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Tom Wolfe: The man who made journalism new

A tribute to Tom Wolfe, the man who turned around journalism and non-fiction writing in the US

Tom Wolfe in his trademark all-white ensemble, in 1986. Photo: AP
Tom Wolfe in his trademark all-white ensemble, in 1986. Photo: AP

With Tom Wolfe, reporting and non-fiction writing in the US took a definitive turn in the 1970s, leaving a lasting influence far and wide. Three veteran media professionals pay tribute to the master of innovation and style who died recently

‘Taught us to look for words that capture the Zeitgeist’

There he goes, I can still see him, my 19-year-old self, skipping a class at Sydenham College, the den of south Bombay’s (now Mumbai) capitalist kids, which droll seniors called the best commerce college on B Road, even though it was the only commerce college on B Road. Across Churchgate station is the office of the woman who writes as if she owns the language—Shobha Kilachand, now known as Shobhaa De, the slayer of egos, the puncturer of hypocrisies, who runs a magazine where I want to work. She reads my work, likes it, gives me my first break and would later hire me the year I graduated, before my scholarship kicked in, taking me to America. And I asked her—how can I write a feature that doesn’t read like it was written in England in the 19th century, as so many teachers had tried to teach us; and she notices my wet hair and dripping umbrella and Charagh Din shirt and Kay Dee jeans and non-English medium Gujju accent with a lisp, and says Read Tom Wolfe—and gives me The New Journalism.

Who’s afraid of Tom Wolfe? Not us, as we are listening to The Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley and The Beatles LPs, even ABBA, and we read the back issues of American magazines passed down by older brothers of our friends, and read Jack Kerouac and Michael Herr and Wolfe, of course, and discover New Journalism. Ignore strictures on length. Experiment with the structure. Forget rules. Capitalize Random Words if you Like. See the page as a canvas. Paint words. With vivid imagery so that they become windows, no longer bricks, and, beyond the window, let your imagination soar. Get. The. Facts. Right. Be accurate. But don’t kill the story by piling factsuponfactsuponfacts, making the text dead. Use the facts to authenticate the story. But imagine, imagine what your character feels like. Have a plot. Massage the language, g-e-n-t-l-y. And make the character credible—whether he is the shoeshine boy at Churchgate, the stenographer racing to catch the 5.17 Bandra Fast, the woman whose mangalsutra bought at Tribhovandas Bhimji Zaveri was snatched as the train left Borivli that morning. Wolfe taught us to look for the detail that tells. Use the skills of fiction to make your non-fiction more real.

And he taught us to look for words that capture the Zeitgeist. Radical Chic. Electric Kool-Aid. Maumauing. Word play, like Bauhaus to Our House. I remember myself, at 23, buying all his available books from a used book store at my American college, carrying them to my dorm in my jhola, walking swiftly, eager to start reading, to understand the country that had been my home for more than a year, digging deep into the Big Country, later, living in Manhattan during its gilded age, before the crash of 1987 wiped off all the capital gains and, with it, the arrogant sneers on the faces of the masters of the universe, the Sherman McCoys in Brooks Brothers suits (earning ten thousand times what the woman stitching Nike sneakers earns in Tangerang, outside Jakarta), those with their urge to merge and the desire to acquire, who had tried transforming the America of Norman Rockwell’s Main Street into the imagined glitzy yellow brick road called Wall Street.

Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.

It would end spectacularly, in a bonfire of vanities, KABOOM, just as the man in the white suit had predicted.

—Salil Tripathi

Salil Tripathi has worked at publications as varied as Celebrity (1982-83), Indian Post (1986-87), India Today (1988-91), and was the Singapore-based regional correspondent at Asia, Inc. (1993-97) and Far Eastern Economic Review (1997-99).

‘Had a huge impact on my imagination’

The photo you see (below) is what I call a #LifeHighlight. Back when I was teaching at Columbia Journalism School for two decades, I met a lot of celebrities— journalism celebs and actual celebs (the difference being that journalism celebs are only really known in the media world). But the man in white was a rare crossover: a journalism celeb who was an actual celeb. Tom Wolfe’s work was read by millions around the world and inspired thousands of would-be journalists.

One of those would-bes was me. I read my first Wolfe book—The Right Stuff, about American astronauts—as a teenager in Fiji and I read all his big books that came out before I became a professor, including several in India, while studying at St Stephen’s College. He had a huge impact on my imagination and my writing ambition. My imagination—because of his ability to bring alive characters, real and fictional—was unmatched by other writers. And my writing ambition, because I imagined that I could write like him one day.

I never did end up writing like him. To do what Wolfe did you needed a lot more talent than I had and a lot more courage to ask people what they were really thinking and the ability to immerse yourself in their lives.

I got to hear him speak multiple times during my Columbia years, and, in May 2013, I took this selfie with Wolfe and my colleague, another legendary journalist, Prof. Richard Wald. My caption at the time: “One of the longest names in journalism meets two of the biggest names in journalism."

When he died last week, multiple people posted lovely remembrances on my Facebook wall and some of them are below. He was not on social media himself, but the way he has been remembered on it by thousands shows one aspect of Facebook that has been overlooked. At a time when Facebook is criticized for all kinds of real and imagined problems, it remains the best way to mark the passing of loved ones. It’s become our online mourning place. Every day, as parents and other relatives die, I see beautiful tributes from loved ones and equally lovely responses. Yes, some people just hit the sad-face icon, but so many take the time to reflect, to console, to connect. Turns out it’s also true of beloved writers.

Benét Wilson: My dad is a retired air force colonel who was deputy base commander at Edwards Air Force Base in California, where, among other things, he oversaw the space shuttle landings. A lot of former astronauts came by and Dad had all the living ones autograph Wolfe’s book, The Right Stuff. Dad asked me to get Mr Wolfe to autograph the book. And he politely declined. I explained how his was the only missing autograph. He asked me if Neil Armstrong had signed it (he was known for not signing books). I said he did sign it. Three days and a train ride later, I was in Mr Wolfe’s office, where he signed the book with a flair. Such a polite and lovely man. RIP

Preston Merchant: He used to work out every afternoon on the stair climber next me at the NYSC on E 86, dressed in purple sweats. He would climb slowly but intently, eyes closed, large drops of perspiration falling from his nose. I never spoke to him, since doing so would seem to violate the unspoken code of the gym, and he was deep in his own—one assumes literary—reverie. Of his purple sweatpants and purple top, which he wore every day, I wanted to ask, “Are you incognito when you’re not in all white?"

Bill Sutley: Tom Wolfe introduced me to the concept of reverse-engineering well-written narratives. That is, trying to figure out how he made the observations or what questions he asked to gather the information that made his writing so strong. I can’t say I’ve read everything of his, but The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test really stuck in my memory. It also introduced me to the idea of immersion reporting.

—Sree Sreenivasan

Sree Sreenivasan, former chief digital officer of New York City, is a social coach and consultant. He is a former dean of students at Columbia Journalism School, where he taught for two decades.

Conjured up an image of journalism that was thrilling’

Here, kid, read this book." To misguide me in my early youth, I had a couple of older boys as mentors, and, one summer afternoon, while hanging around with them, I precociously bragged that I’d read By-Line: Selected Articles And Dispatches Of Four Decades, the collection of dispatches by Ernest Hemingway spanning four decades of his journalism, with subjects that ranged from eyewitness accounts of the Spanish civil war to the experience of getting treated by students at a dentistry school. In response, one of them shut me up by handing me a book. It was the late 1970s and the book was The New Journalism, edited by Tom Wolfe and E.W. Johnson, published not many years before that. It wasn’t like anything I’d read before. The first part, written by Wolfe, was the critique of the American novel and an elaboration of what he thought was a better technique: of mixing up the style of journalism with that of literature.

The second part had 24 non-fiction articles, each with a short introduction by Wolfe. There was an excerpt from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, based on his detailed research into the brutal murder of a rich Kansas farming family; there was George Plimpton’s article on his immersive attempts to match himself against professional athletes to find out how an average person would fare in such competition; Michael Herr’s chillingly real account of the Vietnam War; Wolfe’s own excerpt from Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers—a scathing story about a fund-raiser at the famous composer Leonard Bernstein’s apartment in New York for members of the militant Black Panthers; and there were two by Hunter S. Thompson, Hell’s Angels, and The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved.

For me, still in my teens, they conjured up an image of journalism that was thrilling. I quickly devoured that volume and sought out other books by Wolfe but also by Thompson. We were getting to know the psychedelic sounds of the West Coast bands those days and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Wolfe was a perfect complement. In a year or two, Thompson’s Gonzo Papers Vol. 1: The Great Shark Hunt would come out and I’d save up to buy it. It became a bible. Thompson’s singular style of journalism, where he would become part of the story, was particularly appealing, and, more than anything, I badly wanted to become a journalist.

Later, I would discover Wolfe’s knack for catching social trends in America. He called the 1970s the “me decade", the 1980s the age of “money fever", and the 1990s “a big hangover". His books, the non-fiction ones as well as the novels such as Bonfire Of The Vanities, reflected “New Journalism"(a term he personally hated). They were immersive, deeply researched, and hugely insightful. His writing style rebelled against convention: He used multiple adjectives, newly coined words, sprays of exclamation marks, and extended dialogue. Nothing I’d read before was like this.

In the decades that followed, Wolfe and other proponents of this new style would change the way journalists reported, wrote long-form pieces, and experimented with style. Even now, some of the best pieces of journalism that I read seem profoundly influenced by the movement that began with him.

—Sanjoy Narayan

Sanjoy Narayan has been a writer, reporter and editor for over three decades. His last job was as Hindustan Times’ editor-in-chief till 2016.

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