Career Criminal Tom Wolfe’s Dying Words Revealed!

Paris Review(Opinion) If you believe the above headline, you’re probably among the multitudes mourning the death of Tom Wolfe by praising his impact on journalism.

Wolfe, a founder of the “New Journalism” who wrote bestsellers like The Right Stuff  and Bonfire of the Vanities, died Monday at the age of 88.

He was hailed as a pioneer who resuscitated the art of nonfiction reporting and writing with the tools of the fiction writer —  narrative, character development, dialogue, plot. And heapings of italics.

All of which was true. He and his fellow New Journalism practitioners like Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin and perhaps even Hunter S. Thompson inspired generations of reporters like me to think beyond the 5Ws and the inverted pyramid in telling stories.

He (and they) also destroyed journalism and helped set the table for our current epidemic of “fake news” and vanishing commitment to truth.

Because in applying the tools of fiction to nonfiction, Wolfe left out the facts. He didn’t care what damage he caused as a result. He murdered the truth. And he lured too many writers in as accomplices.

”Essential Truth”

I learned that through a humbling experience as a college undergraduate taking a nonfiction writing seminar with the late author and journalist John Hersey.

Like many other aspiring journalists of the late 1970s and early ‘80s, I tore through the pages of Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. I considered them the ultimate word on LSD culture and clueless liberalism. Who knew that nonfiction could pop with so much memorable dialogue, so many colorful details?

Hersey was often mentioned in the same class as Wolfe and Breslin and Truman Capote as a “new journalist.” He elevated the art of nonfiction with his book about the Hiroshima bombings. He also mastered the art of fiction; he won a Pulitzer for A Bell For Adano. We were all in awe of Hersey, a literary giant with a regal posture and a humble, gentle manner.

Hersey had us read another Wolfe piece for class, a hilarious “non-fiction” article that skewered the stuffiness of The New Yorker magazine. It particularly savaged the editor, William Shawn.

We discussed the piece in class. I blabbered about how Wolfe’s use of detail and anecdote captured Shawn’s pretentiousness better than any traditional journalism could. Hersey raised the issue of whether we could confirm the dialogue Wolfe never heard but presented as fact. It didn’t matter, I insisted: Wolfe captured “the essential truth.” Especially the insight about how, previously unknown to the world, Shawn turned out to be the original intended childhood victim of the infamous murder-kidnappers Leopold and Loeb.

After we finished weighing in on Wolfe, Hersey told us he was a friend of Shawn. (He originally wrote Hiroshima for the New Yorker.) He informed us (accurately) that Wolfe had invented the Leopold and Loeb incident. Completely. And admitted it. Wolfe invented facts through the piece, down to what music he listened, to present a “stupefyingly false” picture of a man who had committed the offense of declining Wolfe’s request for an interview. Rather than presenting a larger “truth,” the “embellishments”  —  little lies — added up to cruel fiction. (Sort of like the headline to this story, if it were to lead into a fabricated quote.)

Then Hersey handed us copies of an essay he wrote for the Yale Review. It detailed the dangers that Wolfe, Mailer, and Capote et al posed to the very notion of facts by promoting a “new journalism” that disregards them.

Hersey’s piece tore into Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, as well, for fusing characters and inventing scenes in supposed non-fiction works like The Executioner’s Song.

‘‘The writer must not invent,’’ Hersey wrote in the piece. ‘’The legend on the license must read: None of This Was Made Up. The ethics of journalism, if we can be allowed such a boon, must be based on the simple truth that every journalist knows the difference between the distortion that comes from subtracting observed data and the distortion that comes from adding invented data.”

Hersey was right on. He urged us to challenge conventions — of structure, of voice, of perspective — in our work. But never to play loose with facts.

Hersey taught us many lessons in that seminar: The possibilities of experimenting with structure and form. The value in double-checking proper names. (It turned out that a well-known panhandler worked outside not “Broadway Pizza,” but “Broadway Pizza Palace.”) The magic of three in listing examples. The need to balance the sometimes conflicting responsibilities to serve your reader and to respect your subject. And second most important of all, “Show it. Don’t Tell it.”

Tom Wolfe mastered those lessons as well as any of the influential writers of his generation. When he admitted he was writing fiction, he actually hit on larger truths in unforgettable ways. (Exhibit A: Bonfire of the Vanities.) But when masquerading as a journalist, Wolfe tragically failed the most important lesson: Facts matter. Tell the truth.

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posted by: robn on May 16, 2018  6:08pm

Agreed with most except lumping in HST. That man wrote as a man who was self-evidently deranged and not to be believed…in his writing was only telegraphed embellishment and no aspiration to convey or implication towards truth.

posted by: Allan Appel on May 17, 2018  7:44am

Here’s a personal fantasy finally revealed: I write a novel that wins a big prize and Paul must do a small notice of it in the Indy and he uses this headline: Indy Reporter Wins Prize For Making Stuff Up.

posted by: RetiredGuy on May 17, 2018  12:15pm

Thanks, Paul, for still letting me enjoy “Bonfire of the Vanities,” which is a classic.

posted by: JCFremont on May 18, 2018  9:07am

Wouldn’t this go back to at least “You Furnish the Pictures, I’ll Furnish the War.” I’ve always enjoyed “Historical Fiction” but I understand that it’s Fiction placed in a Historical or Geographical area. Also enjoy “Ripped from the Headlines” TV or Films, but know artistic liscense is used. We also have the classic line from the film “The Man who Shot Liberty Valance”  “No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” because of competition editors need for realize The Truth just won’t accumulate the eyes and clicks that seem to garner what shows success these days. The bigger problem has been the infiltration of the editorial and opinions moving to the front page without a “columnist” identifier.

posted by: Blabbitz on May 18, 2018  9:17pm

Feels a little strong to me, though I agree that the New Journalism led to all kinds of vices.  And the hit job on Shawn was inexcusable.  I think it’s important to judge things in their time.  At the time, facts were too often defined by the words of authorities.  And it required something in response.  Walter Cronkite’s repudiation of the effort in Vietnam was perhaps a similar effort to go beyond one set of ‘facts’, and get to the truth of the matter.  I think that was driven more by an impression he had than an objective processing of, say, the numbers. I think Wolfe did capture certain elements of risk and innovation in The Right Stuff.  I do think that Wolfe contributed to the spirit of aspiration himself even when it led him way out of his territory in his last book on language.  Yes, there was excess and an unhealthy disregard for the facts, but I am pretty sure that some good writers got inspired to have the audacity of their own vision.

posted by: robn on May 18, 2018  11:27pm

I’ll say this again.

Artists create untruths attempting to reveal the truth.
Scientists destroy untruths attempting to reveal the truth.
Journalist record what they observe and hope some truth comes out of it.