Tom Wolfe on How to Write New Journalism

In this 1987 interview, the legendary writer talks about his new novel 'The Bonfire of the Vanities' – and breaks down how to write in his singular style

Tom Wolfe spoke with Rolling Stone for the magazine's 20th anniversary. Credit: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

For the 20th-anniversary issue of Rolling Stone, we reached out to the greatest artists, musicians, actors and writers in the magazine's history. For that issue, we spoke with Tom Wolfe about the Sixties, New Journalism and how he came up with his latest book, the blockbuster novel Bonfire of the Vanities.

As one of the chief architects of new journalism, you put such terms as "good old boy" "radical chic" and "the right stuff" into the language. Did you also come up with the term "new journalism"? 
No. As far as I can tell, it was created by Pete Hamill. He was going to write an article about Gay Talese, Jimmy Breslin and a few other writers for Nugget, when Seymour Krim was editing it. Remember Nugget? It was a skin magazine that turned into a literary magazine [laughs]. Those things happen to a lot of people. Anyway, I don't know if he ever wrote the piece, but Krim says that Hamill was the first to use the term. I don't know how conceptual he was being, but the phrase stuck. 

Who or what influenced you to go in this new direction?
It wasn't just me, although I was there at the founding. I remember watching and reading Talese and Breslin very closely. And what was exciting was technique. It had nothing to do with stating your opinions, which Jimmy does all the time now. In those days it was almost always a third-person scene. And the technical bravura was what stood out. Never did Gay Talese write in the first person. Never was he impressionistic. It was in the third person, written like a short story. There were a few others, but those two were the standouts. It was one of those things that was in the air. 

You may have followed their lead, but didn't you also elaborate on the technique and consciously stretch the boundaries of conventional reporting? 
I really made a concentrated effort to get in the game. I adapted a lot of things I had run across in graduate school. For example, there were these early experimental Soviet writers like Aleksei Remizov, Boris Pilniak, Andrei Sobel and the Serapion Brothers. One of them, Yevgeni Zamyatin, was best known for We, the book that Orwell's 1984 was based on. From Zamyatin, I got the idea of the oddly punctuated inner thoughts. I began using a lot of exclamation points and dashes and multiple colons. A lot of dots. The idea was, that's the way people think. People don't think in well-formed sentences. Anyway, they were writing about the Russian Revolution with the techniques of the French symbolists, and it was just electrifying. So here was the perfect thing. They were writing about a real event – usually it was fiction, but it was quite realistic. From the outset, I borrowed heavily from them, and that's a pretty funny thing to do when you're writing for the Sunday supplement of the New York Herald Tribune [laughs]. 

And then I began to develop my own techniques. One of the things I used, which I now see has spread everywhere, is the historical present – I don't know how I hit upon that – where you just write an entire story, a nonfiction story, in the present tense. Today most serious first novelists write in the present tense – have you noticed? It does give you a wonderful sense of immediacy. 

One recent first novelist, Jay McInerney, made a splash by embellishing the immediacy of the historical present with the second-person singular.
The second-person-singular narration was, as far as I know, introduced by Jimmy Cannon, who was a sports columnist for the New York Journal-American. I think it's a dreadful device. But I'm not one to speak, because in Rolling Stone I introduced the first-person plural as a story-telling device. 

The royal "we"? 
The astronaut "we"! When I wrote the series on the astronauts, I used it because I had this miscellany of figures to write about – 72 astronauts – and I had to do it very rapidly. And if you use one of these hokey techniques, like second-person singular and first-person plural, you solve the problem of point of view very neatly. And it wasn't bad – well, actually, it was bad, but it was fun to do. Now, even though I made the historical present my trademark at the outset, I find that it's self-parody for me to lean on it. This can happen. Your own inventions can become deflated currency. How can you start another magazine piece with "Madonna sits there fidgeting with a forelock that just won't act right. She pouts, she pivots on her seat, she gives me a look through tiger-tongue lick-on eyelashes and says …"? Somehow, you just can't start a story that way anymore. Well, maybe it's a good thing, because then you try other things.

The power of new journalism seemed to lie in the way it blurred the lines between fiction and nonfiction. And now your latest book, The Bonfire of the Vanities, is a novel. Was it an inevitable progression for you? And isn't your first fiction still heavily rooted in nonfiction – a roman à clef?
I certainly always used novelistic techniques, but I also felt that the boundaries between fact and fiction should never be blurred. Not in the sense of making you wonder whether you're reading something that's true or made up. For that reason, in writing a novel – which I've done out of curiosity as much as anything else – I haven't wanted to write a roman à clef. I figured if you want to write about real people, do it with nonfiction. It's exciting to write about real, living people – in nonfiction. 

For years, I thought about writing a novel. In fact, when I was in college, if you were going to write, it was just assumed that's what you'd write. If you were serious, you'd write a novel. I went into newspaper work the way a lot of people did, with the idea that I'd work on the newspaper for a while and get a little experience, maybe work some of the fat off my prose style – and yes, I believed in that mystical stuff about immersing yourself in life – and then leave the newspaper business and write a novel. Instead, I began to get more and more excited about what was being done in nonfiction as a literary form. That became my great passion. 

So, by the time I was 34, which is really when I began writing – nobody should wait that long! – I was completely wrapped up in writing nonfiction. But I was very consciously using devices that hitherto had only been used in novels and short stories. The game was to be absolutely truthful and yet to have the absorbing quality of fiction. By absorbing, I mean that power that some fiction has of making you feel that you are in the story. You are inside the minds of the characters. 

And it's done by using four devices. At one point, I even isolated the four – I think I'm the first person who ever did this. The reason I pat myself on the back is that they are so concrete. They can be clearly defined. I'm not talking about zeitgeist now, or spiritual matters or other things that people tend to talk about when they're talking about literary matters. These are very specific techniques. To me, it was always the technique that was important. And in nonfiction the technique was based on reporting. You can't pull these things off without reporting. Where do you get the dialogue without the reporting? 

Of course, there's also the temptation to say what you know is on someone's mind – what you can't get them to say. But in nonfiction you really have to resist that temptation. In writing The Bonfire of the Vanities, I indulged that a lot. I was writing fiction that was based on reporting. So maybe I got that out of my system. 

Briefly, what are the four basic techniques you refer to?
The first is scene-by-scene construction. In other words, telling the entire story through a sequence of scenes rather than simple historical narration. Second is the use of real dialogue – the more the better. The third, which is the least understood of the techniques, is the use of status details. That is, noting articles of clothing, manners, the way people treat children, the way they treat servants. All the things that indicate where a person thinks he fits in society or where he hopes to go socially. The fourth is the use of point of view, which is depicting the scenes through a particular pair of eyes. It's really rather simple to do in a novel. Even bad novelists do it very well. Until the new journalism got going, it wasn't believed that you could do this in nonfiction unless you were writing autobiography. 

Do you think the stylistic innovations of new journalism have been abused during the 20 years that it's been around? 
No, it really wasn't used that much. There weren't that many magazines and publications that would indulge in it. Rolling Stone would. New York magazine in another life did. Esquire did and perhaps still would. But the techniques still seem to be well understood by young writers. It pops up in strange places. Pick up any airline magazine, for example. But it was superseded as a topic among the young by investigative journalism, thanks to Woodward and Bernstein. In fact, it's interesting to me that they wrote All the President's Men in two forms. First, they wrote it as straight newspaper journalism for the Washington Post. Then they did it in the form of the new journalism in the book. You can take your choice. And I think you would choose the latter. 

Unfortunately, new journalism became so confused in terms of definition that after I edited the New Journalism anthology, I vowed never to talk about it again. That was in 1973, and I didn't for years, but I guess I can talk about it now. After a while, I began to regret that I had written about it the way that I did, because it began to look like a codification. You know, here are these techniques, and here's what you do, and here are the rules, here's who does it well. 

You really didn't intend to set up the Institute of New Journalism. 
That was the problem, which had already become the problem for the novel and the conventional essay – there were too many standards. And it makes writers, particularly young writers, too self-conscious.

Why do you think your take on the Ken Kesey saga in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test captured everyone's imagination? 
For two reasons. One, Kesey was a rather prominent literary figure who got involved in a bizarre adventure. And two, it was the right story of the whole psychedelic hippie movement. All of the changes that movement brought to the country generally – which we're still – can be felt and sensed in his story. After all, the story of Ken Kesey is not just the story of some disturbed young man from the fringe who sets out with a bandoleer full of resentments to disturb American society. Here's somebody who is from the salt of the earth, from a farm family that moves from the heartland to the rich Willamette Valley of Oregon, who makes good and does all the right things: joins Beta Theta Pi fraternity and the drama club, becomes both an A student and a wrestling star. He was just the best sort of Joe College. And it is he who becomes the leader of a religion based in large part on LSD. The changes in him are on the heroic scale, in a literary sense, and they're the heroic version of changes that were going to affect a lot of children over the succeeding 20 years. 

So Kesey was representative of the emerging youth culture of the Sixties?
Yes, and when you talk about the Sixties, in most cases you're talking about things that young people did or were responsible for, except for Vietnam. There's a dark side of the Sixties and a happy side. And the happy side was dominant. Do you want to know the truth? Ninety-five percent of the young people in the United States in the Sixties didn't give a damn about Vietnam. If you could make a survey, you'd find that the number of those who cared was very small. They were having too good a time. They didn't have enough leftover energy to be down in the mouth.

I insist that the way the young people changed life in this country was the big news of the Sixties. It overshadows, in importance, Vietnam, the riots, the racial collisions, the space program. Any of the big historical events of the Sixties are overshadowed by what young people did. And they did it because they had money. For the first time in the history of man, young people had the money, the personal freedom and the free time to build monuments and pleasure palaces to their own tastes. And they created styles. That's what the psychedelic, or hippie, world did. It created musical styles. Without that world, without Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead, there would have been no serious music by the Beatles. They take off from the Grateful Dead, starting with that album Revolver. Everything from Revolver on comes out of the American psychedelic world, to which they were turned on by Bob Dylan – in person, in private. Not by listening to his records, but by getting involved with him personally. 

One of the things the youth culture did was to break down the walls of formality between people of different status, such as the wall between faculty and students in universities. Ironically, today the faculty members look more like children than the students, because many of the faculty members were children of the Sixties, and they still dress that way. The whole breakdown of formality between the old and the young – it changed universally, just like that [slaps his leg]. It comes out of that period. 

What effect did that breakdown of formality have on the country? 
We can't even calculate the effects, good and bad, of that yet. When you sweep aside the structure of maintaining divisions between people of different status, you've done a fundamental thing. You've done a radical thing. And that's a big part of the story of this country in the second half of the Twentieth century. 

Look at what's happening in religion today. All the new religions – their strength is seen indirectly in the scandals – are evangelical, charismatic religions. This would have never happened without the hippies, or "the psychedelic world," a term I prefer. "Hippie" was completely a Newsweek magazine creation. The term within Haight-Ashbury was "acidheads." But if you're going to pump a subject for journalistic excitement, you can't keep having these people called acidheads. It sounds like corroding batteries.

Anyway, without the psychedelic folk making ecstatic religion hip, there would have been no resurgence of charismatic religion in the last quarter of this century, which there has been – and it's a big thing. Insofar as young people are attracted to religion in this country, they are attracted to ecstatic religion. They're not attracted to the Episcopal church or the Presbyterian church. They're not even attracted to the Roman Catholic church unless it's in an ecstatic offshoot – and there are some. There's even an ecstatic branch of Judaism. This all came out of the youth culture of the Sixties. 

And of course rock & roll, which has roots in gospel music, emerged as a major force in the Sixties.
Rock & roll itself – I mean, it's so obvious, it's so big and everyone's so aware of it that people tend not to realize the effect of rock & roll. Rock & roll was a socially radical form of music. Rock & roll demolished the ballroom-dance hegemony of popular music – Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra. And ballroom dancing is one of the support structures of the conventional status system. It's good manners. Presley, and later the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, demolished the status structure of popular music. When Presley came along, the fact that he was of low-rent origins and had a low-rent sound – a black singer who happened to be a poor white boy from the hills – was very much a part of his importance, musically and socially. This is Marshall McLuhan's insight – and it's quite valid – that it was of crucial importance to the influence of the Beatles that they were lower-class boys from Liverpool, or thought of themselves as lower-class. I guess most of them qualified. The same with the Rolling Stones. Even if they had to manufacture a lower-class background for themselves, it was important that they have it. This was a social revolution. 

Because they were among your most celebrated subjects, you are forever linked with the Sixties and all the flamboyant characters of the youth culture. But did you ever really feel a part of it? 
I was very much unlike most of the people that I wrote about. When I wrote about the surfers in The Pump House Gang, I thought I was pretty young. I was 34, I guess. They were anywhere from 14 to about 19. To them, I was ancient. I was a little odd to them, particularly since I came out on the beach with white ducks and a seersucker jacket and a necktie [laughs]. And this was almost always the situation I found myself in. I arrived in a suit and tie to work on The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and I never took that necktie off. Never. I quickly realized that it would be folly to pretend for a moment to be "on the bus" with the Merry Pranksters. Because it was a commitment that led – you know, you didn't just present your tickets and sit in your seat and watch [laughs]. Once you pretended to be or somehow assumed that you were a part of what was going on, you were swept into the maelstrom! So I was never really in any of these scenes. Although it has been odd that the people I have felt close to over the years and kept in touch with are often people very much unlike me. People like Phil Spector. I wrote a piece about him called "The First Tycoon of Teen," in which I made the case that he was the first man to become a millionaire creating a product – which was rock & roll – that had solely to do with the life of teenagers.

So you were always the detached and satirical observer?
I have been pretty much the outsider in my stories, but I've always rejected, at least consciously, the tag of "satirist." In my mind, I was never satirizing anybody. My intention, my hope, was always to get inside of these people, inside their central nervous systems, and present their experience in print from the inside. That can come out seeming like satire in some cases where people are leading wacky enough lives. Now, Radical Chic had to do with the disparity and the tensions between the socialites and what they regarded as their pet primitives, the Black Panthers. It ended up as satire, perhaps, but never have I sat down and said, "I'm going to write a piece of satire." Certainly The Right Stuff is not satire, although English critics in particular took it to be insanely satirical: "Oh, wow, boy, what a sendup of all these crazy Americans!" But that's because they think America is a walking joke. 

I really felt that the discovery of these forms of life in the Sixties was so exciting that the discovery was the thing. Why put them down? The world didn't even know about them yet.

What are the Purple Decades?
I originally used the phrase – and I could kick myself – in the singular, on a television show on New Year's 1979, just as the new decade was about to begin. Tom Brokaw, who was then on The Today Show, said, "Okay, you named the Seventies the 'Me Decade.' What are the Eighties going to be?" And I said, "I predict it'll be known as the Purple Decade." I said "purple" in the sense of royal purple, that in this decade people are going to become much more blatant in the pursuit of status than they were in the Seventies and the Sixties, when it was rather bad form to make your ambition naked – you had to cleverly cloak it. And I turned out to be right, but my term was superseded by a better term, "yuppie," which says the same thing. I wish I had thought of yuppie. It's a brilliant term. 

I later used the Purple Decades to characterize the Sixties and Seventies, using "purple" in the Victorian sense, as the color symbolizing rebellion. In any case, that's how that phrase started, but if only I had followed up that little proto-insight, I could have claimed the Eighties the way I claimed the Seventies [laughs]. 

If you were to write 'Radical Chic' today, who and what would it be about?
You couldn't write it today, because there's no radical movement that's chic, not that I'm aware of. Someone wanted me to write about the current fund raising for AIDs in the vein of Radical Chic, but the whole concept is wrong. A, there's nodiing funny going on, there's nothing funny about it. And B, there's nothing radical about wanting to save lives. It's just not radical in that sense. 

There's nothing really radical going on anywhere, and certain things that are radical on campuses have no chic. There's nobody on Park Avenue, or any street leading therefrom, interested in South Africa and divestiture. Believe me, you couldn't get a party of any social wattage organized against nuclear war. You'd just get a big yawn. 

What about the youth culture and the social revolution today?
In Bonfire of the Vanities, I mention that this is the generation in which the deltoids, the trapezius, the pectoralis major, the latissimus dorsi, are all better known than the names of the major planets. 

But more young people today – and most of the rockers – keep their social consciences in high profile. Witness Live Aid and the Amnesty concerts.
Yes, but that's Community Chest stuff. Remember the Community Chest? 

Your style of dress is as distinctive and famous as your style of writing, and it hasn't changed much since the Sixties. What's your fashion statement on the state of fashion today?
I had started dressing in white suits around 1962, when I first came to New York. I found that it really annoyed people to wear white in winter. Why I wanted to annoy people is another question. You'll have to call Dr. Freud's night line to get an answer to that! [Laughs.] My white suits, as I began to get a little publicity, created quite a stir, and I had a great deal of fun with them. And then it began to be pretty common. There were so many wild things going on in men's clothes that no one was raising their eyebrows, and I began to feel like just part of the backdrop. But today I see something else happening, which makes me feel good. Most of the adventures in dress still go in the direction of the casual. Today in the Hamptons – to which I admit going – there is such a fashion of the casual among men of all ages. I mean, men who should be covering themselves up – to their bald pates if they could find a way to do it, who should be wearing wigs, who should be wearing powdered wigs – they go around in the most casual clothes they can find. To show up the way I show up, with a high, starched neo-celluloid collar – in fact, you're looking at one; you can't bend this thing with a hammer – and a tab collar and a necktie and a suit! There are no suits in the Hamptons, except for mine. I have the only suits in the Hamptons! It's very abrasive – and oddly satisfying [laughs]. Again, don't ask me to psychoanalyze myself and say why I should enjoy this, but I do. 

But with all the talk of the new conservatism, aren't people moving more toward the formal, the classic? 
Not true. I think it will happen, but it's not happening now. The only place that happens is in New York City, which is a more conservative place by far than, say, Los Angeles, where men are spending a lot more money on their clothes and trying to get better clothes. But once they leave the city limits, they go to great lengths to look pathetic. 

It's a very eclectic time now. People seem to be mixing the styles of all periods from the past couple of decades: you see long, hippie-length hair right beside short, spiky punk cuts. What does all this mean?
To be absolutely honest, I don't know. This seems to me like a post-punk period, in the sense that there's a postmodern period in architecture. I think you're right: there are all these eclectic fragments. I was unaware of the new fashion of long hair among men. Well, then, I guess information ricochet is getting more rapid. 

Could you define "information ricochet"?
When you have a new version, a retread, a recycling of something that is itself only born yesterday, that's information ricochet. In the art world, for example: last year's style of the century in art was neo-expressionism, this year's style of the century is neogeo. Last month's style of the century was neo-conceptualism, last week's style of the century was neo-minimalism, and last night's was neo-process and neo-appropriation. And maybe that's happening in the styles among the young as well. And you and I, in this interview, are feeding the process. We're pouring oil on the flames by talking about all this. You see, immediately, as soon as we mention neo-processing, neo-appropriation, neo-punk, all these things become suspect and have to be reacted against, simply because they've already been mentioned! [Laughs.]

So, looking back from this 20-year vantage point, are you saying that it's actually harder to get a fix on things?
Well … we don't understand the human animal any better from living in the last part of the Twentieth century. I am convinced that human understanding of the human condition never improves, and it doesn't matter how many schools of psychology and anthropology and sociology are created. We don't understand the human animal any better now than we did four thousand years ago. Technically, we understand a lot more, but we don't understand people any better. 

That's what's nice, actually. That's what keeps all of us journalists in business.