Wolfe: Fiction is just the facts, ma’am

Good facts make for great fiction.

That roughly sums up the message best-selling author Tom Wolfe delivered in a chat with one of his admirers April 18 before a packed Kelly Writers House audience.

Wolfe, on campus to deliver the keynote address at the annual School of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Forum, spoke with Professor of English and former Washington Post Style section reporter Paul Hendricksen.

Some authors take too literally the advice of writing about what you know, Wolfe said. “Emerson said that everyone had a great autobiography in them,” he said, “but he didn’t say they had two.”

Wolfe, dressed in a pinstripe version of his trademark white suit, noted that the great novelists of the 19th century, such as Dickens and Balzac, were reporters. “They wrote about what they knew, but they always had to get new material,” he said, and added himself to their company.

Much of the conversation, followed by questions from Writers House and webcast audiences, dealt with Wolfe’s role as a thorn in the side of the literary elite.

Wolfe, who first gained widespread notice in the mid-1960s as the leader of a movement known as New Journalism, recalled the storm of criticism he and editor Clay Felker received after New York magazine published his parody of The New Yorker, “Tiny Mummies,” in 1966. “Clay and I thought the sky was falling. But after 10 days, the only change we noted was that people started inviting us to parties.”

And he characterized the attacks by literary lions John Updike, John Irving and Norman Mailer on his most recent novel, “A Man in Full,” as a concerted effort to discredit his detail-rich realist approach to fiction.

Wolfe lamented the turn away from realism in novels, citing onetime New Journalist Mailer himself as a victim of the fashion, which he said began in college writing programs in the 1950s. “It was like an electrical engineer saying, I’ve done this electricity stuff for 100 years, and now I’m going in a different direction.”

He also predicted, “History will look back and see that experiments in non-fiction were the great literary experiment of the 20th century.”


Originally published on May 3, 2001