Is Wolfe America's Greatest Living Novelist?

Last week I noted Joseph Bottum’s review of Tom Wolfe’s latest Novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, in the Weekly Standard. Many of you may not be regular readers of the Weekly Standard but let me recommend the review to you nonetheless. You may not agree with it but it is provocative and provides some food for thought.

Bottum argues that Wolfe is America’s greatest living novelist – “Kind of.” He also argues that much of the criticism that Wolfe receives is generated by a sort of cultural anger or envy:

THERE’S AN ENVY to Tom Wolfe’s usual run of detractors, of course, but something more than envy–a resentment, an ache, a fury: If I could write like that, a small cat snarls inside each of their heads, I’d . . . I’d change things in this rabid, racist, right-wing world. I’d zola the rich bastards until they burbled for mercy. I’d dickens the corporate polluters until they drowned themselves in their own sick sludge. I’d thackeray, I’d balzac, I’d dostoyevsky everyone who doesn’t get it–it, IT, the ineffable IT of political conscience, the mystical rightness that lets a Princeton professor be a revolutionary and, well, a Princeton professor at the same time. God–or Charles Darwin, maybe, or some freak of perverse genetics–put a sword in Tom Wolfe’s hands, and the oblivious creep won’t use it to smite the ungodly. The man doesn’t deserve his sentences. Prose belongs to us, by divine right and right of conquest. And here comes this white-suited fake dandy, this reporter, to set up camp right in the middle of it, like John Ashcroft–or Gary Bauer or, I don’t know, Elmer Gantry–buying the prettiest summer house on Martha’s Vineyard.

Bottum goes on to discuss what makes a novel a novel and whether Wolfe’s latest is more “novelistic” than his previous works. Touching on Dickens, Trollope, Thackery, etc. So here are some discussion questions:

– Where does Wolfe stand in the history of American novelists?
– What makes a novel a novel?
– Is there a natural disinclination for the liberal establishment to praise a novel with conservative themes (anti-feminist, anti-sexual revolution, etc.)? (Leave aside for the moment the argument of whether Wolfe’s current work in fact has important and intelligent conservative themes.)

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).