Of all the writers in the world, Tom Wolfe is the last to need defending. Beneath that pale, skinny, dandified exterior is a two-fisted brawler and committed self-promoter. In his long career, he has rhetorically stuck his thumb in the eye of The New Yorker (a history that lends Updike's appraisal a tincture of tit for tat), the New Left, hippies, Black Panthers, astronauts, architects, and artists, among many others, but his longest-running battle has been with the fashionable notion of the "serious" literary novel.
His first broadside against it was his famous 1973 "New Journalism" essay, in which he lamented the "otherworldly preciousness" of most modern novels. More and more, he wrote, they seemed to be written not for a general reading public but for other writers. The authors of such books, in their pre- occupation with characters' internal lives, had turned their backs on the real story of their times, Wolfe argued, abandoning the kind of reporting and observation that had distinguished the great novels of the past and effectively ceding the turf to journalists like … him! He didn't actually place the crown on his own head; the essay was an introduction to the collected works of other "literary" journalists. But Wolfe was already (as he well knew) the bright eminence of that pack, whose work, he proclaimed, had become the "main event" in the literary arts. Then, having planted his own flag on literature's peak, he abandoned the very form he had championed and started writing novels himself. In a celebrated 1989 essay, he anointed himself point man for "a battalion, a brigade, of Zolas," who would sally forth, notebooks and tape recorders in hand, to rescue fiction from its cul-de-sac of self-obsession and restore it to its central role in American life, chronicling the "lurid carnival" of modern existence.
It matters a great deal to someone, I suppose, what kind of fiction commands the peak of Mount Literature. History teaches us that such preferences change only slightly more slowly than hemlines, and many an author celebrated in his lifetime is barely remembered a decade after his last book. Much critical prestige today is accorded writers of "experimental," or "postmodern," fiction, who play clever games with language and traditional storytelling forms, and whose works are dazzlingly hard to follow. (If simple readability matters, these authors—even giants like Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis—are the most likely candidates for obscurity.) A recent essay in Harper's Magazine in defense of experimental fiction, by the novelist Ben Marcus, set out to describe the ideal reader of such works:
[His or her] Wernicke's area [the portion of the brain presumed to process language] is staffed by an army of jumpsuited code-breakers, working a barn-size space that is strung about the rafters with a mathematically intricate lattice of rope and steel, and maybe gusseted by a synthetic coil that is stronger and more sensitive than either, like guitar strings made from an unraveled spinal cord, each strand tuned to different tensions.
It goes on. Marcus lost me at "code-breakers," though I was struck by his momentary indecision—the "maybe"—over whether to embellish this bizarre metaphor with his "synthetic coil." He concludes the long paragraph thusly:
My ideal reader would cough up a thimble of fine gray powder at the end of the reading session, and she could use this mineral-rich substance to compost her garden.
This is just silly. There will always be readers who enjoy "code-breaking," but I suspect great fiction is, and will always be, about language, story, characters, seriousness of purpose, and a coherent theme.
Wolfe scores for me in every category, most notably language. My own Wernicke's area has long thrilled to the surprising and inventive turns of his narration. It is a voice so distinctive that it has launched a thousand bad imitations, and it is the vibrant core of everything Wolfe writes. His exuberant experiments in punctuation are easy to ridicule, but they are not just pointless display; they are an effort to harness on the page the velocity of his rhetoric, which runs full-throttle in a continual state of intellectual astonishment.
Wolfe began his career as a social scientist, and he has remained, first and foremost, a man the opposite of dumbstruck by the hilarious pageant of American life, whether he's revealing the vapid maunderings that pass for serious thought on a bus full of tripping hippies or demonstrating how the U.S. space program faithfully re-enacted—in modern times, on a massive scale—the ancient tribal ritual of single combat. One cannot imagine a Wolfe story without that voice, any more than one can convey the humor in Tom Jones without the voice of Fielding, or Tristram Shandy without that of Laurence Sterne.
So what makes fiction great? What is the standard? In his put-down of Wolfe, Updike didn't explain the difference between "entertainment" and "literature," other than to suggest that the dapper former journalist's writing was not "exquisite." According to Webster's, the word means "carefully selected" … "marked by nice discrimination, deep sensitivity, or subtle understanding"… "pleasing through beauty, fitness, or perfection." The put-down invites a comparison between Wolfe's writing and Updike's own. I admire Updike's books, although I have read only a small portion of his prodigious output. Couples, Villages, and the Rabbit series in particular are intensely realistic, and capture better than anything the texture of American suburban life and the subtle transactions of emotional and sexual need in modern relationships. But his books run together in my mind. They all have a similar feel, and as engrossing and exquisitely written as they are, I find I have a hard time remembering them afterward. In the long run, fiction that endures is by definition memorable.
By that standard, my money is on Wolfe.