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28 December 2023

Why does no one write like Tom Wolfe any more?

In a polarised culture, appetite for the late writer’s brand of wry conservative satire has waned – and he is partly to blame.

By Nick Burns

Plenty of American writers from the second half of the 20th century still have their cults of personality. Thomas Pynchon has his shrines and shrine-keepers, Joan Didion has hers, and so on. In most cases the admiration has a canonising tendency, one that imagines its subject as distant and perfect. The admirers retell a familiar set of stories about their idols, catalogue their virtues, and employ them as cultural touchstones denoting certain sensibilities to certain people.

The same goes for the cult of Tom Wolfe, great champion of the “New Journalism” and wry satirist of American mores, who died in 2018 ­– but with one important difference. Reliving the glories is not enough for Wolfe’s devotees: they want him back.

“O for a muse of fire – or the talents of Tom Wolfe,” laments the Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan. “An honest exposé such as ‘Radical Chic’” – Wolfe’s 1970 essay – “is impossible in today’s craven journalism,” claims Armond White in National Review. “Why is no one imitating Wolfe in our times?” asks Titus Techera. A new biopic, Radical Wolfe, assembles a further litany of eulogists, venture capitalist Peter Thiel inexplicably among them, attesting to the vacuum left by the author’s departure from the literary scene.

[See also: Cormac McCarthy’s art of war]

Tom Wolfe! thou shouldst be living at this hour. It is hard to think of another late writer whose champions feel as strongly that his services are needed, now, in this moment – who is so frequently thought of, less as originator of a spotless oeuvre than as vanished literary superhero who has left his world to the villains.

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What did Wolfe do to occasion this outpouring? Radical Wolfe restates the official version of his trajectory. Southern boy, thwarted in his studies at Yale by liberal professors, becomes enfant terrible on the New York literary scene, with an ecstatic, special-effects-laden prose style – Céline mixed with Looney Tunes – and sporting a dandyish white suit. Great literary triumphs accumulate in-between battles with the cultural establishment (against the New Yorker, the modern art world, John Updike, et cetera), with Wolfe playing the part of counter-intellectual and tribune of the people.

No less than other literary cultists, Tom Wolfe’s admirers love to retrace his successes, to recount, for example, the just-so story of how, stricken by writer’s block, a young Wolfe wrote a letter to his editor casually describing the story about California teenagers modifying cars that he couldn’t bring himself to write. The editor is said to have simply removed the salutation and closing and ran it, the story (in Esquire in 1963) making Wolfe’s career overnight.

But what his admirers admire most is his acuity in illuminating the subterranean corridors of his subjects’ social lives, their half-realised likes and dislikes, the weak points in their emotional defences. Wolfe saw, for example, how the other Nasa astronauts disapproved of John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, in 1962, for being too eager to talk to the TV cameras about his faith and his picture-perfect family life, being themselves disciples of the hotshot test-pilot school of “Flying and Drinking and Drinking and Driving”. Or, how the proto-hippies depicted in 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test avoided coming to terms with the resurgence of their white, middle-class origins in the midst of their countercultural revolt against the Formica blandness of early-1960s American society. Or how, in his 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, a hard-pressed working couple with a young baby on Manhattan’s Upper West Side can relax when the high-class British nanny around whom they are afraid of making a faux pas lets loose a racist rant: “So they were the superiors of their English baby nurse, after all. What a fucking relief.”

Wolfe’s admirers want him back – or someone similarly talented – in order to use this powerful literary weapon against their enemies. Of course, today Wolfe has his detractors as well: during his career, highbrow opinion was split on the merits of his work, and today many find his writing objectionable on issues of race. Critics complain that his mockery serves as camouflage for a high-class form of white racial resentment, citing, among other examples, a character in The Bonfire of the Vanities who appears to be a thinly fictionalised version of Reverend Al Sharpton, the black civil rights leader. The novel’s “Reverend Bacon” is a confident, cynical huckster who capitalises on white liberal guilt to enrich himself in the name of the black community.

Few who claim allegiance to the left publicly pine over him, and some would think twice before opening a copy of Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970), say, on the subway – in part because of the drawing on the book’s cover, of a miniature black face peering out of a teacup held by a giant white hand. Yet criticism has never threatened to oust Wolfe’s books from their conspicuous place on journalism-school syllabuses, nor has it stopped liberals and conservatives alike from reading him with enjoyment – or from becoming converts to the cult of Tom Wolfe.

And it is not difficult to see why. For satire of the moral contortions of the US elite, heroic portraits of American spiritedness, Balzacian social panorama, who can match Wolfe today? Who is even trying? This tedious chorus that says that no one writes like Tom Wolfe any more: isn’t it true?

Ironically, for a literature that proclaims itself to be socially aware, the typical social scope of a work of fiction today seems to have shrunk. A dominant trend in recent years has seen novelists plumbing the depths of the self for insight into moral themes: in this genre, social concerns tend to be addressed mostly through the warped lens of bourgeois auto-interrogation. As his admirers never tire of noting, Wolfe took delight in illustrating precisely to what self-serving ends the prickings of the bourgeois social conscience are often employed.

Meanwhile, the ambitious social novel that Wolfe not only wrote (The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full) but also defended in a 1989 “literary manifesto” in Harper’s is hardly to be found today. Whatever one makes of Wolfe’s writing on issues of race, it is clear that satire targeting the racial conscience of American liberalism has become rare, as the subject has become more politically explosive. The best contributions in recent decades have often come from black writers – such as Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure.

Neither does the balance sheet look much different when it comes to non-fiction. Here Wolfe’s political temperament is directly relevant. He was never an admitted conservative – a declared political project would have gotten in the way of his literary objectives. He had to feel, and have his mostly liberal readers in the pages of Rolling Stone and New York magazine believe, that he was a journalist simply telling it as it was. He often assumed the attitude of one telling his liberal readers a juicy secret about themselves, as suggested by his common refrain, “Deny it if you wish!”

But his opposition to all things bohemian and avant-garde was undisguised, and declared conservatives such as William F Buckley considered him as one of their own. Wolfe’s delicate role was that of the semi-acknowledged conservative who wrote in liberal publications to mock elite liberals or demonstrate to them the superior vitality of the unconverted middle-American man – all to the delight of a mass liberal audience.

This act has proved hard to follow: the last successful book-length satire of elite mores written by a conservative may have been the New York Times columnist David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise, a look at how counterculture and elite culture have fused in the upper echelons of US society – published in 2000. And the most discussed book by a conservative writer on middle American habits in recent decades is JD Vance’s 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy, in which a son of Appalachia lays the blame for this deindustrialised region’s suffering on its own alleged moral failings.

[See also: Why affirmative action failed]

Why, indeed, does no one write like Tom Wolfe any more ­– and who is to blame? Conservatives have a ready answer: liberals and the “woke left” are at fault for a state of affairs where no one is permitted publicly to criticise the behaviour of a wide swath of groups and individuals towards whom liberals feel sympathetic.

It has been widely contended that an influential segment of US liberals have become less tolerant of opposed political views in recent years – but closer to the truth is that American liberalism has become less tolerant of satire. Caught in the grip of a deadly moral literalism, many consider mockery far worse than simple disagreement. The list of acceptable targets for ridicule (right-wing politicians, tech executives, et cetera) grows ever shorter, and to depart from it is to risk being accused of disrespect, of being “too mean”. That was how New York magazine recently described Wolfe’s essay “Radical Chic”, which was published in the magazine’s own pages in 1970! Consider the best conservative writer who writes for a liberal audience today: the New York Times’s Ross Douthat often mentions openly his points of departure from the liberal consensus, but rarely strikes a mocking tone.

The conservative hypothesis, however, fails to explain why it is that liberals are less willing today to read and enjoy writing that is sardonic or critical towards parties dear to them. The explanation for the change ­of heart is simple and has little to do with any moral failing on the part of liberals – still less heady notions of a “woke mind virus”. In Wolfe’s 1970s heyday liberalism, and with it the Democratic Party, still felt itself to be hegemonic in American life. Democrats had run both chambers of the legislature with only brief interruptions since the 1930s. Civil rights and a new set of social welfare policies enacted under Johnson represented recent testaments of political strength.

In such an environment, liberals could easily afford to laugh along as Wolfe took aim at their darlings. It was not until the election of Ronald Reagan, in 1980, that the balance shifted and the US entered an age, one still with us, in which American conservatism and liberalism represent roughly equivalent political forces.

It took longer for intellectual culture to catch up to political fact. In time, as Wolfe faded from the scene, a more strident liberalism emerged – not, as conservatives often assume, more strident because more powerful, but the opposite. A politically weakened liberalism found the joke wasn’t funny any more.

Here it has to be admitted that the problem is not merely one of liberal demand for writers like Wolfe but also one of conservative supply. Liberals, after all, also have a ready answer for why there aren’t any Tom Wolfes any more: it is because conservatives are just so angry these days. Gone are the days of William F Buckley, of a wry, patrician conservatism that delivered its message with dry wit in mellifluous mid-Atlantic tones, goes the argument, now it’s all invective, all rage. To write like Wolfe, after all, it is necessary to sublimate one’s resentment of liberals into the wry detachment that is a prerequisite for satire, something fewer conservatives are capable of today.

To understand the truth in this line of argument it is only necessary to recall that, not so long ago, there was a promising young conservative magazine writer who had begun to churn out just the kind of clever, outrageous stories that made liberals look delightfully bad. Gloria Steinem and Roger Ebert were among his targets. In his portrayal, 1990s Democratic political guru James Carville became the “populist plutocrat”, a “folksy guy” who made constant reference to his native Louisiana small town – all while playing the stock market and pocketing millions in speaking fees.

Tucker Carlson, the author of these articles, evidently had the right stuff. But instead of making a literary career for himself, he laid down his pen and turned to television. In finding fame as a right-populist Fox News firebrand, Carlson apprehended two things: that tolerance for the kind of writing he did was waning within the bastions of liberal letters; and that the rise of the contemporary right in American politics was powered by the emergence of an emboldened lumpen-bourgeoisie, with money to spend but little respect from the liberal establishment on the coasts.

This class, fired with righteous anger over liberals and their sanctimony – with Donald Trump as its lurid avatar – was not much interested in magazine journalism or novels of manners. They watched television or looked to social media for political commentary. And they did not have time for Wolfe’s method of investigation into the workings of the liberal conscience, which couched its lampooning in careful study and tinged it with warm sympathy.

Such sympathy is out of style on the right today. On his Fox show, until its abrupt cancellation in April, Carlson employed his undiminished talent for mockery in polemical monologues against liberalism, heaped with bile. Many have made of Carlson’s trajectory a story of personal moral downfall, but it may represent nothing more or less than an indication of the structural possibilities available to a conservative satirist under the current conditions.

[See also: What the “men don’t read novels” debate gets wrong about fiction]

Times have changed. But there is one person who deserves a special share of the blame for why there are no more Tom Wolfes – and that is Tom Wolfe himself. In his frequent assaults on American high culture, which he charged with hypocrisy and disconnection from the masses, Wolfe rarely realised how fragile its hold was on a democratic society and did not realise he might not prefer its replacement.

Wolfe did not anticipate and did not fully understand the changes that elite American liberal opinion began to undergo after the 1980s. His conception remained the one he defined in “Radical Chic”: that sympathy for subaltern groups is something a new upper class often employs to differentiate itself from the middle classes. The upper class sees violence committed by the subaltern as just and heroic, while the middle classes (tastelessly and simplistically!) perceive that violence is a bad thing. Wolfe obviously sides here with the middle classes and criticises what he perceives as an elite liberal tendency to consider the subaltern as noble savage. This theory has its contemporary defenders: to take a recent example, conservatives and centrists have lately interpreted sympathy for Palestinian militants among young people or elite college students as an indication that “radical chic is not dead”.

But there are few galas for Hamas being held in tony apartments on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in recent days. American high society, in the sense of a class of people who are rich and also consider themselves champions of high culture, barely exists today. But what passes for it is positioned generally to the right of the professional and precarious sectors below them – professors, journalists, teachers, “creative workers”, students and so on.

Indeed, Wolfe’s diagnosis has proved mistaken. Cultural wars over “political correctness” and “wokeness” in the US in recent decades reflect a broad upper-middle class uptake of the attitudes towards marginalised groups that Wolfe described as belonging solely to high society. Radical Chic has been democratised – no longer radical, no longer chic. This absorption has robbed it of its romanticism and replaced it with middle-class moralism.

If you had to give a Wolfe-type term to the resulting cultural ensemble, you might call it Social Calvinism – the impression that the fastidious observance of all codes of speech and behaviour regarding the causes of marginalised groups is never enough, but at least is evidence that one might be among the elect group of right-thinking people in society.

If Radical Chic sees marginalised groups as valorised others, Social Calvinism tends to fall instead into the habit of identifying with them, with varying levels of sincerity. The Christian or Rawlsian instinct of the golden rule (“If I was a member of X group, how would I like to be treated?”) often decays into the habit of imagining minority groups in white, heterosexual, bourgeois terms (“I sympathise with X group because they’re like me.”) Minority groups, in turn, face pressure to model their behaviour after upper-middle-class expectations – something that is not always possible considering actual social conditions. The resulting ideological tendency has proved more politically moderate than Radical Chic, but also more widely influential in cultural life and politics.

Wolfe did not simply misunderstand the changes in American life and opinion – he also contributed to them. Before Wolfe was in favour of the novel – the social novel, at least – he was against it, exchanging broadsides with John Updike and Norman Mailer, arguing in his collection on the New Journalism that this type of non-fiction had managed to “wipe out” the novel as a significant literary form. He depicts the conflict between novelists and journalists in almost explicit class terms, between a louche, creatively spent aristocratic club and a wider group of scrappier, more middle-class scribblers eager to supplant them.

Today novelists have lost much of the prestige and cultural relevance they had in Wolfe’s time – as literature itself has become more professional, more consolidated in the hands of a few large companies – and it is not clear we are better off for it. The snobs who populated the art world Wolfe once mocked have largely disappeared as the landscape has given way to an open embrace of finance and technology on the one hand, and overt political display on the other.

The old mid-century liberal intelligentsia had trouble steering clear of hypocrisy, but they kept at bay the commercialised pabulum and, in some cases, outright philistinism now a notable presence in American cultural life. Wolfe’s bombardments helped erode the very ivory tower that once offered a place to him.

But that is no reason to give up reading him – or to lower the banner he raised for a revitalised social literature in America. If society seems more complex now than ever before, greater is the need for writers to make sense of it. If there is little space for such writing within the established left, right and centre, all the better that it must come from outside the predictable precincts. And all the prayers for the second coming of Tom Wolfe get one final thing right: divisions in society still congeal today, in the minds of the bien-pensants, into absurdities of manners and mores that beg for the pen of a talented satirist. Deny it if you wish!

[See also: The Gessen affair and Germany’s ignorance about Jews]

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