Little, Brown will release Tom Wolfe‘s new novel, Back to Blood, on Tuesday, October 23rd, but the book is already #28 on Set in Miami, Back to Blood is Wolfe’s long-awaited “next book,” after what many consider a disappointing I AmĀ Charlotte Simmons (2004).

The new novel has earned — for the most part, anyway — positive reviews for the 81-year-old Wolfe. I’ve read or scanned many of the top reviews and the bottom line is that Back to Blood is much better than I Am Charlotte Simmons, but nowhere near as great as The Bonfires of the Vanities (one of my all-time favorites).

Reading the reviews of Wolfe’s latest effort — with their many references to the similarities between The Bonfires of the Vanities and Back to Blood (racial/ethnic tensions, hedonistic characters, lots of CAPITAL LETTERS, and exclamation points!!!!, and other resemblances) — I recalled a writer’s warning I read somewhere. The cautionary words were: “You know you’ve lost your soul as a writer when you start imitating yourself.”

To me, this means you are trying to recapture some former glory or a time when writing came easily and you turned in virtuoso performances. Now, you’re rusty, so rather than find a new authentic voice, you just turn in a weak imitation of some past performance — but now the effort lacks soul.

I’m not saying this is true for Wolfe because I haven’t yet read Back to Blood (I am number 151 on the L.A. Public Library waiting list). But I think this is true for any writer. You can’t look over your shoulder at what you once were, but need to write from an authentic place — even if it’s a less impressive performance.

Several years ago, I read an art history study that examined whether famous artists produced their greatest work when young or when old. In the study, Pablo Picasso was an example of an artist who’d created his best work during his younger years (Picasso lived to be 91), and Claude Monet was cited as an artist who’d produced his greatest work when old (he lived to be 86).

While many will agree that the older Picasso sometimes tried to imitate the younger, wunderkind Picasso, no one could accuse Monet of such behavior. In fact, Monet’s later work is considered his greatest precisely because he didn’t try to imitate himself. When he was stricken with cataracts and was nearly blind, he changed his style and started to paint everything in large proportions on gigantic canvases. So, despite his physical limitations, his soul prevailed and he was able to create magnificent works of art.

But getting back to Tom Wolfe’s latest novel. It is my fervent wish that this feisty octogenarian has produced something truly great. I’m looking forward to reading the 720-page novel (Wolfe, at his best, makes the pages fly by) — maybe I’ll get to it sometime next year when my number at the library comes up.


Painting: “Water Lilies” by Claude Monet (1916) — painted when the artist was in his 70s and suffering from cataracts. I was lucky enough to get a ticket for the comprehensive show of Monet’s work held in 1995 at the Art Institute of Chicago. The museum exhibited Monet’s paintings in chronological order, so that by the time I arrived at the later work (Monet painted until a few months before his death in 1926), I was dumbstruck, awestruck, and inspired that someone could create such masterworks well into “old” age.