Tom Wolfe was a fascinating writer who perhaps more than anyone since Ernest Hemingway influenced reporting and writing – for good and for bad. He died this week. His influence didn’t.
Wolfe was nothing if not creative and inventive. Ride along with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in Wolfe’s “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” and it will take only a few paragraphs to become immersed in the 1968 hippie-drug-drop out culture. His skill combined an uncanny perception to see not just their feathers and ornamentation but also the essence of the Pranksters’ joy and angst, and then to communicate it all with an unfettered fire-hose gusher of adjectives and adverbs.
Wolfe’s style and approach loosened journalism from its “just the facts” pretentions to seeing and reporting facts that didn’t fit the craft’s stifling template. That’s the good. The bad came like a torrent when journalists began to view themselves more as novelists than chroniclers and used their medium to portray their own feelings and desires as if they were the indisputable observable objective facts of the real world.
Journalism overnight morphed from an inhibiting format for passing on all the news fit to print into a slanted platform for espousing all the news a writer preferred to fit. If there’s a middle ground today, it’s so rare no examples come immediately to mind.
This hasn’t been a mere evolution from the waltz to the jitterbug, mind you. It’s more akin to breaking into a Saint Vitus Dance of frantic, involuntary gyrations. Journalism, and much of writing, hasn’t been the same since, and isn’t likely to revert any time soon.
Just to be clear, Wolfe’s subjective style, while anathema to a century of American journalistic style, is not an evil in itself. And in his delivery of it, Wolfe did much good by illuminating what the mainstream press had either been blind to or had purposely ignored.
“To me, the great joy of writing is discovering,” Wolfe said. “Most writers are told to write about what they know, but I still love the adventure of going out and reporting on things I don’t know about.”
It’s also true that Wolfe’s style has been adopted for evil. As no doubt any number of throw-back editors have pointed out to bursting-at-the-keyboard writers, not everyone can pull off what Wolfe did. That hasn’t stopped those who can’t from trying. And trying and trying again. Sadly, generations of journalists have come and gone without first mastering the rules that Wolfe broke.
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist,” Pablo Picasso once advised. Good advice. Rarely taken these days.
It’s reflexive for critics to lambaste the lack of “objective” reporting and writing today. But never in the history of writing, let alone reporting, has either been performed objectively. True, journalism loudly invokes its supposed “objectivity” to sell reportage as something apart from commentary. But that always has been a snow job. The reportage touted as “objective” always has been merely toned-down or disguised subjectivity.
For the record, there is NO objectivity in writing or reporting. EVERY word is subjectively chosen. Every question a reporter asks is the same. Every question a reporter does not ask also is a subjective decision. The decision to ask a follow-up question or not is entirely subjective. Each decision by a writer of what to include and what to exclude is a subjective call. From the get-go, the decision of what story to pursue, and what story to ignore, is a subjective decision.
At every stage of the process subjective decisions are made, and that’s compounded by a battery of editors and copy editors repeating the whole process when the writer’s work reaches their desks. No writer or editor sees, let alone writes or edits, objectively. All of them see through a prism of their own worldview, bias, limited knowledge and ignorance. This is how a “progressive” sees a right to privacy and a Christian sees a murder looking at the same abortion of an infant in the womb. Once what is written leaves the writer’s keyboard, each successive pair of eyes brings another filter to “fine-tune” the end product. Objective journalism? You gotta be kidding. God alone has an objective view, seeing reality as it really is. All the rest of us don’t.
So, should we credit or blame Tom Wolfe for the deplorable state of journalism today? What he did was indisputably good. The way he did it was entertaining, inventive and creative, giving exposure to overlooked and undiscovered corners of the American landscape. For this, which was in no small way thanks to his freewheeling style as much as to the content of his colorful verbiage, we are indebted.
Wolfe can’t be blamed for inspiring escapees from journalism’s straight-jacked approach to writing and reporting to do wrong, even though they pretended to follow his style and method but usually perverted both instead. Rather than finding the freedom to serve readers right, too many have used Wolfe’s example instead as license to serve themselves, and that’s wrong.
Bare-bones just-the-facts reportage was deficient in its myopic view of reality, but had the virtue of appearing “objective.”
The New Journalism pioneered by Wolfe expanded the view, at the expense of too much opinionating passed off as reportage.
For the reader, who is what all of this is supposed to be about, what to do? Try this: consider the source. The source’s worldview will influence the facts he gathers, the words he writes, what is emphasized and what is left out. Granted, this means a lot more work for readers, and critical thinking skills are not in abundance today (that’s another story).
But once you’ve found reliable sources, rely on them. Nowhere is it written that it’s supposed to be easy. However, as Wolfe showed us for decades, it can be illuminating and even entertaining.