New York Writing

"To write simply is as difficult as to be good."
—Somerset Maugham

It is just possible that Tom Wolfe's first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, may be more important for extraliterary reasons than for purely literary ones. Of course, there are no purely literary reasons for anything, especially in the form of fiction, perhaps the most massive impure art form ever invented. But to say that this large but strangely slick hunk of a book may be important, almost as if on appearance, is simply to locate its possible significance in a brace of considerations: (1) as an occasion for stock-taking on the state of the American novel today; and (2) as a symptom of the cultural situation itself.

Roughly speaking, there are two obvious currents which flow in the mainstream of American fiction. One has to do with what we recognize as the imperishable works of our literature—in the great fictions, say, of Hawthorne, Melville, James, Edith Wharton, Willa Gather, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Saul Bellow—while the other has to do with those strictly perishable and peripheral productions which in any period comprise the bulk of the best-seller listings. In the first instance, we have almost ceased to produce any fiction of major importance, and this for the shockingly simple reason that we have at the same time failed to produce a new generation of great readers....

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