(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.
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.