by Mark Alpert
Tom Wolfe has a new book out — Back to Blood, just reviewed in last Sunday’s Times — but I’m not going to read it right now. I enjoyed his earlier novels, especially Bonfire of the Vanities, which at the time of its publication seemed like an important cultural event, a summation of the whole Eighties-financial-boom-and-seething-inner-cities gestalt. His next book, A Man in Full, wasn’t as successful, but it had some great descriptions of prison life, which I assume are pretty realistic since Wolfe is famous for his exhaustive research. (I’m a sucker for any fiction about prison. It’s like watching a train wreck. There but for the grace of God…) And his third novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, had some good moments too, although much of the book was cringe-inducing.
But here’s the problem: after I read Wolfe’s last book I noticed changes in my own writing! Mostly in the use of exclamation points! Wolfe uses them a lot, and I picked up the habit! They started cropping up even in the articles I edited for Scientific American!! I added exclamation points to stories about cosmology and quantum physics! The magazine’s copy chief had to institute a new rule: no more than one exclamation point per story!!!
I’m in the middle of writing my next novel, so I’ve decided to abstain from Wolfe for now. His prose is so catchy and exuberant, it can have an especially strong influence on impressionable authors like me. I can’t stop reading fiction, of course — as Woody Allen might say, it’s my second-favorite activity — but I’m more careful about what I’m reading when I’m in the throes of composition. Does anyone else out there worry about this?