I am currently reading a great deal of contemporary Canadian fiction, as I am compiling an anthology. I am struck, as I always have been, by the great sad turgidity of most of it, the focus on the domestic setting, the family, the marriage, the kitchen in the small town, dad’s pickup truck. Mom is dying now and still smoking, dad is still an alcoholic and there is a trauma in the past we never really got over. Nobody lives in a city, unless they are there to write a thesis on something obscure and also dating a guy who has a shack on an island. Nobody works in finance or politics. There are no lawyers or advertising executives in Canada, apparently, nobody with an interesting job. There are no techno clubs or operas or ballets or fetish parties, no arguments about the Middle East or bitcoin. My frustration with the narrow tropes of CanLit is exactly the same as it was when I was an undergrad in the late 1980s and dreamed of overthrowing this boomer-imposed thematic dominance with a generation of urbanites who would write about subways and warfare and all the other things that journalism takes on. Nothing has changed.
And I realize now that I am rewriting, once again, the argument that Tom Wolfe made at the time, in his essay in Harper’s, Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast. In 1989, that was the manifesto I was longing for. It argued that in the United States, creative writing programs had changed an ambitious literary history into an introverted obsession with the small and the personal. It had become artsy and paltry. He branded the popular minimalist writers of the time – people such as Raymond Carver – “K-Mart realists.” He called for a return to the ambition of the 19th-century novel; he called for novels that would try to track large economic forces and social migrations, that would document business and industry, using research, the way Émile Zola did. It would be a novel that used the investigative techniques and the information-gathering of journalism.
That essay was a blast of asperity that had its philistinic side (it is really hard to dismiss the delicate artistry of a Raymond Carver as worthless, especially if you have nowhere near that kind of sensitivity to subtle narrative yourself). But Wolfe had had enough of subtlety: He wanted no more abandoned parking lots and dead siblings, he wanted a brash and didactic fiction that would entertain us the way news stories would.
He, of course, being a talented journalist, would be the one to write it. He had tried, and I eagerly went back to read his first attempt. The Bonfire of The Vanities was a fun, clever and frustrating book: brilliant in its ambitious attempt to set up the worlds of high-finance, law and inner-city poverty as part of an intricate and uniquely American system, frustrating in its pervasive lack of artistry. The guy who had revolutionized American journalism – almost single-handedly bringing about the sort of colourful, anecdote-filled long-form analysis that would ultimately end up being called “creative non-fiction,” and taught in the same creative-writing programs he so disdained – turned out to be ham-fisted when it came to describing things he made up. His characters bellowed; his narrator bellowed. There were a dozen exclamation marks on every page, both in dialogue and in internal monologue. Every character’s motivation was laboriously explained. It was an easy read and a smart story, but aesthetically unsophisticated, a mass-market bestseller in every way. I found myself longing for the restrained voice of Raymond Carver.
That book was a massive bestseller, of course, as were his subsequent big novels – A Man In Full, I Am Charlotte Simmons – but the highbrow literary establishment shared my reservations about his formal abilities, and produced condescending reviews. Updike was withering; Mailer was backhanded; Irving was just mean. This led to more of Wolfe’s crowing about what an important writer he was.
Wolfe wanted to be a great novelist in the 19th-century mode – and his Edwardian style of dress reflected this historical affinity. He wanted to be a novelist from a time when novelists were gods: famous and rich and popular and influential, not introverted and reclusive and neurotic and campus-bound.
He will not be remembered as a great novelist, but as one of the best American magazine writers yet, and as a powerful influence on American literary aesthetics. He infused journalism with the techniques of fiction, and fiction with the techniques of journalism. Jonathan Franzen rebuked the simplicity of Wolfe’s Billion-Footed Beast exhortations in a 1996 Harper’s essay of his own (Perchance to Dream) and then went on to write a series of ambitious social-realist, economics-fixated novels that are pretty much exactly what Wolfe was calling for. And here I am in Canada in 2018 still calling for a Wolfe of our own.