Dec. 15, 1989: Margaret Atwood, Tom Wolfe talk about the American novel

Wolfe argues that American novelists have been lost in escapism and are neglecting their responsibilities as writers.
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Transcript for Dec. 15, 1989: Margaret Atwood, Tom Wolfe talk about the American novel
And then once a long time there was a writer who wants. He looked at the world program and said this is what writers should be writing about. That made all the other raptors. Now all the writers or shop. There's a story of a happy ending. Some. Good evening I'm Forrest Sawyer and this is Nightline. Have novelists left the real world behind and if they have should they go back to it. We'll talk with a novelist Tom Wolfe. And Margaret Atwood about the controversy he started. This is ABC news Nightline. Substituting for Ted Koppel and reporting from new York and Forrest Sawyer. When the conversation turns to great American literature names like. William Faulkner John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway always come up. One person has on hesitating they put the name of Tom Wolfe right there at the top of the list and that person is Tom Wolfe. Wolf has written essay saying that most novelists today are neglecting what should be their real subject matter the messy sprawling Stew that is urban America. Larry asks are the modern day Charles Dickens is the chronicler of our vast experiment in living. There is Tom Wolfe he replies and a few others but most are lost and escapism. That little essay has stirred up the proverbial hornet's nest wolf is being accused of everything from ignorance to arrogance. But is it possible that he's right have American writers who lost their way in shirts their responsibilities. Or is Tom Wolfe as critics claim. Just blowing his own horn. We begin with a Nightline correspondent. Jeff Greenfield. It's easy to cover a battle like this one. Who at this one. This morning. And this one. But this is a story about a different kind of battle won the television rarely if ever covers. It's a battle about words about books about the stories Reuters tell us about ourselves and about how we live. And it began when one of America's best known writers charged that too many of his colleagues were spending too much of their time in places like this. The accuser. Tom Wolfe knew journalist extraordinaire. Chronicler of a quarter century of American life from hippies to astronauts he wrote the right stuff. Both charged in a manifesto at Harper's magazine that are most talented novelists are obsessed with the wrong stuff. That they've abandoned the real world and the noble traditions of social realism. And dose. Where Charles Dickens once painted on a landscape of great events. Like the French revolution or the horrors of nineteenth century poverty. Peace. It's too. Hot to you know where American writers Mike Sinclair Lewis showed us the corruption of religion and Elmer Gantry. Begala. Well coming back to the own time Cameron. Okay. For John Steinbeck once gave us the American dispossessed in grapes of wrath. Today's novelists says wolf are offering readers thinner rule. Starting in the late forties and really building up into the sixties. Fashioned takes over in the university's recessed this type of work is dead is time to turn. Two to new forms I mean I don't demand. That every writer. Try to be ball sack. But somebody showed me what what somebody should do this and the Detroit lead the entire live pressure with in the literary world. Has minute and then in another direction to make things smaller and smaller smaller. Culminating in them this marvelous or Robert Krueger. A short story which against to start with he went to live alone on an island and shot himself. Many of our most talented writers says wolf have retreated into Kmart realism as would Bobbie Ann Mason. Or into minimalist works without scope as within Beatty. Or into fantasy and fable as was John Bart or Humberto echo. Not so incidentally according to some critics wolf himself is the author of a hugely successful first novel that is steeped in social realism. 1980 sevens bonfire of the vanities. Which paints a portrait Ecstasy acid of a modern New York Rangers from the inferno of the criminal courts a racial confrontation in the streets. Did the social world of the rich and factual. X he's going out into the streets and gotten on the subway. And he's going to show us what life is really all about and according to wolf. This is what novelists ought to be doing. Too many novelists are just sitting in their rooms contemplating their own experience. Is Tom Wolfe Wright has the canvas of fiction shrunk. Are too many writers locked away in hermetically sealed rooms contemplating their own novels. Some critics say that paints with too broad a brush that it ignores writers like Larry McMurtry for instance whose work such as terms of endearment and lonesome dove. Paint vividly realistic portraits. Who Larry McMurtry I think is a very good example I mean he is. Someone who has an avid interest in big chunks of American reality I think it is a very good job in rendering them. I was not trying to get into a kind of rating game. Of writers. So I'm I'm really wanted to state there. The general case. He's right about it but I think he overstates because I think he wants to make himself look like the smartest guy in the room. And so I think he does he does sort of discount other people when I read that essay I felt that he didn't read that many other Reuters. But should fiction writers plunge into the real world should they act more like journalists. One wolf target John Barth author of the sot weed factor and Giles goat boy says not necessarily. We're not making journalism here were making fiction and so what we're after finally is not fact but truth or not after. Verity were after various militant in the last analysis were writing fiction we're not writing journalism old or new. For wolf. Too many riders avoid legwork because it's simply too hard. When I go to the report I'm a beggar with a cup and it's not a very dignified position. Two. To be and so if you can get someone to have a grand theories such as the theory of the death of a realistic novel. To exempt you from the effort and telling you it's perfectly marvelous to to spend you're naturally you're going to. You're going to go for that. There are of course many novels that are crammed full of brand name details about life in Hollywood Washington New York. But these so called commercial mountains with the works of writers like Judith Krantz or James Michener or Arthur hailing. All right. Hats off a off Arthur Haley for. For trying if you don't like the way he does it. Then you do it and do it better do it the way. And do with the way balls acted to police over the that we Sinclair Lewis. Did it. Most critics agree with real that even in a mass media age there is something unique about a socially realistic novel. DH large so that the novel was the big book of life. And the thing but the novel can do that almost no other form can do is sick you can give you the inner and the outer it can give you what's happening in the world but it can also gives you. What's happening inside the person who's experiencing it. I think that. What books are read really determine the health of our culture and that the health of our culture. Determines. And the fact the health of the whole society that whether or not. People read a lot those who read. Are important. And books manner for that reason. An important question is not whether it's a novel it has to do with social realism or psychological realism more here realism. So much as a question is it a terrific novel genius is what's important not to in particular source of inspiration. There's a new touch of irony to this debate of course because wall Tom Wolfe once more fiction writers to adopt the taking some journalists. More and more journalists especially on television seem fascinated with the techniques of fiction as we dramatization of re creations. We may wake up one day to find in fact that we've taken each other's places. Come to think of it that might make a pretty fair topic for a novel. I'm Jeff Greenfield for Nightline in New York. Although bonfire of the vanities is his first novel writer Tom Wolfe has been a major figure on the American literary scene since the publication of his first book of essays. Back in 1965. The candy colored tangerine flake streamline baby. Bonfires currently on its way to becoming a feature film and mr. wolf is with us in our New York studios. Also being made into a feature film is the widely acclaimed novel the hand maid's tale by Margaret Atwood. Is that woods most recent book is cat side and she has also written and other novels and nineteen books of poetry. Along with the works of nonfiction and television scripts she joins us tonight from Edmonton Alberta where she is attending. The Edmonton bird festival is that what we've heard little bit from Thompson let me start with you if I may be the essence of the argument is it too many writers have abandoned. The rich social fabric which could be their subject matter have turned to escapism and we are the worst sport what do you make of that. Well to me sitting here and in Canada it looks first of all I could a debate among American novelists. And second it looks as if Tom Wolfe said to. The other male American novelists. Mine is bigger than yours. And they all wanted to take command in to this sillier than than being in. Because. Doesn't seem to be a discussion about female novelists are novelists who are an American business and my being fair. I think the focus is very sharp. But I think it's somewhat narrow. All right well Tom that's just the first shot across your ballot I suppose that she is saying as some other people have said that. That you have limited the focus of your criticism largely to white male writers you've neglected minorities you have neglected women in this she says you've neglected some folks in Canada as well. Why do it well Corzine that yeah okay he doesn't have to talk about folks in Canada because he's talking about the American novel. Let's let's make that quite clear. Well I didn't diligent account one. Whenever I think I think little sexist it is gender counts you know. But it is certainly plenty of women have way the end into the and into the battle. I've been recently called a redneck my merry go and affect how like that a little bit. Mark Twain was called a redneck I have like Mark Green suits also. Well I think I think what I think that in the kind of tendency in movement that you're talking about and in the states tended to happen in universities. And it tended to have been among male male novelist because. I don't think women novelists ever stopped writing about their own reality and in particular. Black. When the novelists have have kept to us that right along. So really you're talking about a deviation by American male academic. Novelists from the positive Dickens and tolls sorts. Well I think you're right about one thing I think it's certainly not confined to is not confined to men. You've put your finger on something when you talk about the universities or something that I think of as the MFA syndrome this is the master of fine arts. Master of fine arts degree in creative writing. This is a product really only existed before the Second World War this really a product of the period cents. The Second World War and this has become a bit of a hot house. And which fashionable theories many of them from Europe. Have very easily taken over the lives of the most talented young writers and in the country. And one of the you're talking about the dreaded date constructionism. Oh that's just part of that didn't let you know that they thought that what goes on in and an American philosophy and American universities and then literature isn't by day the structural us construct the structure meaning an meaning of the structure by night the deconstruction is deconstruct the meaning structure. And the structure meaning in the morning the structure was built it all up again this is all part of a very Ian grown. A very in ground game with certain certain axiom is one of which is that too. Immerse yourself as a writer in the the grime that Derek. Class snobbery and the rest of the things that I think that's so there's such a big part of life is somehow vulgar. And that only. If you gonna be realistic at all only psychological realism that was the refinements of the inner agonies of of the hard for all accounts I have nothing against. Portraying the agonies of the heart but it seems to me it past somehow has to be wired in to this society in which there we do have. Mr. Woodward I would never yeah I would never dispute that but that a Carson never stopped doing detonated in a lot of other people. So aren't you really talking about a kind of elite group or. When I asked for instance EL Doctorow what Dick constructionism laws and I had us a lot of people at this wasn't never got a straight answer. He gave me the best answer he said. Honey it's bad news for you and me. Because what it says there is that the writer doesn't. Exist that Tom I think what what a lot of people say it is and and they were says matter of fact and Jeff's report that you simply have I think this is what martyr might be circling around. You have painted with far too broad a brush there are some people who who do interior portraits but there are many other people who are. Who are writing social realism as you like it. And and it may not be about urban America may be about rural America but it is very much attached to their reality and reality that people that there around. And what's wrong with a little diverse well let me tell you I first started noticing this I was but for years now I have been doing nonfiction I'm journalist. I was doing but I was buying the techniques of novelist because I thought they were affected and writing nonfiction so I decided to write a a long book. About the hippy or psychedelic experience I went to San Francisco I moved into an abandoned pie factory with a those psychedelic commune and I came forth a book called electric Kool Aid acid test not I had braced. In fear that there was now going to be a tidal wave of novelists who was gonna sweep me away. Novels novels by young people who were involved in that experience in the way that I was. Later on have but can Khazei. Well Ken Keyes Eric Eric counting on the floor of the cook isn't as well that was not about the psychedelic hippie. Experience that was part it was it was it was you could look to that is as the Genesis let me just cite one other example very quickly to the the racial clashes in the cities when I get a piece. A book called radical chic in my mind the flak catchers which was about the racial clashes that was suddenly sweeping American cities again and I said. This is such rich material for realistic novelist they're gonna come forth and again I'm gonna be swept away these novels were never written to this day. They have never ever a lot of antibiotics and I bring out. I is that other Bryant never got to stop on his that would we have to pay some bills I promise we'll get your first chance we come out of the chute we'll talk a little about the creative process. In just a moment. The topic is American novels and we are speaking with writers Tom Wolfe and Margaret Atwood ms. that would may we may well get little personal here. Implicit it seems to me in Toms criticism of other riders is the idea that his own book bonfire of the vanities. He is social realism anomaly that is very good social realism. Is that right is a great literature. Well social realism eyes conjures up to me those Soviet novels is some years ago about love affairs of one's tractor. Couldn't we just call it a Hickel doesn't. And while we're on the subject of what's important. You know I've I think we are talking about a very particular terror fear we're talking about New York urban life. That seems to me that towards the end of the twentieth century there are other places other than new York and there are more. Important things for instance where are as the novelist of they greenhouse effect whereas the novelist of them. The destruction of the natural environment lie and Diana the Edmonton Christmas bird count the largest Christmas bird count. In the world and why are you here Tom Wolfe. Where the real action is taking place. Forgive him is that would have failed if I think you may have danced around my question just a little bit and real question was what about bonfire of the vanities now he holds us up. Is it great literature. I'll come on out he's not. It's an enjoyable novel he's right nobody else was writing about it yes that was prophetic in certain ways and look at the trial of Leona Helmsley. Which you have just don't. Had a such identity and compare that to some scenes at the end of the book that is the same thing people say to me how did you know that the baby M case was going to happen. It don't know. You use your common sense you look around you you write a fictional scene and then life comes along and imitates have been and he's right about. But this doesn't mean that those kind of novels just by being this kind of novel. Is going to be greater literature than some other kind of novel surely it's how well you do it not just what kind of a operatives. Tom what a lot of people in said after they read your essay. One fellow who has written a letter is not affect Harper's is going to be published next issue says seven count on seven references to bonfire of the vanities. What this man is as the world's greatest self promoter. Well if I didn't and if if I have a theory of how to write novels. And the novel that I write doesn't conform to the theory then I'm either very foolish or extremely lazy. And I want to my idols. Emile Zola. I went through the same thing when he came forward with his theory of nationalism and pray for a right as to objective. To this they have to they have in effect say well people who write novels shouldn't spend there is only other people it's been there is about the novel in fact I think. What it really boils down to is that nobody and I don't make theories that I don't include myself and nobody likes the somebody else to walk into the room with with an with with the new theory. Not if you know what they're good they are there really objecting to at least a lot of them is not only that your holding your book opens a look I think this is terrific book it's well written you're saying that. Yeah guys are right just like this till I don't like the way your own well I'm. First and and that's good it's not in this area it's an old ferries just coming round again on the way they'll come around in the lives. And second that doesn't matter at all whether his self promoting or not either he's writer he's wrong the other stuff is just an ad hominem argument. Well I know I I feel so does have the right farce than the this. And and Margaret to that this is a a theory that. The theory of realism has been with a slow long time I feel like I'm handing the keys of the kingdom back. Two. Given to. To my fellow writers but I think we're in an age in which. Generosity makes a lot of people suspicious. Part I think a lot of I think a lot of people are fascinated with the idea of but the creative process how one goes about this and what Thomas said as you know you ought to go out there. He ought to get your hands dirty little bit with some reporting that's how you go about finding good novels now how do you actually approach. The books that you've written and may stale for instance is set in the future. And maid's tale has the clippings style about this speck. Of stuff that I got my hands dirty actually got my hands quite dirt because I got fingered and newspapers NASA really Arabs. And has a lot of clippings ended about all kinds of different things. Including PCBs and polar bears and declined and birth rates and to rise and infertility rates and religious. Fanaticism the various kinds and history. It's all in there in the novel is based based very solidly on. What the human race has already done and is doing it's not it's not science fiction that's. It's pretty possibly real stuff you're saying reporting is necessary that. Well what is reporting you know judging from some of the stuff I read in newspapers. Reporting has nothing to do it the truth. Tom. What are we actually missing if writers are not going down the path. That you think is the correct what how are we being hurt here well I think here's what weird we've we're missing we are. In an American I think in most countries of the world. People who are addicted to stories I am my children are everybody's children we. Take television stories away from people for three days and they go berserk and start climbing walls. And the question so for some reason that I cannot. Explain psychologically people aren't addicted to stories. And they were I think it's because they wanted to know about they want to know about themselves just a few seconds to I don't think you can learn about yourself or any individuals psychologically. I don't he could understand the human heart without understanding the social context in which that creature exists and that is what we've been cut cut off from. Tom Wolfe much Margaret Aberdeen have written have been cut off by the clock is a matter of fact Margaret Atwood Tom Wolfe a fascinating discussion thank you for joining us.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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