Tom Wolfe: unmasking the hypocrisy of our day (in between jaunts to the dry cleaners)

Content at the Chronicle of Higher Ed lies mostly behind a subscription wall, but yesterday’s New York Times helpfully summarizes a controversy raging in the magazine’s pages about Tom Wolfe’s role, or lack thereof, in founding “The New Journalism.” Robert S. Boynton, director of NYU’s magazine journalism program, and editor of The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft, started the debate

with an essay on March 4 suggesting that Mr. Wolfe was not the central vein in the development of nonfiction writing that he claimed to be when he wrote his introduction to the anthology “New Journalism” in 1973.

Mr. Boynton said that some of today’s writers – including Michael Lewis, William Langewiesche and Susan Orlean, whom he calls the “new new journalists” – have gone beyond Mr. Wolfe’s preoccupation with status and his technique of “placing the author at the center of the story” to produce deeper, more complex accounts of important events. The real primogenitors of these writers, Mr. Boynton suggested, were muckrakers like Lincoln Steffens and Jacob Riis.

“The more I looked into it, the more I came to understand that not only was Wolfe’s account inaccurate, but it was also an impediment to appreciating both the distinctively American quality of modern literary journalism,” wrote Mr. Boynton.

The article spawned a rebuttal that may or may not have been written by Wolfe himself.

Speaking of Tom Wolfe’s penchant for nonfiction, last Friday he announced his intention to return to the form in his next endeavor, which will:

scrutinize Wall Street types who conceal their status, dress down and act like bad seeds. “After all, what is a rich man who dresses in a style known as post-homeless trying to say?” he asked. “That’s why there are so many bad marriages. A girl can no longer tell where a young man stands just by looking at him.”

(Emphasis supplied.) Good old Tom. With people so distracted by trivial things like the state of social security, somebody has to give voice to the plight of America’s gold-diggers.


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