Twenty years ago this month, Harpers magazine published an article titled "Stalking The Billion-footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel", by Tom Wolfe.
Not too often does an article on literature create the feverish tumult and debate that this one did. Several writers responded in the Letters Section of Harpers in the following month. Robert Towers took two pages in The New York Times Book Review to comment pro and con. Lewis Lapham moderated a debate on his TV program "Bookmark". Many other outlets added to the discussion. Ah yes, I remember it well.
I have my original copy of the magazine in front of me, (with the necessary address label in the lower left hand corner showing my former New York residence), and I am struck again with the term 'billion-footed'. What could it refer to, I wondered 20 years ago, and found out that Wolfe seemed uncertain too. At different points in the article, the 'beast' is either New York City, or the USA, or possibly the entire world.
Mr. Wolfe seemed grieved that no one was writing the big novel about New York City that he wanted to write but didn't have time for just yet. He thought poorly of literature that delved in fantasy or minimalism and other non-realist themes.
Well, people who make a living writing about literature had different opinions about the article. Some critics saw it as self-promotion.
Most pointed out that Wolfe had failed to cite many authors who satisfied the requirements of his screed.
Philip Roth, John Hawkes and Robert Towers said their past comments had been misinterpreted by Wolfe.
Madison Smartt Bell rang in that Wolfe was more of a social satirist than a social novelist but endorsed his call.
Mary Gordon called him "the thinking man's redneck".
Jim Harrison described the article as "the Babbittry of Art in a white suit".
Walker Percy gushed in his approval of it.
Twenty years later and all I can say is Ho-hum. Episodes like this always bring to my mind the title of a popular song: "What's It All About, Alfie?"
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