October 31, 2008

Tom Wolfe Talks Journalism at I.C.

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Donned in a pale-cream suit and a shiny white tie, the forerunner of new journalism Tom Wolfe addressed an enthusiastic audience of at least 500 in Ithaca College last night.
“He is a legend and a true hero of American journalism,” said Dianne Lynch, dean of Ithaca College’s Roy H. Park School of Communications in her introduction. “Like Mark Twain, he’s a signifier and chronicler of our times.”
Wolfe worked as a reporter for a decade. He also penned 12 books, including national bestsellers The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff and The Bonfire of the Vanities. He is currently working on a non-fiction book called The Human Beast, “which will tell you everything about homo sapiens, about ‘homo-loquac,’ or human-talking,” said Wolfe.[img_assist|nid=33158|title=The Right Stuff|desc=Famed author Tom Wolf delivers the Park Distinguished Visitor Lecture at Ithaca College last night, discussing new journalism.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Perhaps true to the spirit of new journalism, in which writers blend literary techniques with the hard facts of reporting, Wolfe’s presentation was brimmed with anecdotes. The son of a Cornell PhD recipient, Wolfe began his lecture with fond recollections of Ithaca, including a commencement speech at Ithaca College in 1986, an interview with the late astronomy professor Carl Sagan and a swim in a warm Cayuga Lake “which suddenly turned 32 degrees” in late spring.
For the bulk of his speech, though, Wolfe emphasized the importance of substance in writing. He named a few great nineteenth century writers such as Leo Tolstoy and pointed out those great writers “always go out of their studies to find new material.”
Wolfe also observed that there are generally two types of writers: young writers who “just want to be stars” and old writers who “always write because they have something to say.”
“That’s where we find some really interesting work done,” he said of older writers, who typically are more than 30-years-old and have an urge to write about their life experiences.
A veteran in journalism, Wolfe also shared what he thought were the ingredients of a great reporter: a willingness to “beg” for information, and “a theory of life.”
“It is necessary to have a theory in life to write well in fiction and non-fiction,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe pointed out that such a theory of life does not have to be accurate, but “it will force [a reporter] to make connections to the society.” He then illustrated his point by sharing his own theory of life, the status theory, which his bestseller The Right Stuff was based on.
Wolfe recalled that he came up with the title of the book when his friend, Wong, who always wanted to grow taller to be a metropolitan cop, tried to explain how “only the metropolitan cop has the right stuff.”
By “the right stuff,” Wolfe was referring to status symbols. From pilots imitating the tone and accent of a legendary World War II pilot who shot down 13 German planes, investment bankers who wear a pair of worn-out jeans with a $5,000 belt, to people who buy a ranch only to show off their private plane, he showed that status symbols are predominant in the society.
Towards the end of the lecture, Wolfe also commented on the current trend of journalism, in which printed newspapers are “frantically” shifting online.
“I think that reporting is so important that I’m fearful when newspaper in printed form is no more,” he said.
He also lamented on the blogosphere, where “no reporting is done” and compared its readers to “tribal people who don’t believe in printed text but rumors.”
Although the audience responded rather positively to the one-hour lecture, laughing whenever Wolfe made a joke, some members of the audience thought that the talk was circumlocutory.
“I was not very entertained because he was not being concise,” said Hope Rainbow ’11, who traveled from Cornell to Ithaca College to attend the talk. “I could have read [his lecture] in less than an hour.”