Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 509

The 1960’s was an era of social and cultural change in the United States. In prose, the upheaval resulted in that particular form of literary postmodernism known as metafiction, as well as a form of reportage that in 1973 Tom Wolfe dubbed the New Journalism. What writers as diverse as...

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The 1960’s was an era of social and cultural change in the United States. In prose, the upheaval resulted in that particular form of literary postmodernism known as metafiction, as well as a form of reportage that in 1973 Tom Wolfe dubbed the New Journalism. What writers as diverse as Wolfe, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Jimmy Breslin, and Dan Wakefield have in common is the appropriation of novelistic devices for their journalistic writing, a perception of reality as a kind of imaginative literature, and, finally, the forgoing of objectivity and the placing of the journalist in the role of subjective narrator-participant. The result was a journalistic prose to which narrative voice and style were more central than factual content. More broadly, the New Journalsim served, as John Hellman has pointed out, to free the journalistic object from journalistic formulas that had become so common as to obscure and even replace it. The New Journalism emphasized not only the power but also the tentativeness of perception. (Like the metafictionists, the New Journalists understood that perception is not passive but transformational.) Finally, the New Journalism moves in two complementary directions: deeper into fact (and away from formulas) and deeper into private consciousness (including, and often especially, the New Journalist’s). Wolfe saw the New Journalism filling the void left by novelists who had become preoccupied with purely formal considerations and entirely private experience and expression, and who as a result mistakenly excluded social reality from their works. The role of the New Journalist, as Wolfe defined it, is largely (but not entirely) investigative; he does the kind of hard research that most contemporary novelists have chosen to avoid. He investigates new and “bigger and more exciting chunks of the outside world” and writes about this new reality in a way that is at once novelistic and factually verifiable, bringing to his subject “a unique sensibility.”

That The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test accomplishes all of this seems clear. In at least one respect, it goes much further: It becomes the literary equivalent of the Merry Pranksters’ antiliterary aesthetic while still managing to provide an oblique criticism of that aesthetic. Nevertheless, in writing as he did Wolfe ran a risk, one which at least one critic would say he failed to overcome. Failing to measure up to his own “claims as a social chronicler and literary stylist,” his book is “stupefyingly boring,” according to Morris Dickstein, its stylistic and typographical excesses being much ado about nothing more than Wolfe’s own flamboyant egotism. There is some truth in Dickstein’s criticism; however, his criticism implies that privileging of content over performance that Kesey, the Pranksters, and the New Journalists call into question. Whether The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test has contributed to the process by which the social world (including literature) is being slowly drained of all content and objectivity or whether it serves as an oblique criticism of that process is difficult to determine, for Wolfe appears to be a writer at once avant-garde and archly conservative, eclectic and opportunistic.

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