Tom Wolfe, of the Class of 1951, became the 20th recipient of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation last week during the National Book Awards ceremony in New York last week. Previous recipients of the award included Joan Didion, Maxine Hong Kingston, Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, John Updike, and Gore Vidal.
In presenting the award, Tina Brown, founder and editor-in-chief of the Daily Beast, said that “We read [Tom Wolfe] as we watch fireworks, with wonder and joy.”
Tom’s acceptance speech, which he termed “a tour of his life in six minutes,” included a vivid description of his first assignment with the New York Herald, which was to interview a mob boss. He went on to talk about the way that his life in journalism and in writing nonfiction was a huge advantage because “you can’t make this stuff up.”
“I wouldn’t dare do a piece of fiction — I’ve done three novels — without treating it just like a reporting assignment,” he told the audience. “I brag with tremendous ego that my novels are highly journalistic. I think that is the future. The new writers to watch in this country, Michael Lewis and Mark Bowden, are both nonfiction writers.”
Offering advice to future writers, whether of fiction or nonfiction, Tom amended Sinclair Lewis’s advice to writers, which was “First, sit down,” to “First, leave the building. Then, sit down and write.”
Tom is currently working on his fourth novel, Back to Blood, which is set in Miami.
You can watch the entire proceedings on the National Book Award’s site. Tina Brown’s introduction begins at 19:38, and Tom’s remarks start at 23:45.