Brow Beat

The Long Shadow of the “Billion-Footed Beast”

Tom Wolfe helped ignite an explosion in 21st-century fiction. It just wasn’t his novels that did it.

Tom Wolfe against a backdrop of fiction that he influenced.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Sitacuisses/Wikimedia Commons.

The late Tom Wolfe published four novels in his long career, all of them best-sellers, although each less successful than the one before it. He was a literary celebrity, yet you’d be hard-pressed to find any American novelist of consequence who would cite even the most popular of these works, 1987’s Bonfire of the Vanities, as a model. Wolfe’s novels did not, as Slate’s Jacob Weisberg observed in 1998, found a “School of Wolfe.” Nevertheless, Wolfe arguably had a significant influence on the fiction of the early 21st century. It just wasn’t his novels that did it. Instead, it was an essay he published in Harper’s in 1989, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.”

“Billion-Footed Beast” was a self-proclaimed “manifesto,” and true to his self-aggrandizing nature, Wolfe offered Bonfire of the Vanities as an exemplar of what the contemporary novel ought to be in its very first sentence. The narrative of the essay presents Wolfe the journalist in the 1960s and ’70s, dashing from one subcultural hotbed to another—hippie gatherings in San Francisco, Radical Chic socialites partying with the Black Panthers in New York, astronaut trainees at Cape Canaveral—and in each instance being shanghaied into writing a nonfiction account of the scene while thinking that somebody should be writing a novel about all this. Wolfe wanted to write such a novel himself, but it wasn’t until 1979, after he’d published The Right Stuff, that he finally got down to business. He was amazed that no one had beaten him to it, that there was no “big, realist” novel about the 1960s on a par with William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Way back in 1973, in the introduction to an anthology titled The New Journalism, Wolfe had predicted that “the future of the fictional novel would be in a highly detailed realism based on reporting, a realism more thorough than any currently being attempted, a realism that would portray the individual in intimate and inextricable relation to the society around him.”

This hadn’t happened, and Wolfe had some ideas about why. The cultural elites of the literary world, he said, had come to disdain realism and its fans as pathetically bourgeois, and instead had embraced metafictional and other experimental forms in mimicry of European novelists. If not that, then they had chosen “K-Mart Realists” specializing in short stories about “real situations, but very tiny ones, tiny domestic ones, for the most part, usually in lonely Rustic Septic Tank Rural settings.” (One of the hallmarks of Wolfe’s impenetrable self-confidence is that he could accuse other writers of snobbery, then a few sentences later blithely turn around and a produce a clause like that.) This was not an inaccurate assessment of the literary fashions of the day, but fashions are by their nature subject to change. If Wolfe couldn’t quite produce the novels that would lastingly satisfy the change in taste he heralded, he was nevertheless prescient in anticipating it, in calling for it, and in inspiring it.

Seven years later, Jonathan Franzen would publish an essay, “Perchance to Dream,” also in Harper’s, about the state of American fiction. It was as fretful and self-doubting as Wolfe’s essay was swaggering. Franzen had always believed that putting “a novel’s characters in a dynamic social setting enriched the story that was being told.” Like Wolfe, he looked back with yearning at 19th-century novels that did this, but unlike Wolfe, he wasn’t so sure it worked anymore. He was depressed about the novel’s prospects and depressed in general. The novel had been supplanted by TV, movies, journalism, and increasingly, the internet; vital novels were still being produced for engaged readers by women and writers of color, but largely because they and their audiences had been shut out of the mass media. What could he have to add to this? He referred disdainfully to Wolfe’s essay extolling the “social novel” as “the high-water mark of sublime incomprehension,” ignorant of the social novels published at that time and utterly failing to explain why “his ideal New Social Novelist should not be writing scripts for Hollywood.” Only by abandoning the Wolfian imperative to “engage with the chimerical mainstream” could Franzen even get moving again on his new novel.

That book would prove to be Franzen’s breakout success, The Corrections, in part because readers mistakenly interpreted “Perchance to Dream” as being more or less what “Billion-Footed Beast” was: a call for more “social novels” and the presentation of its author as the person to write them. Franzen’s essay was a refutation of Wolfe that was read as an echo of him. And the paradoxical follow-up was the flourishing of a new breed of social novels in the late ’90s and throughout the first decade or so of the 2000s: The Corrections, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. The quintessential specimen of the type was a fat book told from multiple viewpoints, set in the present or close to it, incorporating popular culture and current events, and largely realist, with perhaps a touch or two of fabulism.

Although some of these novelists also wrote celebrated journalism, their novels weren’t particularly journalistic or reported, as Wolfe had insisted the new social novel should be. Some (Fortress of Solitude, Middlesex, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) had autobiographical elements. Others, like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, found neglected pockets of cultural history to illuminate. Some, like Infinite Jest and A Visit From the Goon Squad, were formally adventurous in a way Wolfe probably considered snooty and pretentious. But all of them did what Wolfe had scolded the novelists of the 1980s for not doing, which was to wrestle with and to directly address the ways that the tremendous social changes since the 1960s have affected the inner lives of individuals and their relationships to each other.

Re-reading “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” three decades later with all these novels in the rearview mirror, is it possible to state that Wolfe ignited this remarkable, exciting explosion? His was an essay that everyone seemed to have read and, in a sense, understood, yet never quite endorsed. He gave voice to an appetite. His imperatives got under novelists’ skins. They did not end up writing novels like his, or even novels like the work of the dowdy, early 20th-century writers he had the peculiar habit of championing: Sinclair Lewis, James T. Farrell, Pearl S. Buck. But in his nonfiction style, in the manic energy, the wide-eyed astonishment, and the dizzied sensibility of Wolfe’s essay, you can nevertheless perceive a root of the expansive, even hyperactive mood of the novels to come in the 2000s. The critic James Wood, no fan of this school, dubbed the books “hysterical realism.” There’s at least a marker or two of Wolfe’s literary DNA in each of them.

Literary fashion has inevitably rolled over, and now the social novel—with its presumptions and its grandiosity—is out of favor again. Autofiction, an inward-looking genre that adopts the style and approach of memoir and diary, is more on-trend. But it’s easy to imagine that in a few years autofiction will start to strike readers as claustrophobic and a little dull, that they will again start to hanker for novels that opt for a more panoramic view. (And some writers are still producing them, albeit to somewhat muted acclaim: See Nathan Hill’s terrific 2016 novel The Nix.) Will critics pull out their faded clipping of “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” once more, as I have on at least three or four occasions over the past 30 years, and look back at what Wolfe called for in the fiction of 1989, and ask themselves if it still applies? While the finer points of Wolfe’s diktats have come to seem more and more dated (he could be pretty retrograde on matters of race, for example), people still do want to read novels with the ambition he insisted novels should have. For an essay that is wrong about so much, “Billion-Footed Beast” has had a staying power that surely even Wolfe himself did not anticipate. And that suggests that somewhere underneath its boasting and inaccuracies, its self-serving prescriptions and (ironically) stunted perspective, it was more than a little bit right.