Going Bust: Dot-Coms Break Out the Coffins

There may not be much new material in Tom Wolfe’s latest collection, Hooking Up , perhaps accounting for why the only type on the book cover is the author’s name (bright red over a canary-yellow background, with a string of interlocking rings running vertically across). The title piece, an essay on life at the millennium, is just 10 pages. A republished novella, Ambush at Fort Bragg , originally appearing in Rolling Stone in 1996, runs just 70 pages. Nonetheless, fans of literary feuds will find much to salivate over. Mr. Wolfe has made good on his promise to settle scores with the literary establishment, as embodied by The New Yorker , and he includes a 26-page screed taking on Norman Mailer, John Updike and John Irving, the three most prominent critics of Mr. Wolfe’s last novel, A Man in Full .

Mr. Wolfe’s biting profiles of William Shawn’s New Yorker are republished for the first time since they originally appeared in New York magazine in 1965. For a person who goes in for New Yorker arcana–and who hasn’t been satiated yet by the spate of New Yorker books that came out earlier this year–the two pieces are entertaining and explicate Mr. Wolfe’s declaration in his foreward: ” The New Yorker had become dull, dull, dull–dull and self-important.”

It’s not clear why Mr. Wolfe chose to re-publish the two pieces now. In a brief afterword to the two pieces, Mr. Wolfe expresses his own mixed feelings: “My biggest concern in reprinting ‘Tiny Mummies’ and ‘Lost in the Whichy Thickets’ has been that readers in the year 2000 would wonder what all the fuss was about.”

Indeed, of course, there was a great deal of fuss that greeted Mr. Wolfe’s then-blasphemous declarations about a perceived downward slide at The New Yorker during the Shawn era. And though his criticisms were mild compared to what’s been said in the days since, Mr. Wolfe does suggest that there was another motive for the protests: “It was because [Shawn] thought my two articles revealed to the world how close he was to Lillian Ross, a matter Madame Ross, for reasons best known to herself, chose to retail in embarrassing detail recently (1998) in her memoir of Shawn’s time at The New Yorker entitled Here But Not Here .” (Mr. Wolfe writes that Ms. Ross’ affair with Shawn surprised him; the two, he writes, “weren’t affair material.”)

In the foreword, Mr. Wolfe also dishes that one evening, soon after Shawn said he wouldn’t give Mr. Wolfe an interview, Mr. Wolfe happened to have dinner with a New Yorker staffer named Renata Adler, who apparently was one of Mr. Wolfe’s first sources in his reporting for the piece.

In Ms. Adler’s 1999 memoir about The New Yorker , she called the publication of “Tiny Mummies” the second “crisis” in her three decades at the magazine, and suggested it was in retaliation for a parody of Mr. Wolfe’s writing by Ms. Ross.

Mr. Wolfe signs off on the matter with a note to Ms. Adler. “By the way, Renata Adler titled her book Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker and opened it with the portentous sentence, ‘As I write this, The New Yorker is dead.’ I tried to tell her that thirty-five years ago. I tried to save her decades of dead end in her career. What else did she think ‘tiny mummies’ and ‘the land of the walking dead’ were supposed to mean?”

So, how will all this go over at The New Yorker ?

“You mean massive retaliation? I don’t think so,” said Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Yorker ‘s senior editor. “Personally I think it was a wonderful piece in many ways. I always regarded it as a kind of job application. After reading it, I thought Tom Wolfe plus The New Yorker checking department would be a fabulous combination.

“I think he was kind of shocked when it was treated as a crime against humanity,” Mr. Hertzberg continued. “Lots of people lined up to give him a severe kicking. A more urbane response would have been to offer him a job.”

Mr. Hertzberg added that he still owns the original copies of New York magazine that carried the pieces.

So will Mr. Wolfe’s collection be reviewed in the magazine? “I really don’t know,” Mr. Hertzberg said. “Call Henry Finder [the editorial director].”

If, however, two 35-year-old essays do not hold enough allure to entice one to part with $25, Mr. Wolfe tinkles back in response to the ongoing literary pissing match that has pitched him against three of the other biggest names in modern literature. Called “My Three Stooges,” Mr. Wolfe responds to the blistering reviews that John Updike, Norman Mailer and John Irving wrote of Mr. Wolfe’s A Man in Full .

Mr. Wolfe shows that he is not above ad hominem attack. Noting the effort it must have taken to pen the multi-thousand-word reviews, Mr. Wolfe writes of Mssrs. Mailer and Updike: “I was sixty-eight. I knew how it must have drained them. How could they have spent those untold hours, ground out those thousands and thousands of words–the two old codgers had gone on for pages– pages !–to review a novel? How could our two senior citizens have found the energy in those exhausted carcasses of theirs? In interviews, Updike was already complaining about his aging bladder. Mailer, I noticed, was appearing in newspaper photographs supporting himself with two canes, one for each rusted-out hip.”

In the end, Mr. Wolfe shows a bit of age himself, retreading his argument from “Stalking The Billion-footed Beast,” published in Harper’s two years after Bonfire of the Vanities , that the novel is dead because its authors are too often staying indoors, not engaging in the rigorous social reporting Mr. Wolfe propounds. He praises directors like Oliver Stone, Spike Lee and Francis Ford Coppola, who are not afraid to take chances and to open new avenues of public discussion. Mr. Wolfe writes, “The American novel is dying, not of obsolescence, but of anorexia. It needs… food …. It needs novelists with the energy and the verve to approach America the way her moviemakers do, which is to say, with a ravenous curiosity and an urge to go out among her 270 million souls and talk to them and look them in the eye.”

This summer, because of the television actors strike, Ford Motor Co. decided to stop filming new TV commercials. As an alternative, Ford has partnered with 16 different magazines to put together the “My Dream Escape” contest. Each magazine developed a prize package that it thought would appeal most to its readers; each magazine will issue a prize. Offering a clue or two to their self-image, here’s what they came up with:

Esquire : “If you’ve ever been interested in pursuing the visionary world of writing, then we have the dream escape for you. … you could experience the art and craft of writing far from the distractions of everyday life at the Maui Writer’s Retreat and Conference.”

Vanity Fair : “Enter a world where power is held with the click of a shutter. Through the Photography Escape, thanks to Vanity Fair and Ford Escape, you could be on your way to a photo shoot to spend time with noted fashion photographer Didier Gault.”

Glamour : ” Escape in style. Get a first-hand glimpse inside the world of fashion and design with the Fashion Design Escape…. Travel to New York City to spend a day with noted fashion designer Diane Von Furstenburg.”

Rolling Stone : “Here’s a chance for your band to break out of the garage and let the music move you into the recording studio. As the winner of the Music Recording Escape, you will be rewarded with your very own recording session at Electric Lady Studios in New York.”

Talk : “You could step behind the scenes of an acclaimed motion picture…. you could win the opportunity to experience the working set of a Miramax film through our Filmmaking Escape. Find your motivation and learn just what it takes to create the perfect movie scene.”

– With Ian Blecher

Off the Record can be reached by email at gsnyder@observer.com