5 top quotations from iconoclastic writer Tom Wolfe

The journalist and novelist had little time for rules, and he left a legacy of wit, wisdom and warnings. Here are some of his keen observations—along with lessons for communicators.

For many writers, the world is a bit dimmer without Tom Wolfe in it.

The journalist-turned-novelist made waves with his stream-of-consciousness style and his willingness to blur the lines between fiction and nonfiction.

His accounts of the exploits of NASA’s first astronauts in “The Right Stuff” earned him a place among the literary stars, and his astute observations of New York’s upper crust and underworld in “The Bonfire of the Vanities” further elevated him as an author.

For writers, it was also his disdain for convention that made him notable.

NPR wrote:

Wolfe began working as a newspaper reporter, first for The Washington Post, then the New York Herald Tribune. He developed a unique style, incorporating literary techniques — interior monologues, amped-up prose and eccentric punctuation. It was called the “New Journalism.”

“When Tom Wolfe’s voice broke into the world of nonfiction, it was a time when a lot of writers, and a lot of artists in general, were turning inward,” says Lev Grossman, book critic for Time magazine. “Wolfe didn’t do that. Wolfe turned outward. He was a guy who was interested in other people.”

Some remember Wolfe for his sartorial style—coupled with a deft, if reticent, way with words.

The Washington Post wrote:

He hid in plain sight — his three-piece white suits served as a shield that made the man within nearly invisible. To the extent that anyone so flamboyantly attired can recede into the background, he did. Wolfe did not talk much; he preferred to listen and to soak in the atmosphere. A quiet man, he did his talking in print. And now he has gone silent forever. American literature — and American life — will be the poorer without him.

Wolfe was responsible for popularizing many phrases that have become maxims for modern writers.

NPR continued:

In The Right Stuff, Wolfe popularized the phrase “pushing the envelope.” The title of Wolfe’s nonfiction essay (later published as part of a book) about Leonard Bernstein’s fundraiser for the Black Panthers,Radical Chic, became a catchphrase for leftist liberals. In a New York magazine article, Wolfe dubbed the 1970s “The ‘Me’ Decade.” Grossman says these phrases became part of the American idiom because they were dead on.

Not everyone had good things to say about his writing. John Irving said: “It’s like reading a bad newspaper or a bad piece in a magazine. It makes you wince.” John Updike and Norman Mailer were similarly dismissive.

Still, many found Wolfe irresistible.

The New York Times wrote:

“As a titlist of flamboyance he is without peer in the Western world,” Joseph Epstein wrote in the The New Republic. “His prose style is normally shotgun baroque, sometimes edging over into machine-gun rococo, as in his article on Las Vegas which begins by repeating the word ‘hernia’ 57 times.”

William F. Buckley Jr., writing in National Review, put it more simply: “He is probably the most skillful writer in America — I mean by that he can do more things with words than anyone else.”

Here are some of Wolfe’s most famous quotations, with lessons for today’s wordsmiths:

1. “You never realize how much of your background is sewn into the lining of your clothes.”

Communicators should realize that past statements and actions can follow them—and are readily apparent to an audience. If your past is one of half-truths and false statements, your audience won’t give you the benefit of the doubt. Assume that audiences know who you have been, and speak honestly about where you are coming from.

2. “Everybody, everybody everywhere, has his own movie going, his own scenario, and everybody is acting his movie out like mad, only most people don’t know that is what they’re trapped by, their little script.”

It’s important that communicators not miss the forest for the trees. It’s easy to get stuck in the problem at hand, your own personal movie script, while failing to see that the big picture is about so much more. Remember to step back and look around every once in a while.

3. “The reason a writer writes a book is to forget a book, and the reason a reader reads one is to remember it.”

Approach every story with the reader in mind. A writer can have a very different motive for funneling his or her thoughts into words from the reader’s purpose in consuming an article. Remember, the story isn’t for you; it’s for the reader.

4. “(W)hat I write when I force myself is generally just as good as what I write when I’m feeling inspired. It’s mainly a matter of forcing yourself to write.”

All prolific writers have a process. Wolfe’s routine was to churn out writing every day.

NPR reported:

“I like to use the technique of what I think of as a controlled trance,” [Wolfe] explained. “I’ll actually sit in front of the typewriter, close my eyes, and then try to imagine myself into the particular scene that I’m going to write about. Once you know what you’re going to say — I give myself a quota each day of 10 triple-spaced pages on the typewriter. And that comes out for me anywhere from 1,600 to 1,800 words. That’s not all that hard to do.”

Make your writing a discipline, and avoid those pesky blockages that stymie your creative efforts.

5. “If you label it this, then it can’t be that.”

Writers and editors should avoid lazy, imprecise wording. Writing is the art of defining, describing and fixing objects in a time and place. Without care and attention to detail, your writing can be muddled by vague or contradictory descriptions.

Do you have a favorite quotation from Tom Wolfe? Please share yours in the comments section.

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