Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

Should Tom Wolfe Still Hate The New Yorker?

Should Tom Wolfe Still Hate <i>The New Yorker</i>?
Tom Wolfe 13 72

In 1963, Tom Wolfe argued that The New Yorker was a dull magazine that existed to make suburban Americans (particularly women) feel as intellectually sound as their contre-personnes in France. His piece, a two-part, quasi-satire, written in Wolfe’s self-proclaimed “hyberbolic style” and entitled “Tiny Mummies!” was ostensibly a profile of the magazine’s editor William Shawn. In reality, it made fun of everything about The New Yorker, from its byzantine editing process to its syntactically-confused sentences to the dancing at its kind of awkward fortieth birthday party, which Wolfe reported on by walking into the function despite the fact that it was invite-only.

The result of his effort was a not-insignificant national literary controversy. Among the luminaries who yelled at him were J.D. Salinger, E.B. White, and Walter Lippmann, who wrote that Wolfe was an “incompetent ass.” Lengthy rebuttals were written, and even the White House called to complain—How little of you to criticize . . . The New Yorker!—(sorry, couldn’t resist)—only to be asked, by editor Clay Felker, to write down its grievances and submit them for publication in New York magazine, which had run Wolfe’s piece.

At the time, New York was the Sunday supplement to the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune­­, so if you are so inclined, you may choose to read Felker’s tongue-in-cheek response as epitomizing the stylistic contrast between the two magazines that continues to this day: the elegant, refined, and slightly uptight New Yorker versus the chic-populism (and sarcastic web headlines) of New York. And although New York’s success can be traced to Wolfe’s piece (which helped double the magazine’s ad space), the real winner in the controversy was neither of the institutions, but the writer himself, Tom Wolfe.

After his New Yorker takedown, Wolfe embarked on a career as an underdog journalist that infiltrated and attacked a group or an institution for which he held a certain degree of social contempt—bankers, hedge fund managers, private college jocks, debt-riddled businessmen, historic landmark preservationists (oddly enough), and literary elitists. Of all, the last cohort is the most relevant, because part of Wolfe’s legacy will be the essay-writing fisticuffs he engaged in with John Updike, who Wolfe mentioned briefly but disparagingly in the original “Tiny Mummies!” article.

So go with me, please, to 1998, when Wolfe published his second novel, A Man in Full, eleven years in the making, for which he received a National Book Award nomination. Updike honored the novel with a scathing review (in The New Yorker, of course), writing that the novel amounted to “entertainment, not literature, even literature in a modest aspirant form.” Wolfe stayed silent, but once Norman Mailer (writing in the New York Review of Books) and John Irving (speaking on a Canadian talk-show) joined in the bashing, Wolfe responded by referring to Mailer and Updike as “two old piles of bones,” and then he wrote a boisterous rebuttal, the essay “My Three Stooges,” suggesting that the three writers were jealous of the attention he was receiving, before accusing them of arrogantly creating a divide between the “us” (great literary tradition upholders) and the “them” (people who write fiction that is popular).

The insults flung across the pages helped obscure what most frustrated Wolfe: that, in his unequivocal estimation, the sanctioning body of U.S. literature was out of touch with its constituency. Back in 1989, Wolfe had published a manifesto in Harper’s entitled “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” in which he argued that fiction writers, lulled to laziness by the tricky (and often self-aggrandizing) hijinks of the postmodern novel, needed to save The Novel by writing stories in the style of high social realism, a la 19th century giants Dickens, Balzac, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. To do this, they would need to act as journalists, acquiring information about their world and infusing it into their plots, such as Wolfe himself had done two years earlier with Bonfire of the Vanities. Readers didn’t want to be confused, he stated. They wanted to read about world they recognized; they wanted reality; and, moreover, there would be more of them (readers) if only the novelists could deliver these types of realist stories to them.

The argument is as valid (three years later, MTV broadcasted The Real World, launching the modern reality TV show) as it is suspect (i.e. Jonathan Franzen pointing out how Wolfe conveniently ignored all the excellent social realism novels written during the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s), but what is most significant is that the nation’s most famous magazine journalist-turned-novelist was crusading against the elite body of literary tradition. Put in those terms—and toss in the facts that, by this point, Wolfe was rich, was always appearing in public in a white suit, was residing in an expensive building on the Upper East Side amongst the Masters of the Universes, and was a best-selling social realist novelist—the whole saga-feud seems as absurd as Sherman McCoy’s complaint that a $980,000-a-year income (in the mid-‘80s) is unsubstantial.

For if we are to perceive Wolfe as a hero of sorts, both for his significant contributions to journalism (earned by the doggedness of his reporting and his insistence on communicating his subjects’ psychological motivations via clear wording) and his zero-sum fight against the Literary Establishment (Wolfe was rejected by the American Academy of Arts and Letters; if he gets in, he wins, and Updike et al lose), then we must also point out his tragic flaw: his obsession with status. To Wolfe, the nuance of society, the balance of the universe hinge upon the human desire for status. Status is tethered to perception, of course, so Wolfe believes, essentially, that people are primarily, if not solely, motivated by the compulsion—the need­—to be perceived by others as having a lot of stuff that a trend-setter group has decided marks you as hip, cool, important, whatever . . . which explains why Wolfe’s stories, fiction and nonfiction, are painstakingly filled with details about clothes and material possessions and the interior thoughts of those who make all their decisions in hopes of acquiring clothes and material possessions.

The status explanation of human behavior is obviously partially true (who hasn’t noticed, at least once in their life, that they have more or less of something than someone else and that this makes them different and affects their emotions and their motivations?), but it is also absurd, for it leads someone as smart as Wolfe (who holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale) to denounce the thin-slicing of academia in one thought (e.g. his essay on the literary theory of deconstruction) but declare in another that hyper social realism is the only true form of art, like when he wondered why everyone is at the MoMA fixated with the art of that lousy draftsman Picasso when, over on the west side of Manhattan, at Madison Square Garden, there is nightly material ripe for artists in the form of a “sea of 97% white faces” staring at “gigantic figures . . . fabulous black athletes.” Curiously—to connect a few dots—it was Franz Kafka who made the best case for Picasso by once remarking to a friend that he (Pablo) “registers the deformities which have not yet penetrated our consciousness” . . . and was John Updike who wrote the introduction to Kafka’s Complete Stories . . . and was Tom Wolfe who dismissed Franz Kafka in Harper’s . . . and—while we’re were, and just for the hell of it—was Tom Wolfe who forgot that John Updike was a realist . . .

And on and on into the vortex we go, grabbing onto the contradictions and inconsistencies of writers we always, always read. In 2006, in the forward to a new paperback edition of Infinite JestDave Eggers wrote that such “literary dustups” were pointless (especially in time of war) and that we should all just chill out and be content with, say, enjoying Franzen’s realism during the daylight hours and wrestling with William Gaddis’s weird stuff at night. Yes, of course, I agree, absolutely—what’s sillier than older white U.S. males arguing via essays?—but Eggers was being coy, too, I’m sure, because it’s hard for me to believe he wasn’t glued to the page during Franzen vs. Marcus, realism vs. experimentalism, in the mid-aughts.

The original (and far less sexy) title of the little post you’ve been reading was “Tom Wolfe vs. The New Yorker: Everyone Wins.” “Everyone” didn’t mean just Wolfe, New York, and The New Yorker; it extended to us, the readers, winners as well, the logic of which goes like this: someone tells a story—true, based on truth, or completely concocted out of the insanity of imagination—we read it, we like it, and then we wait for someone else to tell a story we like just as much but for vastly different reasons, and then we wait for those two storytellers to attack each other for telling stories the wrong way so that we can keep reading the attacks, entertained, entertained, entertained, wondering what was so brilliant about the story that sparked it all.

This all came to mind when, over my winter vacation, I read two brilliant articles in The New Yorker, one about North Korea, the other about Scientology. Both provided the type of meta experience I crave from nonfiction: as I was reading—slowly, because articles this in-depth, this engaging must be devoured with patience—I began to think: This cannot be true, this is somehow true, this is true, this happens, this is insane, this is stuff real humans believe, this is stuff that has happened to real people on this planet . . .

Over the last week, I’ve told every person I know who enjoys reading to read them. Now, I am telling you: read these articles, for their similarities, their relevance, their ability to wrap you inside a fictional world that is real. Anyway, the articles:

  • “Letter From Korea: Alone In the Dark,” by Philip Gourevitch, 2003. When Kim Jong-il died last year, I found myself scrambling to learn about his regime. I knew the basics—that North Korea is socialist country with suffering people and is difficult to negotiate with because of its nuclear weapons—but I had no idea how this came to be. I needed a history lesson. Gourevitch starts the story in 1866, with the Korean defeat of a U.S. vessel and the subsequent fudging of Korean military records, and takes us through the country’s contentious relationship with Japan, the splitting along the Thirty-Eighth Parallel, and the famine of the ‘90s. The article is long (over 20 pages when printed) but it reads like a novel, with characters helping to explain the North Korean national character, and reaches denouement when Gourevitch gets around to interviewing Shin Sang-Ok, the film director kidnapped by Jong-il for the purposes of satisfying the dictator’s cinematic craving. At this point, the cloak covering Jong-il is lifted, and we are left to view his regime the way we view the final scene of 1984. North Korea—what a fascinating, despicable country.
  • “The Apostate: Paul Haggis vs. the Church of Scientology,” by Lawrence Wright, 2011. In a novella-like 25,000 words, nearly twice the length of the North Korea article, Wright chronicles how Haggis, the famous Hollywood writer/director, left the Church of Scientology after it refused to actively and totally renounce its support of an anti-gay marriage bill in California. To do so, Wright delves into the history of Scientology and its celebrity culture, relying on interviews of current Scientologists and defectors to illuminate the striking discord between what Scientologists believe themselves and what they tell us to believe about themselves. In the end, we are left with a portrait of a cult purporting to be a religion. Or, in the words of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s great-grandson, the slam poet Jamie DeWolf, “Scientology is the most brilliantly engineered pyramid scam I’ve ever seen.” (The quote’s not in the article; it comes, as does all good stuff, from Wikipedia.)

The two articles are dated in terms of publication, but they are relevant right now. Kim Jong-il’s son, about whom we know very little, has taken over as leader of North Korea; and Scientology is like the 1%—very few members (about 25,000 in the U.S.) with a disproportionate influence, thanks to its popularity among Hollywood celebrities. The articles are also similar to one another. Contextually, they are devoted to exposing powerful institutions. Stylistically, they are crafted out of narratives that divulge information; they include interviews and very specific details that make the real feel realer. They are, as mentioned, exceptionally long, especially for magazine pieces. What I’m trying to get at is that they fit the exact type of mold of the pieces that Tom Wolfe would write, except that they have little, if anything, to do with status, and that they appeared in The New Yorker.