THE TOM WOLFE MODEL
Why the career of Tom Wolfe should serve as a lesson for conservative donors and young writers
In an interview with IM—1776 from last year, I remarked that one of the Right’s notable failures is its inability to produce good artists. I attributed this failure in part to a lack of support and a failure of imagination by the donor class. Conservative donors, being, well, conservative, are averse, even loathe, spending money in ways and on things that everyone else hasn’t been funding for the last fifty years. This is one reason why the traditional think tanks and magazines aren’t hungry for cash, despite their dubious effectiveness in recent times. As an old business adage had it, nobody ever got fired for buying IBM. Even if the system fails — or the magazine bleeds subscribers, or the think tank wallows in irrelevance — there is little to no career or reputational risk to those responsible. Doing what everyone else is doing is almost always rewarded, or at least not punished.
And yet it must be admitted that the institutional Right is not in the greatest shape today. True, in one sense it’s more vital than ever, given new energy by the Trump phenomenon and the comprehensive rethink that catalyzed. But institutionally it’s mostly adrift: mostly stuck in the past, fighting old fights, reliving old glories, pretending (or believing) that nothing fundamental has changed. As someone who works within it (though at the best of its institutions!), it is naturally my hope that this situation can be turned around. But it must also be admitted that nearly all the most interesting and consequential work and thinking on the Right today is being done outside institutional walls (and constraints).
While the effort to reclaim and revitalize the Right’s institutions ought to go on (at least for those institutions that are plausibly salvageable), there’s no reason why all the conservative eggs need to be placed in this basket. Or — to compound the metaphor — the Right ought to be spreading its bets.
One way to do that would be to patronize emerging artists: specifically, storytellers. It is hardly an original insight to say that stories move the world to an infinitely greater extent than policy papers. Yet the Right spends infinitely more on the latter than on the former. The Left, which understands power and how to use it far better than we do, does not make this mistake.
Granted, it’s far easier for the side that controls most of the publishing houses and all the movie studios and streaming services, etc., to dominate story-telling. I have no easy answer to that beyond the obvious question: where is all the right-wing money to back the “conservative Hollywood alternative” that we’ve been promised for at least half my lifetime? Here again is a failure of imagination — or perhaps too much imagination about what might happen to assets after they’re withdrawn from safe investments and applied to risky ventures. In any case, both problems will need to be solved, but at least writers are cheaper than studios.
I wish the career of Tom Wolfe to suffice as an example. Not of patronage, for he had none, but of what might be possible today if any were available.
Wolfe began his career in the late 1950s, i.e., at a time when it was easier — though by no means easy — to make one’s living by the pen. (It helped that he came from an affluent family, though I have some familiarity with his biography and never came across any indication that he was supported by his parents after college.)
He was born in Richmond, Virginia, attended Washington and Lee, tried out for but didn’t make the New York Giants pitching staff, then got a PhD at Yale. Eschewing the academy in favor of the ‘real world’, he became a reporter at the Springfield (Massachusetts) Union, the first (really only) job he was offered. From there he worked his way up the prestige chain, to the Washington Post (back when it wasn’t brute force propaganda), then to the New York Herald Tribune. The latter was, at the time Wolfe joined (1962), the New York Times’ only broadsheet rival and America’s Republican paper of record (sort of what the Wall Street Journal is today). But it limped out of the great newspaper strike of 1962-63 mortally wounded and was killed off by a second strike in 1966, leaving Wolfe without a job.
The experience of the strikes, when Wolfe wasn’t drawing a regular paycheck, taught him that he could stand on his own. He began writing for Esquire and other magazines, making a decent living. In fact, he always lived very well, in part financed by debt. As the New York Herald Tribune was going under, its Sunday supplement was spun off as New York Magazine, giving Wolfe something of a home base. For the next decade or so, he made a very fine living as a magazine writer. (In those pre-Internet days, journalism paid a lot better, and before Wall Street deregulation and globalization, New York was a lot cheaper.)
Wolfe also made decent money on his first three books, especially The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test, which, unlike the other two, was a not a collection of previously published articles. But it was the blockbuster Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers that sold well enough to allow him the freedom to write about whatever he wanted — and to spend as much time as he pleased researching and reporting. His subsequent books made, and kept, him rich. One in particular — The Bonfire of the Vanities — did so well that its success prompted Wolfe to pen a kind of denunciatory challenge to all the writers in America.
“Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” published in Harper’s in 1989, argues that American literature turned stale when it stopped relying on reportorial realism and instead turned inward (think of that mellifluous phrase “the psychological novel”). Wolfe insists that writers replace the hoary old saw “write what you know” with “write about what you find,” since in fact few people know much of anything until and unless they go out and learn it. His advice — or better, exhortation, was: leave the house, gather information, and apply reportorial techniques to fiction; i.e. invent stories that explain the real world. Don’t think of fiction as fantasy; far from it. The whole enterprise stands or falls based on your story’s plausibility, which is to say, its conformity to observed reality. Bonfire of the Vanities was so successful because everyone who knows anything about New York knew that the portrait was dead-on accurate.
Now, of course, Wolfe-level talents aren’t exactly numerous. More prosaically, even with that level of talent, it’s nearly impossible these days for writers to make Wolfe-level money, or even a fraction. Nonetheless, I was gob-smacked by Wolfe’s manifesto when I first read it. I distinctly remember walking down Fifth Avenue and seeing the front cover of Bonfire of the Vanities — a book I had already read more than once — in a bookstore window (back then, bookstores could still afford Fifth Avenue and, more to the point, still existed). There on the dustjacket were the enticing words “With a New Forward by the Author” (referring, unbeknownst to me, to the aforementioned manifesto). Despite already owning a first edition hardback, I bought it instantly and hustled it back to my little apartment on East 50th Street and devoured it. I vowed then and there to become a writer of realistic fiction in the Wolfean manner.
But I had two problems. First, I wasn’t nearly as good as Wolfe. That didn’t bother me overmuch. If every composer intimidated by Beethoven never wrote a note, the repertoire would be a lot thinner. I figured I would just do my best and let the chips fall where they may.
The second was more serious: I had a job which was located nearly 3,000 miles from my chosen setting (Berkeley). I plotted out the book and wrote what I could, but soon found myself running out of what Wolfe called “material,” i.e., actual observed events, behaviors, trends and the like. I eventually concluded that the only way to do it right was to go back to Berkeley and stew in the madness for weeks, or even months, observing, interviewing, and taking detailed notes. Just like Wolfe.
That turned out to be impractical. Despite many schemes and half-made plans, I never managed to get out there for any length of time, and as a result the book was never finished.
My failure should serve as a lesson for patrons today. The reason I never resettled in the thick of things was that I couldn’t think of a practicable way to support myself. But what if, say, some patron lady bountiful had given me a tidy five-figure sum (I prefer to believe it wouldn’t have taken much) enabling me to live there, observing and reporting, for some extended period? Would I have finished? I like to think so. Would the book have been a hit? Who knows?
My intent, I can tell you, was to blow the lid off political correctness, rampant anti-Americanism, the collapse of the humanities, the Astroturffed protest culture, the racial grievance racket, the corrupt administration, the horrible relations between the sexes — in other words, all the things so disastrously wrong with the modern university. (To which I intended to add subplots on the frat scene, the football team, and the conservative subculture.) In other words, I wanted to tell as a story — with a setting, characters, action, dialogue and plot — the same narrative presented in fine books such as Illiberal Education and Tenured Radicals. But much more engrossingly, as Wolfe argued, than nonfiction is typically capable of.
The Left imposes its vision on the country in large part through story-telling: books, plays, documentaries, TV shows, movies, you name it. Was the Civil Rights Revolution accomplished with policy papers, or via Invisible Man, A Raisin in the Sun, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Roots, Mississippi Burning, Philadelphia, Will & Grace, and all the rest? It’s all well and good, and probably true, to say “both.” But that only points to the heart of the matter: which does our side comprehensively lack?
In his manifesto, Wolfe professed himself to have been amazed that the utterly fascinating and riotous spectacle of New York in the second half of the 20th century — arguably the richest source of material for writers in human history — had not produced a single big realistic novel in the vein of Dickens, Thackeray, Twain, Balzac, Lewis, Steinbeck and the like. It was, he said, the most obvious idea imaginable. And no one had done it.
Two decades earlier, Wolfe had similarly asked: where were the novels about the hippies? There weren’t any, so his nonfiction Acid Test filled the gap. About the race riots? Ditto — so Radical Chic took their place. About the various social revolutions collectively known as ‘The Sixties’? Again, his collected nonfiction articles did the job. The novelists had abandoned the field.
Tom Wolfe, New York, late 1965
Because Wolfe so gleefully spoofed reigning upper- and intellectual-class pieties, many assumed him to be a man of the Right, a label he always disclaimed. But looking back over his oeuvre in light of today’s offenses and absurdities, the designation becomes ever harder to deny. And yet Wolfe’s conservatism was able to fly under the elites’ radar and gain a wide audience, in part because he never preached or hit readers over the head with his views. He was also consistently funny, which goes a long way toward making readers not realize they’re consuming crimethink. And the various stylistic pyrotechnics made him seem like a modernist, almost avant-garde. How can someone so far ahead of the curve — who writes about hippies dropping acid, no less — possibly be a conservative?
But Wolfe didn’t just make fun. He also wrote sympathetic accounts of ordinary middle-class people, backwoods country folk, American fighter pilots in Vietnam, and the Mercury Seven Astronauts. When he finally turned to fiction, three of his greatest creations are the aspiring bourgeoise son of ex-hippies Conrad Hensley, Appalachian child prodigy Charlotte Simmons, and straight-arrow Cuban cop Nestor Camacho.
Today we may ask questions similar to the ones Wolfe was posing decades ago. Where are the send-ups of wokeness? Of Big Tech? Of the globalist elite? Of deep-state apparatchiks? Where are the sympathetic accounts of the Deplorables? These books simply aren’t being written. They should be.
My modest proposal to conservative and right-leaning donors, therefore, is: let’s work together to identify young talent on the Right and give them some money. Then let’s turn them loose on the world to find what is to be found, see what is to be seen, mock what must be mocked, extoll what deserves our praise, and write it down, as stories. Yes, we’ll need shows and movies too (and some of our friends are already on that). But in the meantime, as a proof of concept, it will be easier to coax from donors the relatively small sums it would take to back a few writers than to pony up the big bucks needed to make a feature film.
Getting the books into print will be no problem — one thing the Right doesn’t lack is publishing firms. But those firms mostly churn out the same fare year after year: conservosphere celebrity dustjacket photo titles and yet more policy tomes. In other words, Boomer-bait. It’s high time for publishers to try something else. If they’re worried about the downside risk, let some donors offset any potential losses. Think the Left doesn’t do this? Do you really believe all those crushingly dull political ‘bestsellers’ actually sell organically — that every talentless regime hack actually earns back her seven-figure advance? I’ve long suspected, thought cannot prove, that it’s all an elaborate money-laundering scheme. So why shouldn’t our side do it too? Lawfully, of course.
Another page from the Wolfean book we could take, just as Wolfe himself imitated Dickens on this point, is serialization. Knowing himself all-too-well, Wolfe realized the salutary benefits of deadline pressure and so arranged to have Bonfire serialized in Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone is obviously not going to talk to any of us, but another asset the conservosphere doesn’t lack is magazines. Some editor needs to be persuaded into serializing new right-wing talent. Money can be very persuasive.
I had the same idea back in the day, minus the money. I approached Berkeley lefties-turned-righties Peter Collier and David Horowitz, the editors of Heterodoxy magazine, which focused on the campus, about serializing my Berkeley book. They turned me down. (Decades later, invited to speak at one of their conferences, I recounted this story, which apparently both of them had forgotten. They subsequently told me that, in hindsight, they wished they had done it.)
It’s unlikely that any of /ourguys is going to match or even mimic Wolfe’s crossover, mainstream success. But they should at least aim for the same surface neutrality. Politically tendentious entertainment, and a fortiori art, is a crashing bore. Somehow a line will have to be walked between Christian Rock-like cringe and all-out genuflection before current year pieties. It would be nice if this new lit found a wide audience. But we may as well start by trying to entertain and inform our side and build out from there.
Yes, promotion and distribution will be problems. Regime media will not want to cover, or even mention, our books and, if any titles catch on, the usual platforms will ban them. There’s no way around that until and unless we build alternative platforms, which we’re going to have to do anyway, since it’s only a matter of time before they shut us out of everything. Necessity rules, and should spur us to action — or not, as the case may be. I leave it to you to think through the consequences of inaction.
In the meantime, word of mouth and other samizdat methods will have to do. It may be naïve to believe that a good product will overcome any amount of censorship or de-platforming, but that’s a healthier self-delusion than believing we have no way to win, and so shouldn’t try. Obviously, a few novels or story collections, even TV shows or films — even if they’re massive hits — are not going to solve all our problems. But they would undoubtedly be potent weapons that our arsenal utterly lacks and that the other side wields in abundance.
The Right has been doing the same things now for half a century, and we’ve been losing for almost as long. Perhaps it’s time to try something new.