Tom Wolfe hated on The New Yorker way before that Obama fist-bumping cover, in a two-part series in New York in 1965. Forty-four years later, they still haven’t reconciled, and Wolfe’s writing has only ever appeared in the magazine when he’s taken issue with something they’ve written about him. Such as in this week’s “Letters” section, wherein he responds fiercely to Alex Ross’s recent piece on Leonard Bernstein, which references another famous New York story by Wolfe, “Radical Chic”, about a 1966 fund-raiser Bernstein and his wife held for the Black Panthers. Ross defended himself ably, but in a less-entertaining fashion. So who won? We tallied up their insult-effectiveness quotient below.
The Insult-Effectiveness Quotient ranks snipes on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being weenieish and 10 being massively cocky.
Ross, in the story: “If, as William F. Buckley, Jr., said, Bernstein was parroting the lingo of fanatics, Wolfe was, in his own way, a mouthpiece, his fashionably tart prose advancing the new art of wedge-issue politics.”
I.E.Q: 3. Because while “fashionably tart” and “mouthpiece” are enjoyable, we had to think too hard about this sentence.
Wolfe, responding: “Let us avert our eyes from the rhetorical wreck on the highway and merely point out that Wolfe has never been anybody’s mouthpiece, and his interest in political journalism is nil.”
I.E.Q: 8, for style.
Wolfe [quoting Ross]: “The article was ‘pushing the idea that [Bernstein] was obsessively fixated on the figure of a ‘Negro by the piano’ (perhaps a case of projection on the part of [Wolfe])’ In fact, Bernstein projected that figure himself in an apparition before the party and described it — ‘Within the curve of the piano sits a well-dressed Negro’ — in John Gruen’s The Private World of Leonard Bernstein.”
I.E.Q: 3, because, snooze.
Ross: “‘Before the party’ is a deceptive phrase. Wolfe took a discarded prose sketch from 1966, which Gruen found in a sheaf of notes, and wove it into Bernstein’s supposed interior monologues of 1970. ‘That damnable Negro by the piano,’ the Bernstein character seems to think at the end of Wolfe’s piece. This conceit supplants Bernstein’s entire engagement with black culture.”
I.E.Q: 5: Substantive but unexciting, not to mention judgey. Sure, Alex Ross can write what is apparently the best book in the world about the most boring subject ever with only a quill and a sheaf of parchment, but some people need devices.
Ross, in the story: “The entire episode reeks of hysteria.”
I.E.Q: 3: Really, “reeks”? Also, again with the judgey-ness. Wolfe just uses a lot of exclamation points! What’s wrong with that?!?! Doesn’t Alex Ross ever get excited about anything?!?!?
Wolfe: Calls Ross’s story a “sensitive reassessment.” Sensitive. Is that—is he calling him queer? If so, that is pretty ballsy for a dude who wears spats. But it would have been better if he had said to it as a “light-loafered assessment,” so I.Q.E is only: 5.
Ross: “A ‘sensitive reassessment’ is needed not least because of the damage that ‘Radical Chic’ did to Bernstein’s image.”
I.E Q.: 10, because, Snap.
Wolfe: “Wrong word. There is a difference between hysteria and hysterically funny. Music Critic Ross was two at the time.”
I.E.Q: 5: We were with him until he played the age card. Everyone is younger than Tom Wolfe.
Still, when you add up the points and factor in the fact that Alex Ross is a weenie for even responding, Wolfe wins. Of course, we’re biased.
Radical Chic [NYM]
Re: The Legend of Lenny [NYer]