your lane. That’s good advice, until it’s not.

Jack Kerouac once wrote:

One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.

This from one of America’s most industrious creators of run-on sentences. But still, Kerouac knew to keep looking, to seek simplicity in his work. Just because he never quite got there doesn’t mean the trip wasn’t worth it.

Writer’s Desk: Philip Glass Drove a Cab

If you’re like most writers, you know that it almost never pays the bills. (The other writers know this, too, they just haven’t admitted it yet.) That means you need to keep working while writing. How do you do both? As usual, it’s whatever works for you. But flexibility is key.

Take composer Philip Glass. He had a couple day jobs that kept the lights on until he was in his 40s. He did some contracting work like plumbing and also building kitchens and putting in heating in SoHo lofts.

An even better fit, though, seemed to be his time as a cabbie. This is what he told Lolade Fadulu:

I would pick up a car, usually around 5 o’clock in the afternoon, and I would drive till one or two in the morning, and I would get up early in the morning, actually to take my kids to school, because I had kids growing up in New York at the time. And sometimes I would stay up all through the night, write music, then take the kids to school. Then I would go to sleep around 8 or 9 o’clock and I would wake up around 4 o’clock and go back to the garage or wherever I was going. So I could combine a workday and a regular writing schedule at the same time.

It seems like there should be a good minimalist opera in him about driving the city at night. Or plumbing. Time will tell.

Reader’s Corner: Investigating Your Father

In All the Answers, Michael Kupperman tells the story of the strange childhood of his father, a brilliant professor who in his youth starred on a hugely popular wartime radio show called Quiz Kids. It’s an engrossing and emotional personal history in which Kupperman discovers more about his reticent father on the Internet than through living with him.

My interview with Kupperman is in the current Publisher’s Weekly.