Between Fiction and the 'Greater Truth' - Representation and Reality in Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2004 26 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of contents

1 Introduction

2 Tom Wolfe and his theories of writing
2.1 Journalism and New Journalism
2.2 The novel and the social realist novel
2.3 Material and Form in Wolfe’s writing

3 The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
3.1 Author’s note: material and approach to TEKAAT as a means of representation
3.2 The narrative as interpretative key to the body of material
3.3 Subjective reality and its technical manifestation in representation

4 Conclusion

5 Bibliography
5.1 Primary Literature
5.2 Primary Secondary Literature
5.3 Secondary Literature
5.4 Other Fictional Sources
5.5 Electronic Sources

1 Introduction

“Thus set up, pen in hand, for the sake of the greater truth, I would turn Portugal into a fiction. That is what fiction is about, isn’t it, the selective transforming of reality? The twisting of it to bring out its essence?”[1]

This essay is not about Portugal – or Life of Pi, for that matter – but about the relation between fiction, greater truth and the selective transforming of reality, the twisting of it to bring out its essence. The book of interest is Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test[2]. Unlike the literary novel Life of Pi, TEKAAT was published and written in the context of non-fiction – the New Journalism.

TEKAAT claims to be no fiction and it strives to represent a greater truth around the events and facts it reports on – something, which Yann Martel claims to be the very soul of fiction.

The key for it is subjectivity, in Wolfe’s concept of writing, the subjectivity of experience and the subjectivity in representation.

In this essay I discuss, under the central notions of ‘truth’ and subjectivity, fiction and non-fiction, the interplay between representation and reality and the related issue of realism and journalism as the forms – or genres – of representation Tom Wolfe draws on for his theory of representation.

The first part of the essay deals with the general, theoretical background of TEKAAT, with Wolfe’s discussion on the novel and the New Journalism in his essays ‘The New Journalism’[3] and ‘Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast’[4].

In the second part of the essay I look at TEKAAT in detail, focussing on the relation of the book – the representation – to the substance of the book, the kind of reality it is supposed to represent, and at the role of basical elements of representation, the narrative, language and point-of-view.

2 Tom Wolfe and his theories of writing

It is hard to ignore Tom Wolfe’s presence as the author and theoretician and critic – neither in his own texts[5], in the discourse around and about TEKAAT, or in the discussion about genre, and about the function, role and claims of text and genre in the context of New Journalism and the novel. His essay ‘TNJ’, published shortly after TEKAAT, reveals much about the ideas influencing the writing of that particular text.

The essay contains the conceptual frames concerning perception, reality, representation and art that shaped TEKAAT and that shaped his views at the time – which is even reflected in the language and phrases he uses in TNJ’.[6]

‘TNJ’ is basically Wolfe’s ‘story’ of the decline of the literary novel and the usurpation of the ‘throne’ of literature by the writings of the New Journalism, especially the non-fiction novel. Wolfe observes, analyses and argues about the properties and the role of the novel, literature, journalism, the journalist, writing and reading – he even writes about the properties of written language in representation and imagination, so far as to include contemporary ideas on the physiology of the brain. He shows a profound knowledge and detailed and complex considerations about the matter – revealing his stance as journalist, man of letters (with a Doctorate in American Literature), and as someone desiring to be a novelist at that time. But the involvement of his ego has been the subject of a lot of Wolfe criticism.[7] His essays ‘TNJ’ and ‘Billion-Footed Beast’ are highly enthusiastic – and therefore hyperbolic, generalising[8] in its statements and explicitly subjective.[9] His enthusiasm mainly refers to the possibilities and power of the New Journalism - for himself and other journalists as writers, for readers and the literary world in general as the genre succeeding the novel as the most effective and important form of literature, in status and as an art form – as novelists have abandoned the novel in its in Wolfe’s eyes most powerful form, the social realist novel.

The New Journalism – as a new tradition and genre – and the social realist novel are thus the most important referents for his writing, in the sense of technique and form, and also concerning function, attitude, claim, truth and ‘meaning’ of a text, as in TEKAAT.[10]

2.1 Journalism and New Journalism

“I doubt if many of the aces I will be extolling in this story went into journalism with the faintest notion of creating a ‘new’ journalism, a ‘higher’ journalism, or even a mildly improved variety.”[11] Thus starts Wolfe’s essay – the “story” – The New Journalism. It approaches the matter from the point-of-view journalism, from the journalist and eventually from Wolfe as journalist.

Wolfe recounts his observations of journalists like Gary Talese and John Hersey, who introduced techniques like scene description or dialogue producing articles that read “like a novel.”[12] This “improved variety”,[13] he goes on, becomes more and more influential, used and represented – as well as discussed – in public discourse, especially in newspapers and magazines. It is summarized as a new genre under the heading ‘New Journalism’.[14]

The properties of the New Journalism are the inclusion of “’novelistic’ details”[15] and the “using of all techniques of the novelists, even the most sophisticated ones – and on top of that [the New Journalists] are helping themselves to the insights of the men of letters while they’re at it – and at the same time [the New Journalists] are still doing their low-life leg-work, their ‘digging’.”[16] Technically speaking the material of journalism – and thus of Wolfe’s New Journalism articles and books – is still to be found by journalistic research. The techniques of representation, however, are basically free of conventions in Wolfe’s argument[17], New Journalism is “ignoring literary class lines that have been almost a century in the making.”[18] Implicitly, however, the techniques of representation, the literary devices, are foremost those of the social realist novel, the most important ones being “scene-by-scene construction”[19], “realistic dialogue”[20], “third person point-of-view”[21] together with the entering into the minds of the characters in representation – the real subjects of the journalistic writing.

The journalistic text gains through the New Journalist form of representation “the unique power” reserved to the realistic novel before “variously known as its ‘immediacy’, its ‘concrete reality’, its ‘emotional involvement’, its ‘gripping’ or ‘absorbing’ quality.’”[22]

Another function of the New Journalism, however, is that it, thus, allows its writers the freedom to produce a work of art, while still producing journalism.

What Tom Wolfe has to say about journalists is basically this: they all want to become novelists and journalism is only a station on the way.[23] That is a generalisation, certainly, embedded in the often ironic-exaggerating attitude of Wolfe’s texts, but obviously true for himself. Accordingly, New Journalism in this context is not an improved, new kind of journalism, as the name suggests, but rather a way to elevate a piece of writing – a journalistic one, whether in article or book form – to art. Wolfe’s summary of the original aim of his essay about the New Journalism is: “All I meant to say when I started out was that the New Journalism can no longer be ignored in the artistic way”[24] - promoting, advocating and declaring New Journalism as a genre of writing in status equalling the novel.

Wolfe might start out by introducing a new genre of writing as offspring and part of journalism, but from the beginning to the end his main concern is with the novel and the function of the novel, embodied by the social realist novel.

2.2 The novel and the social realist novel

It is difficult to speak about the novel and the social realist novel in the case of Tom Wolfe. It is not only a literary concept for him[25] – a referent in the field of aesthetics – but as much a status object in the social world of writers and, in that function, in its psychological value in the sense of drive and desire.[26] The novel is the number one genre, the number one form of literary presentation, the highest possible achievement for anyone in the literary world. The main reason that for the New Journalism could possibly claim this place from the novel – in Wolfe’s story of the literary world as told in ‘TNJ’ and ‘Billion-Footed Beast’ – is the turning away from the social realist novel towards Postmodern non-realist – realism-defying – forms of the novel by many writers.[27]

Thus, the novel is defined by its status in the literary world for reader and writer alike, by its functional and aesthetic value[28], its “unique power” as a form of representation “to excite the reader both intellectually and emotionally”[29], and to describe “the subjective or emotional life of the characters”[30].

For those functional and aesthetic values Wolfe’s focus is set primarily on the social realist novel. To Wolfe, “the introduction of realism into literature by people like Richardson, Fielding and Smollett was like the introduction of electricity into machine technology.”[31] This implies that the main power of literature lies in it possibility for the representation of reality. “Realisme pour le realisme.”[32] The representation of reality, however, stands for itself. It does not serve another purpose than representing it in an aesthetical output – there is no preliminary concern for moral, higher purpose, didactic function, let alone for providing information or facts from the real world in the text as a narrative, a novelistic whole.[33]

The function of the social realist novel – and, as being in Wolfe’s argument the number one literary genre, thus the optimum function of literature is its portrayal of society, the individual, and the interplay between them.[34] If there is some kind of greater truth underlying human experience as represented in the novel, it is the determining power of those society–individual forces. It is the only narrative generality in representation standing above, or aside, from the representation – technique, power and status – and reality – as matter and function of representation.[35]


[1] Yann Martel: ‘Author’s Note’, Life of Pi (Orlando/Austin/New York/San Diego/Toronto/London: Harvest 2003).

[2] Tom Wolfe: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (London: Black Swan, 1989). In the following referred to as TEKAAT.

[3] Tom Wolfe: ‘The New Journalism’, The New Journalism with an Anthology edited by Tom Wolfe and E W Johnson, Tom Wolfe/E W Johnson (London: Picador, 1975 (reprinted 1990)), pp. 15 – 68. In the following referred to as ‘TNJ’.

[4] Tom Wolfe: ‘Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast’, The Bonfire of Vanities, Tom Wolfe (N.A.: Picador, 1990), pp. vii – xxx. In the following referred to as ‘Billion-Footed Beast’.

[5] TEKAAT, TNJ’ and ‘Billion-Footed Beast’.

[6] That is: Wolfe’s ideologies determining his thinking and, thus, his writing. However, this essay is not concerned with the person of Tom Wolfe. Those ideologies do not play a major role in my considerations. As TEKAAT somehow relates to the question of the journalistic presentation of reality (informed by implicit ideologies) and shaping the public view of reality – an issue attracting a lot attention and discussion, not only around the Iraq war or about tycoons like Rupert Murdoch or Silvio Berlusconi. This will be dealt with later in the next part of this chapter. My approach is not from a journalistic or even social critical angle and responsibility and ethics are a zero value for me.

[7] Cf. Michael L. Johnson, The New Journalism. The Underground Press, the Artists of Nonfiction, and Changes in the Established Media (Lawrence/Manhattan/Wichita: University Press of Kansas, 1969), p. 50; Alfred Kazin: ‘The Imagination of Fact’. Bright Book of Life. American Novelists and Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1973), p. 230, John Hersey: ‘The Legend on the License’, The Yale Review ((75:2, Winter 1986). 1986), p. 298; Sarah Chandle: Unreliable Narrators?: Representation and Responsibility in the New Journalism of Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion, (Wellington: Victoria University of Wellington M.A. Thesis, 2002), p. 44, pp. 55f.

[8] Like in his speculations about the psychology of journalists and their strife to become novelists and in his declaration of the decline of the novel and the ultimate rise of New Journalism in the novel’s place. See below. Cf. also Hersey, p. 297f; Chandler, pp. 57f.

[9] Wolfe himself acknowledges that he has been carried away, even annihilating all he has said in the essay with a laconic “the rest I take back”. ‘TNJ’, p. 51.

[10] Actually it is certainly not the ‘New Journalism’ and the ‘social realist novel’ that constitute a frame for his writing. It is rather Wolfe’s own concepts of those two ‘genres’ – concepts of literature -, as he defines and understands them, that are used in his argument to present his own ideas of literature and journalism, and implicitly as well reality (“the ‘real world’”, The New Journalism, p. 16), the representation of reality and the value of art. The ideas about ‘the novel’ and ‘journalism’ correspond to Wolfe’s subjective and personal ideas about writing, they reflect them. As they work in the context of advocating New Journalism as a genre of writing with artistic value, it needs to be said that they are used for justification of his own form of writing as well and could be analysed in that personal dimension.

[11] ‘TNJ’, p. 18.

[12] Cf. chapter 2, which is called “Like a Novel”, ‘TNJ’, p. 23.

[13] Ibid, p. 27.

[14] The term is not Wolfe’s creation, but he was, especially with his essay about the New Journalism, one of the most important figures in establishing the term.

[15] TNJ’, p. 27.

[16] Ibid, p. 21.

[17] In contrast to the “lean English” of ‘classical’ journalistic writing, its impersonal style and its official point-of-view. Cf. Johnson, p. 46.

[18] ‘TNJ’, p. 21.

[19] Ibid, p. 46. This means as well, from the point-of-view of journalism, a broadening of the focus of the journalist. In fact, Arlen even suggests that the main interest of the New Journalist lies in the events (in representation: scenes) before and after the event being mainly covered. (Cf. Michael J. Arlen, ‘Notes on the New Journalism’, The Atlantic Online. The Atlantic Monthly 1972 (Internet WWW page, at URL <http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/72may/newjournalism-p1.htm>).

[20] ‘TNJ’, p. 46.

[21] Ibid. Point-of-view is a very important idea for Tom Wolfe, as he believes it to be one of the most powerful techniques of representation. See below.

[22] Ibid, p. 46.

[23] Ibid, p. 17. This means the ‘feature journalists’ that are interested in more than simple fact-gathering and in the status game of providing those facts faster than anyone else.

[24] ‘TNJ’, p. 51.

[25] And a literary practice later.

[26] Again, this is not a psychoanalytical approach on the text as the expression of the writer. However, for the evaluation of the function of the novel in Wolfe’s writing – as relating to the book and novel-like form of TEKAAT – it has to be acknowledged that the novel is not simply an aesthetic value. It relates more to a the-text-for-the-text’s-sake and the-text-for-the-author’s-sake idea. See below.

[27] Cf. ‘TNJ’, p. 54f: ‘Billion-Footed Beast’, p. xvii. Wolfe turns out to be not only the advocate of New Journalism, but even more that of social realism. See below.

[28] Function and aesthetic are difficult to separate in Wolfe’s concept – the aesthetic and excitement of the subject is directly linked to that of thee representation. The utilitarian function of informing is embedded in the aesthetic value of representation – and ‘greater truth’ – and they serve each other.

[29] ‘TNJ’, p. 22.

[30] Ibid, p. 35.

[31] Ibid, p. 26.

[32] Ibid, p. 55.

[33] Cf. ibid, pp. 55f.

[34] Cf. ‘Billion-Footed Beast’, p. xviii.

[35] Actually, it is unclear, whether the interplay between individual and society is an inherent part of the reality Wolfe selects as the primary matter for representation or whether it is a narrative convention for the representation. However, as reality – subject, matter – and representation – novel, article, writing – are approximated in Wolfe, this seems not to be a question that he considers. See below.


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Victoria University of Wellington – School of English, Film and Theatre der Faculty of Humanities and Social Science
Between Fiction Greater Truth Representation Reality Wolfe Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test ENGL439 Journalism Literature




Title: Between Fiction and the 'Greater Truth' - Representation and Reality in Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test"