Do not let the chahhming Virginia accent, the white suit, and the fuddy-duddy two-tone spats on his feet fool you: At 74, Tom Wolfe still has sex on the brain. For his latest novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, the lion of New Journalism visited more than a dozen college campuses, training his jeweler’s eye on the way today’s students dress, drink, and, of course, hook up. We talked to the zeitgeist-charting author about his detractors, his wardrobe, and whether the kids are in fact all right.
EW I have to say I find it ballsy and a bit insane for a 74-year-old man to write a novel through the eyes of an 18-year-old freshman girl. . .
TW I was at least 50 years older than every student I talked to, so I guess that was a gamble. But I’ve covered so many things that were foreign to me, like Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters or stock-car racing. I just come on the way I always do, which is kind of the Man From Mars. I found that college students are, if anything, eager to talk about their lives — even rather intimate things. Incidentally, the drinking is no greater a problem than it’s always been. American campuses have been so drunk for so long! But the sexual thing is very different.
EW Is that what you found most surprising?
TW Yes. I mean I expected there to be a lot more sexual activity than when I went to college, but what I didn’t expect is how much pressure is put on students who didn’t want to be involved in the lurid carnival. And the girls — it used to be even if they were total sluts, they always insisted they were virgins. That’s totally changed, and along with it comes a change in language in which girls talk the same way as the boys. I call it the f— patois.
EW When your novel A Man in Full came out, Norman Mailer, John Updike, and John Irving all seemed to dogpile on you with murderous reviews. Do you think that was a response to the essay you’d written for Harper’s (”Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast”), arguing that novelists needed to go out into the world and report on real lives like you were?
TW It could be. People said, ”Well, you know, they’re just jealous.” Maybe they were and maybe they weren’t. The fact that three aging novelists of high reputation had attacked the same book — I don’t know if that had ever happened before.
EW One of the beefs that critics seem to have with I Am Charlotte Simmons [EW gave the book a D] is that maybe the zeitgeist has passed you by. That it feels a bit square and out of touch. . .
TW All I can say is, I went through a lot of trouble to capture what students said, and then I went through a lot of trouble having my children take a look to see if I got it right. I think one reviewer held up the reference to Britney Spears as an antique. But that would have to be an antique reference starting about five months ago! Slang changes very rapidly, but I would be seriously surprised if there’s anything in there about behavior or language that’s behind the times. Anything. I’m just trusting my own powers of observation — which are not omniscient.
EW The whole notion of Tom Wolfe going undercover at a keg party in a blue blazer, tie, and white trousers instead of the white suit is kind of hilarious. . .
TW Well, at least in my mind I wasn’t showboating. If I came in a white suit, I myself would find that pretentious. It’s like saying ”I’m the show now!”
EW Did any of them even know who you were?