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August 31, 2008

Tom Wolfe on Writers and College

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Tom Wolfe responds to questions literary on Time's web site (hat tip, Matthew Continetti, The Weekly Standard). One item:

What are your feelings on the current state of fiction? Andrew Herold, JOHANNESBURG

There's so little of it now that it's pathetic, and it's pathetic all over. Writers come from master-of-fine-arts programs now. If you add up the college education of Steinbeck, Hemingway and Faulkner, you get to spring break of freshman year.

This comes from a guy who has a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale. I, myself branded with those scarlet letters, tend to agree that college isn't all it's supposed to be -- and should do for you.




posted by Donald at August 31, 2008


Aren't colleges, more than anything else, the entrance ways through which the young must pass to keep the upper-middle class status they were born into, or gain (or fail to gain) that status if they weren't to the manor born? Beyond that what real purpose does higher education serve?

Technical schools would suffice to train doctors, architects and engineers.

As for writers: they are self-selecting. We all inherit the language. They are - helplessly - writing in their heads, if nowhere else, starting as early as age 9 or 10 and almost to a man by their early teens. What college can do to them is mire them in some writing fad or fashion it will take them years to grow out of.

Writers moreover are almost always readers, often voracious readers, so they are self-educating, if within narrow parameters. The hunger for culture, and even learning, learning how to write by reading "father" writers, is in them. They don't need to be force fed the stuff.

Posted by: ricpic on August 31, 2008 5:28 PM

Novels, poems and plays are the uneven outpourings of uneven minds. That one can enjoy some of them, even partially, is a blessing. Reflecting on their quality or content exercises the wit and provides for valuable social intercourse.

Even the best-approved novels, poems and plays can never be mechanisms functioning according to "critical standards" or responding to academic "analysis" (except, of course, where genuine scholarship is applied to matters of fact, language or text). The even stranger notion that one can approach books - or even life's broader problems - through some particular brand of analysis (eg Derridan, Feminist, Marxist) is an impertinence born of self-loathing and inadequacy. It is a very great irreverence.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on August 31, 2008 9:42 PM

I am scarlet lettered up the wazoo myself, and I've never thought that college is especially good for writers, unless they get out early. Professors are herd animals, like the wildebeest, and good writers are solitary individuals. What kind of poet would seek tenure, or take it if offered?

Posted by: Lester Hunt on August 31, 2008 10:24 PM

i've heard wolfe make this remark in other contexts and i took it to mean a more narrow objection to education about writing as a craft. i think he'd be pretty pleased if writers were to study history or psychology or (like him) american studies and sociology.

Posted by: Gabriel on August 31, 2008 10:52 PM

Overeducated (in the wrong ways) and wet behind the ears describes a lot of literary writers these days, god knows. But doesn't it describe a lot of people in other fields too? The whole American thou-must-attend-college thing strikes me as a big con, a big curse, and a big puzzle. Where'd it come from? (Was it that big a deal prior to WWII, the GI Bill, and the post-war creation of lots of state colleges and universities?) And why do people continue to fall for it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 1, 2008 1:02 AM

Tom Wolfe has been pushing this line for at least thirty years. Since few creditable people dispute what he is saying, and as a lot of his pet stances are getting a little dated (the mania for French Destructionist Theory has been in steep decline among the impressionable young for almost 20 years now), this shtick comes across as more than a little self-serving. Everybody knows MFA programs are a joke, including the people who are in them, everybody knows the professional literary world is overrun with sissies and second rate men and talent, again including the people who are in it, and everybody knows that serious, vigorous, widely experienced men of action, or at least such who still exist, shun the (perceived)effeminate literary life as if it were the equivalent of cookie baking. No one pretends we are living in a great, or even a good age of literature, or have been for at least fifty years.

Also, Hemingway's and Faulkner's not having gone to college is not quite relevant to today's world, since going to college was not a mainstream activity 100 years ago even if one was highly intelligent or talented. The Wright Brothers didn't go to college, George Gershwin didn't finish high school, Thomas Edison, Louis Armstrong, Ring Lardner (I am thinking of people off the top of my head). I was not in college for the first two years out of high school, but eventually the social isolation drove me crazy to the point where I had to go (I am 38 now, so this is 1988-90). All the kinds of girls I was most interested in were in some school, and basically inaccessible to me because I wasn't in school. The jobs avilable to you are dreary. Nobody is going to say "Here's a bright young man, let's promote him" because if you were really bright after all you would be in college. It's true I could have joined the Army, or, if I really been resourceful, gone to Berlin to take part in the revolution, and those experiences might have rendered college unnecessary, but on the whole, my life would almost certainly have been considerably less that what it turned out if I had not ended up going, which was for many people obviously much less the case in 1911.

As to the specificity of why literature has become, or is perceived to have become, such a wussy profession: I do suspect increased co-education might have something to do with it. It seems to be a near-universal truth that if too many women are able to outshine men in the classroom or elsewhere in a certain area and achieve prominence, that the activity under consideration loses prestige in the eyes of men. I think in the case of literature and humanistic learning at least this is a foolish reaction, but it appears to be the case. My 60-year old father, who went to all-male schools both in high school and college, has a much more positive view of literature, the arts, etc as a properly manly interest than most men of my generation seem to.

Posted by: Bourgeois Surrender on September 1, 2008 2:08 AM

Years ago, I thought that being a novelist or short story writer was quite intellectual and glamorous. No more.

The real frontier of writing is now technical writing and programming. Writing fiction is all about opinion... and opinion is remarkably unimportant. Just as the title of this website says, it's all about being a blowhard.

I hadn't realized how intellectually lazy I was until I learned to program in my mid 40s. Writing fiction appeals to our vanity. We get to opine on subjects that are personal and political. Since I did not learn the habits of a programmer until well into middle age, I still struggle with thought processes that should be habitual.

Fiction was the way we modeled the world in the abstract before technical writing and programming arrived in its place. Fiction works on the assumption that imagined worlds provide a good context for criticizing and thinking about the "real" world. What this really provides is a foundation for political propaganda. Inciting bathetic emotion in people becomes the all important first motivation.

Programming, particularly object oriented programming, provides a much better way of modeling the world, because the written code must work in mathematical reality, not in the fuzzy world of opinion. Programming is writing that does something in the real world.

Fiction is dying because something else has come along to take its place. It is no longer the best way we have to create an abstract model of the world.

We continue to want to live in a world of "controversy" generated by the pathos and bathos of fiction, but that era is over and dead. The controversy thus generated is mostly negative noise. So many of us are addicted to this phony generation of controversy as a way to make a living that we are unwilling to let go.

I was very negatively influenced in college by the notion that technical skills and programming were "boring." (This was in the 60s, the height of the emphasis on the individual.) I wish I'd never heard that crap. Sitting around endlessly BSing about fiction and politics is boring as hell. Nothing new has appeared in that field in 50 years. Technical skills and programming are far more interesting, but they require a de-emphasis on the self.

We have reached an intersection in the West. Do we continue to glorify the self? Or do we admit that the glorification of self has limits? In fact, when will we recognize that the glorification of self has become the ultimate bore?

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on September 1, 2008 10:09 AM

Sorry to add this addendum, but here goes...

One of the most striking lessons I've learned from the web is that original ideas and original people are very rare. The internet certainly spawned an explosion of personal, political and artistic expression... and 99% of it has been predictable, boring, repetitive crap!

It's amazing, in fact, how fast a writer becomes a parody of himself. I was fascinated with Roissy for about two weeks, after which I realized that his alpha/beta obsession was juvenile reductionism. Who can read that crap over and over again?

Political writing, in particular, becomes formulaic in dreadfully short order. Political arguments on the web are systematized within hours, and after that nothing new can or will be said.

Even porn became boring on the web. It quickly got divided up into categories of perversion, all of which are now eminently predictable and repetitive.

Only in the sciences and technical fields do I find (and continue to expect to find) original thought and intellectual challenge. This is also true on the web.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on September 1, 2008 10:21 AM

Writing is a practical craft. Most Lit Crits in Universities can't themselves write. (That's a guess, but a plausible one.) So University is not where to go to learn to write. Once upon a time, though, you might have learnt a bit by studying, say, history. Personally, I'd recommend immersion in George Orwell, PG Wodehouse and Kingsley Amis, plus Miss Austen and Mr W S. And the Authorised Version.

Posted by: dearieme on September 1, 2008 6:35 PM

And Mr Twain and that bad-tempered bellicose American journalist chap whose name I can never remember. Schmenken?

Posted by: dearieme on September 1, 2008 6:38 PM

Tom Wolfe proclaimed during a recent visit to Argentina that the novel was officially "dead." While I can understand his disdain for many contemporary writers, I think this is more revealing of his own state of mind. He could have made the same criticism 10, 20 or 30 years ago because the fact of the matter is that the bulk of what's published at any point in time is never that good to begin with.

If anything, someone like Wolfe should refrain from making those sweeping statements which to me sound like thinly-veiled excuses for not paying attention to what's going on. I can understand that he's old and doesn't have time nor the inclination to dip into the newer stuff but that doesn't mean it's not out there. Many good fiction authors are periodically discussed on this blog and I'm sure its readers can come up with a good list of names in a heartbeat (I know I can). If established writers and critics had been as close-minded and self-centered as he's being right now, Wolfe's own work would have had a lot more difficulty in making it to the spotlight.

Posted by: GB on September 1, 2008 10:49 PM

All this bemoaning of college coming from college-educated people is ridiculous. Would any of you give up your degrees or the years you spent in school? Of course not. It's all so much privileged faux self-effacing crap. This practice is especially prevalent (and loathsome) amongst Ive Leaguers. It's usually just a way to name-drop their school without appearing to be doing so.

Posted by: JV on September 2, 2008 1:19 AM

Bourgeois Surrender -- I think you and your buds are far ahead of most civilians! Out there among the interested and intelligent but not insiders, the attitudes pushed by the NYTimes Book Review Section and The New Yorker are still taken seriously, "wanting to write" is still seen as a cool thing, and creative writing classes are still seen as a good way to learn how to do so.

ST -- Loads of good points. One thing you're reminding me of is the contrast between new-media and old-media types. Old-media types are often gloomy, weepy, and want to be authorities and "artists" (in some sappy way) ... New-media types are cheery, entrepreneurial, and see the whole making-and-consuming thing as participatory at its core, and not a matter of the artist up on a stage carrying on before a fascinated and passive audience. I think you're right too about bloggers and opinionators having a limited lifespan. I was gabbing via email with another blogger who started around the same time I did, and we were both talking about the way that the open spaces of the web pull everything you've got to offer out of you really fast.

dearieme -- I confess that many lifetimes ago I was under the impression that taking English-lit classes was a good way to learn how to write. Had to wake up out of that delusion fast!

GB -- Wolfe *has* been making that argument for 20 or so years, hasn't he? I don't know that it's any the worse for that, though. It's a broad-stroke manifesto, so I can't imagine that most people don't understand there are exceptions to his rules. And, funnily enough, many of the assumptions that prevailed 20 years ago are still being peddled, in many cases by the same outfits, today. So it still seems worthwhile to take a shot at the pompous people who still dictate some terms. At least I hope it is! But maybe it's all crumbling under its own weight ... It'd be nice if that were so.

JV -- I'd *love* to have back the four years I wasted as an undergrad. I was given a lousy education, sold a bunch of lies, and trained in skills that I had to unlearn before I could become useful in the world. Why would you want me not to note any of this? If someone bought a BMW and discovered it was a stinker, would you demand that he not say so online?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 2, 2008 1:51 AM

I remember being in my first term at college (a fairly prestigous eastern institution) and wrestling mightily with my hunch that it was all a lot of BS--that getting that undergraduate degree was mostly a way of reinforcing my status as middle/upper class. This in no way made me feel guilty (I'm not big on guilt); it just made me feel as though I was wasting my time and money.

To make matters worse, this was during the '90s, when "diversity" and "multi-cultural" were key buzzwords, and the campus higher-ups made no bones about their desire to drill the values represented by those terms into us. In fact, that seemed to be the entire point of the college experience--to make us "citizens of the world" (their phrase). We (or at least the liberal arts folks among us) were learning a quasi-religious belief set rather than a skill--and paying through the nose for it. Yuck!

Worse yet, I soon discovered that, should I graduate with a degree in my particular liberal arts discipline, I would pretty much be required to go to grad school and then get a PhD if I actually wanted to, you know, do something with it. And what that something entailed was almost invariably teaching. Now, teaching is in some respects a nice gig (summers off!), but a life in academia was not something I looked forward to. Not at all. (This is all my fault, of course--I was too stupid at that point in my life to have chosen a different career path.)

Maybe it's my fringe wacko tendencies coming to the fore, but this all seems like a racket to me. Kids need to pay and pay and pay (pay for the schooling, pay to take the tests in order to get the schooling, pay to take the classes in order to pass the tests in order to get the schooling), and spend huge chunks of their lives in drudgery, just to have their White Person credentials validated. And we keep churning out more and more they can teach the next round of chumps how to teach. It's like a toranado that keeps sucking in resources, and then spitting out...what?

Boy, I'm feeling curmudugeonly today! College is good for some things, I guess. The chicks are great. And some jobs do require higher training.

Posted by: Ron on September 2, 2008 11:21 AM

Michael, you would rather not have the degree. OK, if that's truly how you feel, but most people I hear complaining about college would not feel the same way.

Posted by: JV on September 2, 2008 11:26 AM

Ron -- Nice description of how it all works and feels. "Diversity" wasn't so big back in my day (mid-'70s), but that same sense that we were being indoctrinated in something (something ... religious) without actually being taught anything worthwhile, let alone true, was all around ...

JV -- You're jumping around and shifting terms. At first you were finding it unseemly that people with backgrounds at fancy and expensive colleges should express any unhappiness with the experience. Now you're asking whether I would want to live in today's America without a college degree. Two different topics.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 2, 2008 12:14 PM


Wolfe is not saying that good fiction is not being written, he is saying that the novel no longer matters in our culture. No one turns to the novel to tell us the meaning of the world any longer - and they haven't for quite a while.

Posted by: Pat Hobby on September 2, 2008 9:11 PM

I understand that Wolfe isn't ruling out exceptions. What I'm saying is that he's been making this old argument for decades and it doesn't really provide any new insights on the issue. The novel has been irrelevant for quite a longer time than Wolfe even hints us but that's because even during the golden age of massive print runs the majority of people didn't read and were functional illiterates. Novels, no matter how popular, are not a democratic cultural product because reading is too demanding a task for most people.

Posted by: GB on September 3, 2008 1:03 AM

Writing, Michael, is still important, and your site is the proof.

I am amazed daily by the way that you anticipate what interests and excites people. The success of this blog is evidence of your skill.

It would be interesting to read your thoughts about the massive outpouring of weblog posts, comments and controversies over the past decade. What was it all about?

The great process of reaching a public moral consensus has shifted from the world of novels to forums like this. Fascinating, isn't it? We are no longer interested in the formulations of a few great minds. We are interested in a vast outpouring of individual voices.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on September 3, 2008 7:38 AM

I wouldn't dump my college experience for anything. It's what turned me from a D&D playing computer-game addicted geek with a small literary habit to someone with a couple of second languages, a large literary habit, darkroom experience, digital restoration skills and most importantly, the ability to socialize and get laid. And I learned some stuff about religion and picked up a few academic Jedi mind tricks along the way.

Half that stuff I couldn't have picked up without the teaching/facilities, and the other half wouldn't really have had the environment conducive to polishing up those skills.

You get what you put into college. I didn't go there to sit like a lump and do as little as possible to get a degree and anyone who does that deserves the miseducation they get. I purposely picked professors who weren't doctrinaire idiots (thank you, and I openly disagreed with my professors in class and what do you know, only a couple of them were really really unprofessional assholes about that kind of stuff.

More than that, it's where you meet people, argue, laugh, woo, and commiserate with them, build your tastes and identity and make friends. Hell, 80% of the benefit of college is outside the damn classroom.

Now I'm not saying it's for everybody, much less the majority of people. But to say that college offers nothing for inquisitive questioning young minds other than a good heaping helping of academic brainwashing is BS. Give young people some credit. Sheesh.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on September 3, 2008 9:53 AM

What was your favourite type of D and D character to play, Spike? Never mind about those second languages! Jeez. And do you think it's really possible to play a sustained campaign with more than one chaotic evil character in the party?

I liked playing elf fighter-mages myself. Like me, they were usually True Neutral. Isn't that just neat?

Posted by: PatrickH on September 3, 2008 1:00 PM

What was your favourite type of D and D character to play, Spike? Never mind about those second languages! Jeez. And do you think it's really possible to play a sustained campaign with more than one chaotic evil character in the party?

I liked playing elf fighter-mages myself. Like me, they were usually True Neutral. Isn't that just neat?

Speaking of dysfunctional little universes where everyone thinks they're superior to the people outside... oh dear. Oh, that's too good! The Literary Elite are like D&D geeks! Someone has to do something with that! Please! :)

Posted by: SFG on September 7, 2008 9:33 PM

Pat Hobby--

Wolfe is not saying that good fiction is not being written, he is saying that the novel no longer matters in our culture. No one turns to the novel to tell us the meaning of the world any longer - and they haven't for quite a while.

Good laser point.

That's a shame in a way. Movies are such an emotionally powerful multimedia experience. And some novels are made into movies, though often mainstreaming and simplifying them.

Though Sophie's Choice still retains real impact from Styron.

Posted by: dougjnn on September 10, 2008 12:06 AM

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