TOM WOLFE IS AMERICA’S preeminent observer of decaying elites, chronicling and often forecasting their decline in his journalism and novels. In his 1970 book Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, he exposed the comic decadence of Leonard Bernstein and his friends, an elite so indifferent to its own survival it feted the Black Panthers at its Park Avenue mansions. In his 1975 book The Painted Word and the 1981 companion book From Bauhaus to Our House, he detailed the effete theories dooming America’s art and architecture. He anticipated the decline of a privileged media class in his famous puncturing of the pompous New Yorker under William Shawn — “Tiny Mummies!” — and his 1996 novella “Ambush at Fort Bragg,” which captures the tendentiousness of television magazine show producing, forecast the scandal at CBS involving Mary Mapes and Dan Rather. Executive editor George Neumayr caught up with Wolfe in Southampton, New York, shortly before publication of I Am Charlotte Simmons, Wolfe’s third major novel, to get his observations on today’s tiny mummies.
TAS: It has been a year of fiascoes in the media. What are your thoughts on the condition of journalism?
Tom Wolfe: What I see is that there is less news covered today than there was 75 years ago. Seventy-five years ago there were infinitely more newspapers. There were seven when I first arrived in New York City. This led to real competition. Then along came television news and the local monopolies. Most places don’t have an afternoon paper and if they do chances are they are owned by the people who put out the morning paper.
Television, meanwhile, does very little reporting as a newspaper would understand it. Television reporters aren’t really called reporters. They are called researchers. And that’s really all they are. They aren’t digging up news. When television does dig up news — a big story, a big scoop — it is almost always wrong. NBC once broke this huge story about nuclear atomic weaponry in Israel and got it totally wrong. The most interesting thing was the reaction of the management. Its first question was, ‘Where did this first appear? What newspaper did you get this out of? What? There was no written source. Are you crazy?’
TAS: So you weren’t surprised by the Dan Rather debacle?
Tom Wolfe: I wasn’t surprised it happened. The media have a pretty wild history in this respect. Whenever somebody would make up a story, they would say, ‘Oh, that’s the influence of the New Journalism.’ God, newspapers have been making up stories forever. This kind of trifling and fooling around is not a function of the New Journalism.
There is an inverse status in television news: the person who leaves the building least is the highest ranked. The anchormen really are the primitive version of the old linotype machine. The anchor’s voice converts material written by others into a form that is easily consumable by the audience — that’s what the linotype machine did.
The people who actually gather the news are ranked way down the scale. I was once assigned to do a story on Walter Cronkite after he had been demoted for the only time in his career. He had been demoted in the sense that he became the co-anchor and that was big news. So my story idea was to see how this would change the way he was treated by others. But I missed the big story, which was that he didn’t do anything. When he came in at 10 in the morning the program was set by a producer who came in very early and pulled together everything that was on the wires. Cronkite would get to work about 4:30, put on makeup, go over the script, possibly to ensure that he could pronounce all the names. He would describe his role as not that of a reporter but of a managing editor. But he was not like a managing editor. The producer was like a managing editor.
So if television news is the way most people get their news and television gets their news from newspapers and newspapers have settled down into local monopolies and don’t have nearly as many reporters looking into anything, then the funnel is much smaller at the beginning. By the time the news gets to television not much is being covered. Yet television is so colorful, so literally colorful, that you get the impression that they are covering everything.
The foreign correspondents pride themselves on the ability to come in cold knowing nothing. There was one case where a correspondent was sent to Tehran during a hostage crisis, and then within 20 minutes of getting off the plane he gives a fluent report of what was happening. What they did was give him an ear piece and a producer in New York read AP copy to him.
Every now and then somebody like Dan Rather will put on an Afghan costume and you will see him with some turban thing on this head and robes walking up some rocks, wanting to feel like a reporter. Rather interviewed Saddam Hussein. But what this is, is getting the party line from a person instead of from a document. He was being anything but tough on Saddam Hussein. People like the handout better when it is being read by Saddam Hussein.
TAS: What did you make of Rather’s fake-but-accurate defense?
Tom Wolfe: I think that is just called covering your back side. The anchors can have a lot of influence whenever they want to stick their oars in, because they are getting the biggest salaries. That was true of the astronauts at the beginning. They were celebrities, so if they got together to demand this or that they would get their way. Dan Rather certainly wasn’t going to say he was wrong just because this, this, and this right-wing source had come up with proof that it was a forgery. It was such a stupid kind of thing because anybody who has ever used a typewriter could tell at one glance that this was not typewritten.
TAS: Are the tiny mummies these days a liberal media monolith that is cracking up?
Tom Wolfe: I’m not sure it is dying because they are liberal or not. But readership is declining. Younger people are getting their news from the Internet or television. Most people don’t read editorial pages. I think I must have been 40 before I even looked at an editorial page. There was a great story at the New York Herald Tribune. One of the most colorful employees they ever had was a guy name Lucius Beebe. He was the pro, he was the guy under fire, great reporter, great writer, fast. So one night something had happened at the very last moment, which exploded the lead editorial, and they had to get somebody to write a new one in 15 minutes. So everyone said, ‘Where’s Beebe?’ So they brought the old pro upstairs with the copy boy right behind him to take the rush copy. Like a pro he turns out that first page in less than a minute and hands it to the copy boy. And one of the copy editors comes in and says, ‘What the hell is this, Beebe?’ It was the word ‘nevertheless’ repeated 80 some times. Beebe said, ‘Well, that’s all your editorials ever say anyways.’
TAS: What do you think of the Internet?
Tom Wolfe: The Internet is the modern form of knitting. In the old days women who had nothing to do would knit, but at least you got something out of it — a pair of socks, maybe a scarf, occasionally a little bedspread. That’s mostly what the Internet is, just passing the time. But unfortunately you are dealing with words that can have meaning.
TAS: Will the Internet change journalism significantly?
Tom Wolfe: It could. It is perfectly conceivable that the next generation would be so used to getting news off the Internet that the whole focus would shift. Think of all the printing presses that would then be useless.
The Internet doesn’t really change anything, it just speeds it up. You are pretty much free of commercials except these damn pop-up things. You get everything faster. You can also get great pictures on the Internet. But, it is not pleasant to read things on the Internet with a backlit screen. It is hard on your eyes. Eventually maybe they will find a way to make it a lot easier to read.
The other problem is that you have to scroll. It is primitive in the sense that the Internet is a scrolling medium. A printed book with pages was such an advance over scrolling. To go back to scrolls is to step into the past. That goes back to monks in the 13th century. A lot has happened since the 13th century to improve the technology of reading, and so far no one has come up, for sheer reading ease, with anything better than hard copy pages.
TAS: Did you do any research using the Internet for I Am Charlotte Simmons?
Tom Wolfe: No, I didn’t. I had students using the Internet. But I didn’t do any. Actually I wish I had now that I know there is a web site called ratemyvomit.com, which is pro-binge drinking, especially as I have vomiting as a recurring sound in the book.
TAS: Is the media discussed in your new book?
Tom Wolfe: No, and that’s an accurate reflection of college students. They are not nearly as conscious of the media. I noticed that 9/11 was not a jolt that affected students. There was no mass ringing of hands unless the student was from New York. For most of them it was just something on TV.
TAS: But you did research the media for “Ambush at Fort Bragg.”
Tom Wolfe: I did. In finding out how they did sting operations. It is a story about the media rather than those soldiers. The producer prefigures Mary Mapes. The big story in television news that hasn’t been fully told is the producers. In that story Irv Durtscher resents the fact that he is doing all the work but this airhead Mary Carey gets all the publicity, all the salary, all the celebrity, all the credit.
TAS: What do you predict for 21st-century journalism?
Tom Wolfe: I have no predictions. But I am struck by one thing: Try to think of a single important idea that has ever come out of these media. The fact is they are technically less advanced than print at getting across ideas and theories and simply explaining things in a way that can change history.
I am struck by the fact that Karl Marx, this unpleasant man sitting alone in the British museum writing these abstruse essays, really did change the world. Look at Darwin. My God, what a powerful theory. Incidentally, I give that one about 40 more years, and it will go down in flames.
TAS: Why 40 years?
Tom Wolfe: Look at the Big Bang. That’s a fairly recent theory, and it is already burning out. There are too many scientists who are saying this is rubbish. Just think about the theory of the Big Bang or this ridiculous theory about where the first cell came from. Now they say it probably came from outer space when an asteroid hit the earth and a few of these things bounced out. It is because of all this silly stuff that Darwinism is going to go down in flames.
TAS: Will the novel survive the age of the Internet?
Tom Wolfe: No, the novel is committing suicide as fast as it can by turning its back on the world. The best writers are in masters of fine arts courses and they are encouraged to turn their backs on the world, not to get their hands dirty. They are told, never mind about all this social muck and write about your psychological relationship with your lover.
Had Tolstoy not written about the class structure in Russia, Anna Karenina would come across as just a soap opera. Tolstoy knew the social setting very well and set it so carefully. Without that Anna Karenina would have been forgotten like any other popular romance.
A novel of psychological depth without social depth isn’t worth an awful lot because we are all individuals caught in an enormous web that consists of other people. It is in the social setting that the psychological battles take place. You simply cannot separate the psychological from the social.
TAS: Have the reviews of I Am Charlotte Simmons been influenced by the contretemps with Norman Mailer, John Updike, and John Irving?
Tom Wolfe: They may. You can’t really argue with reviewers. How can you argue that something is not boring? When I wrote that thing about Mailer, Updike, and Irving, I didn’t say a word contesting their judgment of my work. I just found it interesting that three old novelists of high standing would attack any novel all at once. It is just not a very good use of an old man’s time.
I have had so many bad reviews in my life. It was a big deal to me when I started out. It is not a big deal now. The very first reviews of The Bonfire of the Vanities were negative. I thought to myself, ‘My god, you are in deep trouble here.’ The first one was in Newsday. That was before publication. Most before-publication reviews are slams. They always come from somebody who just canâ€™t wait.
The New York Review of Books does this quite regularly to me. It has never forgiven me for saying that their editor Bob Silvers got a small package in the mail and opened it and inside was a British accent and he put it into his mouth and it just fit perfectly. I donâ€™t think he ever forgot that.
TAS: Will your three stooges with their rusted-out hips come after you again?
Tom Wolfe: I sort of doubt it, except perhaps John Irving. Incidentally I have no history with Irving. I had never written about Irving. He had never written anything about me as far as I know. I had never commented about Irving. But for whatever reason, and I’m not enough of a psychiatrist to tell you why, now when he hears my name, first he will literally start sputtering, then he will try out the naughtiest word he can think of on short notice, and then he’ll be incoherent for about 120 seconds, and finally become a rational person again. It is really funny. You should do an experiment: Give him a ring and just say you were interviewing Tom Wolfe and he said you wasted a career as a novelist by not confronting life and should get off your farm, and that’ll be enough to get him started.
They were shaken up by the acclaim for A Man in Full. I was on the cover of Time and giving lectures about the realistic novel, and they thought, ‘We got to head this damn thing off.’
The novel as it is now going will die. It will become like poetry. Poetry isn’t literally dead, it is just marginal. Not enough people read it, whereas at one time that was the form. Thatâ€™s why Shakespeare’s plays were written in poetry. That’s why Henry Fielding wrote Tom Jones and called it ‘An Epic Poem in Prose,’ as a way of saying: I know that poetry is where the action is, this is not that far off, so give it a shot.
It is really too bad that the novel is dying. The great American novels were compressed into 39 years — 1900-1939. It started with Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and ends with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. In the middle you have Sinclair Lewis, Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, John Dos Passos — just one marvelous writer after another. And they are all realists. They were really in love with all of the details of American life, and they captured this great sprawling, brawling country in words.
And then suddenly it changes very rapidly after the war. All of that is repudiated as being clumsy, being a little primitive, ‘what writers do if they don’t understand the finer things of life,’ and the idea spreads that literary writing should be done for a charming aristocracy.
TAS: You have said that in some respects film does what the realistic novel used to do. Does I Am Charlotte Simmons lend itself to a movie?
Tom Wolfe: I think it will. There has not been to my knowledge any serious movie about college life. There have been some good comedies about college life, Animal House being one of them and it is still watched religiously by college students. And Old School is a wonderful comedy of college life.
TAS: Your novel is serious and satirical.
Tom Wolfe: I didn’t consciously make it satirical. In fact I have never consciously made any of these novels satirical. But how can I write about reality today without describing the foibles of mankind?
TAS: Reality outpaces satire.
Tom Wolfe: That’s one problem with novels. Novels have to be plausible. Take the Paris Hilton phenomenon. I think a novelist could have thought up the story of a beautiful heiress who gets involved in a pornographic videotape. A novelist could have conceived of a beautiful heiress who has no particular talent getting a $10 million television contract. But I defy you to locate the novelist who could have conceived the actual plot of Paris Hilton’s life, which is that she got the $10 million contract because she was on the pornographic tape. That made her career. There’s no question about it.
TAS: By pursuing realistic fiction during satirical times, you unintentionally became a great satirist?
Tom Wolfe: I think that is true. I don’t know how you can be realistic without describing the foibles of mankind. If that’s all it takes for a novel to be labeled satire, I guess it is satire but I never sat down and said, ‘Now I am going to write a really biting satire.’ For example, in this book a lot of my conservative friends will probably comment on the political correctness. And there is some in there, but in fact the students pretty much ignore and discount it. They will put up with it and regurgitate it to the extent that they need to get credit in the courses. But as far as I can tell they are really not bothering with it. There is always a faction of activists. When I was visiting Stanford, students were protesting that the catering staff — they weren’t even university employees — were underpaid. If that’s as big an issue as you can come up with, then political correctness is not having a big effect on the students. And there is one good effect of it all, which is that even in the roughest fraternity houses you are very unlikely to hear racial epithets.
TAS: Just by describing reality as it is you became known as a ‘conservative.’
Tom Wolfe: I think I have been called conservative because of what I have said about cultural matters. In The Painted Word I didn’t pass critical judgment on anything. But obviously I didn’t take certain holy things very seriously, which I insist is different from saying that something is bad. And then what I wrote about the Black Panthers at Leonard Bernstein’s was taken as a reactionary gesture, but I had no political motive. I just thought it was a scream, because it was so illogical by all ordinary thinking. To think that somebody living in an absolutely stunning duplex on Park Avenue could be having in all these guys who were saying, ‘We will take everything away from you if we get the chance,’ which is what their program spelled out, was the funniest thing I had ever witnessed.
I was openly taking notes, but they just assumed that if I was there for New York magazine it was because I must have approved of what they were doing.
TAS: If you were writing for a newspaper today, what would you write about?
Tom Wolfe: There are a lot of subjects I would cover, such as black middle-class life, which is totally ignored by the press. I would cover religion to keep up with new wave movements, the evangelical movements, and traditional movements within traditional denominations. I would do status articles, which deal with standards set by different groups to demarcate themselves as superior in some fashion. And I would cover stories about other people’s money. At one time I thought ‘Other People’s Money’ would make a good magazine cover. How much are people actually spending? It comes out every now and then in scandals or bankruptcies. But there are lots of ways to get this information.
Balzac was one of the few novelists to get down to dollars and cents. I tried to do that in The Bonfire of the Vanities. But that’s what people want to know. They will eat it up with a spoon.
This article appeared in the December 2004/January 2005 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to The American Spectator, click here.
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