Tina Brown, Graydon Carter and others take stock of Wolfes long-form, stylized reportage that he helped popularize in the 1960s
For all of Tom Wolfes accomplishments in the genre of new journalism, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, The Right Stuff among them, perhaps none of Wolfes work has stood up as well as the The Bonfire of the Vanities, his satirical account of Manhattan-style power and justice in the 1980s. His depiction of the characters and values of the naked city, the intermingling of rich and poor, remains essentially unchallenged. The Guardian spoke to five figures well placed to take stock of Wolfes legacy in the long-form, stylized reportage that he helped to popularize in the 1960s.
Former editor of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker
No one since has had his blazing, satirical eye for detail, and for catching not just the zeitgeist but for being able to understand it, explain it, and harpoon it. You have to ask yourself, what would the young Tom Wolfe have made of the Met Ball recently?
He totally defined the 1980s with Bonfire of the Vanities. That, to me, was the most definitive thing he ever wrote because he caught the moment of the masters of the universe, whom he labeled and got. He was so great at [exposing] the hypocrisy of the media. It was just so sharp. He was a dedicated reporter. Hed spend days just sitting in court and saw himself first and foremost as a reporter.
He loved to stir it up. He loved to skewer political correctness. Id love to have the 60-year-old Wolfe working now in what is such an intellectually inhospitable time. Hed have nailed the rampant PC-culture in a way that very few other people have the courage to do. He was insubordinate. I dont think Ive seen anybody else do the same acrobatics with language but at the same time keep their poise as a journalist.
Ann Marie Lipinski
Curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard
Theres an essay in the New Journalism collection in which he describes being a young reporter in a newsroom and seeing the way things are done and realizing that the way was not necessarily the way they should be done.
For a lot of people thats a Eureka! moment of discovery where they realize the way we tell stories is not the only way to tell them. That was a call to arms and very liberating. He put a huge emphasis on detail and style. But you imitate that style at your peril. It was a reminder to find your own voice and make that a characteristic of your work.
Documentary maker, former editor of Spy, the New York Observer and Vanity Fair
Tom molded the English language to fit his needs every bit as much as [PG] Wodehouse did. In his hands, it came alive in a way it never had before. His legacy is now and for a long, long time. There are a handful of journalists whose work will be read 30, 40 years from now. Hunter and Hitchens are up there. Tom is at the top. New Journalism is everywhere you read, but in a slightly more sober, less electric form. Writers like Sebastian Junger, Michael Lewis, Douglas Preston and Bryan Burrough, write journalism like novelists. Its why they are so successful.
Second wave writer of the New Journalism school and author of Fire & Fury
New Journalism was the dominant influence for a particular generation of magazine writers in the 70s and 80s, myself included. You might call that the late Renaissance of the magazine business. Wolfe was a leading model for anyone doing magazine journalism, and magazine journalism was the dominant form of journalism in that period.
Clearly, Tom and a handful of others reinvented the way we write journalism. He transferred journalism from filing news reports and non-fiction and turned it into a literary product. It was what everyone was trying to become trying to become Tom, Norman Mailer, Michael Herr, to some extent Joan Didion. This was a revolution in the form. To take the reader into the experience.
With Fire & Fury I was trying to put the reader into the experience. New Journalism came under fire for exactly the same thing I did. Newspaper journalists felt upstaged and took a pious view of how journalism should be.
The new dictates of digital journalism have almost nothing to do with writing and literature. Fire & Fury proved theres still an enormous appetite for that kind of writing.
Lawyer, author and actor Ed Hayes
Hayes was an assistant district attorney in the homicide unit in the Bronx when he met Wolfe, who recast him as Tommy Killian in The Bonfire of The Vanities
He was my best friend, and he gave me my start in New York. I wanted to make him proud every day. We were a very odd couple because he was a very straight guy. He was really a family man. He stayed home all day. I led a wild life, whereas he had a top-of-the-hill literary life. I took him out on stories, we went to the tailor together.
He was a contrarian. When everybody felt one way, hed make a deal about feeling the other. He was very conservative in a lot of ways. In New York, in the line of work I do, you get into fights. Hed say, This is the work you do, Eddie, so fight. He liked picking fights, too.
He found modern political life very offensive because it was so personalized and vicious without any intelligent discussion about what we could do to make the world better. Wed go out to breakfast. But hed drive you crazy. He ate oatmeal but he was the slowest eater in the world. Finally I stopped going out to eat with him.
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