Writers puzzle out Mailer's legacy
The provocative author isn't as widely read as other leaders of New
Journalism. But the literary world says he's a tough act to follow.
By Scott Timberg, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
November 17, 2007
Norman Mailer, who died last weekend at 84, was incontestably one of
the titans of American letters: novelist, journalist, essayist,
would-be politician and overall provocateur. Whatever the genre, he
was a powerful writer -- New Yorker editor David Remnick calls his a
"locomotive prose style" -- who could combine sheer intellectual
force with great literary finesse. As Peter Kaplan, editor in chief
of the New York Observer, put it, Mailer "made nonfiction writing
into an intellectual and soulful exercise," in the process
transforming American journalism with his "pyrotechnic" style and
"massive, cosmic" ideas.
And yet in the past week the literary world was not just mourning him
but also grappling with his complicated legacy.
"If there's a conventional wisdom over the last week, it seems to be
that his great literary talent was always at war with his judgment
and exhibitionism," Remnick said. "And there is no doubt in my mind
that some of his political judgments, especially early on, were foolish.
"But if you were to judge all literary reputations on consistent
liberalism, and even temper, you'd have a very small canon, wouldn't
you? It wouldn't just eliminate people like Pound and Eliot and the
obvious people who were edging toward fascism, but even people I know
now -- I wouldn't want them to be president of the United States."
Remnick added that besides the acknowledged classics such as "The
Armies of the Night" and "The Executioner's Song," such books as
"Harlot's Ghost," the 1,300-page novel inspired by the CIA, have a
lot of Mailer's strengths.
Still, for all of his importance to what's known as New Journalism,
Mailer is not as widely read as the other lions of the movement,
according to Marc Weingarten, author of "The Gang That Wouldn't Write
Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion, and the New Journalism
Revolution," and he lacks the following those iconic three have among
the current crop of younger writers.
Sexual politics may have often kept this supposed sexist off college
reading lists, said his friend and fellow writer Gay Talese. "With
feminism so powerful in the academic world, he was not up there with
Similarly, said culture critic Lee Siegel, who praises the late work,
including the recent "The Castle in the Forest," as well as the
early, Mailer was the object of envy throughout his life. He was also
disliked by many fellow Jewish writers and critics, Siegel said,
because he didn't write about Jewish life, and didn't effect their
gentility. "His personas were usually redneck Texans or tough Irish
cops, and that alienated a lot of Jewish critics."
His work was more difficult, with fewer surface pleasures, than the
other writers who merged journalistic and fictional techniques,
Weingarten said. "Hunter was a comedian, in a way, and Wolfe was a
deconstructor of a specific time in our social history. While Mailer
was sort of a dark skeptic of everything going on in that era,
neither a cheerleader nor a funny debunker." Thompson's books, he
said, became "self-help guides to personal desecration. And Wolfe was
more fun to read."
And especially as the nation's gender politics changed in the '60s
and '70s, he became harder for men and women to like because of a
machismo widely interpreted as misogyny. Though he was a founder of
the alternative press -- Mailer helped establish the Village Voice in
1955 -- he was not often claimed by a subculture that went in a very
different direction than he did.
"His propensity toward violence, the fact that he stabbed his wife
Adele, the Jack Henry Abbott stuff" -- in which Mailer lobbied for
the parole of a prisoner who killed a waiter soon after his release
-- "left a bad taste in people's mouth," said Weingarten. "That's why
they embraced Didion the way they couldn't embrace Mailer."
It's a shame, he said, because despite spotty recent novels -- "The
last decade has been a lost decade for him" -- Mailer's best
nonfiction work can compare with anyone's. (Weingarten is fond of
Mailer's writing about Los Angeles, as when he described the city, in
a piece about the 1960 Democratic National Convention, as looking
like it "was built by television sets giving orders to men.")
" 'The Armies of the Night' to me was the best examination of the
counterculture I've read -- anything that was wrong and right about
it. How the counterculture had alienated the civil rights movement.
By making himself a flawed character, with self-doubt and his own
divided loyalties, he made himself a conduit for all these questions.
It's more insightful than the books of Thompson and Wolfe."
Influence on writers
Remnick thinks Mailer continues to be "a big influence" on writers.
"As a young reader," Remnick said, "excited by the world for the
first time as a teenager and as someone who had it in mind to be a
journalist and writer, Mailer's work, particularly his nonfiction,
and his self-advertisements, were thrilling to me: The taking of ads,
the running for mayor, the essays assessing the other talents in the
room as he put it . . . the insistence on being at central events,
from political conventions to a heavyweight fight."
Novelist Marianne Wiggins said she had feminist problems with Mailer,
but that she admired his insistence on being "larger than life,
pugnacious, politically vigorous" and added that now "no one on the
American landscape" is doing what he did.
"We celebrate anemic, cautious writers in a time that needs more
Mailers," said Wiggins, author of "The Shadow Catcher." "Bless his
misogynist, much-missed, heroic bones."
Talese, who praised Mailer's endless curiosity and a graciousness
that was rarely remarked on, said his influence in journalism is negligible.
"I don't think he had any influence at all," he said. "What he had
was a healthy disrespect for journalism. He once compared journalism
to a goat: Every day you had to feed the goat, and the goat would eat
anything. It would eat tin cans, you can throw junk, all kinds of
stuff into the mouth of the goat. That's really a Mailer way of
looking at things."
Maybe tellingly, the great Mailer achievement of the last decade,
said Weingarten, is 1998's "The Time of Our Time," a career-spanning
doorstop of an anthology that shows the writer's incredible range and
power -- and recently went out of print.
Novel's declining power
Mailer sometimes wrote about the way the literary novel, and the
literary novelist, moved offstage during the course of his career. It
wasn't that the American novel had declined from its postwar heights
"so much as that the people we knew seemed to care much less about
novels," he wrote in "The Spooky Art." "One hardly heard one's
friends talking about a good new novel anymore."
This marginalization makes it hard to find a similar figure.
Ed Park, a founder of the Believer, saw a parallel in William T.
Vollman, who shares Mailer's wide range of interests. Weingarten
nominated Christopher Hitchens, because of his provocative opinions
Several others pointed to Dave Eggers, whose writing includes memoir,
novel and biography, and who runs a publish- ing cottage industry
around McSweeney's and the coast-to-coast educational effort 826 Valencia.
But Eggers is a subcultural figure who seems comfortable on the
indie-alternative edge: Despite his rabid following, it's hard to
imagine him running for mayor of San Francisco as Mailer once did for New York.
Or, say, head-butting Jonathan Franzen on national television, as
Mailer did to Gore Vidal.
Nobody, said Siegel, would have the guts to do that now. "I found
that absolutely thrilling. I'd love to see someone be himself as much
as Mailer was." With one gesture he cut through all the cocktail
passive-aggressiveness of the literary culture.
"Speaking as an editor, I don't think young novelists lack ambition;
look at Michael Chabon," said Remnick. "But they're not inclined to
do this other thing. They don't rotate their crops in quite the same
way, don't generally see it as their literary business to go to war,
to immerse themselves in a political campaign. I think that's too bad."
Can a literary figure be so central again?
Vidal, who discussed the literary writer's loss of prestige with
Mailer, doubted anyone would be read in 50 years since movies and pop
culture have captured people's attention.
But he said he'd miss Mailer's sense of fun. "He had radical notions
about everything. And whether they were correct or not was not
important: They were invigorating and life-enhancing and good for
others to hear." Vidal called "Barbary Shore" among his favorite of
Talese said Mailer was more accessible and wide ranging than the
generation of writers who came after. "Don DeLillo would give an
interview to the Paris Review. Mailer would give an interview to
Hustler, and the Paris Review. Mailer would have a lot to say to
anybody. He thought a writer should have in his collection of friends
a range of classes. He would know cops, he could know prizefighters,
he would know secretaries of state."
"What I loved about Mailer was his fearlessness, his bravery," said
Weingarten, adding that the writer's belly-flops came from that same
courage. "Where do you see that now? There's a timorousness. I don't
think we'll see the likes of Mailer again."
As a hipster guru, Norman Mailer may not have made the 'revolution in
the consciousness of our time' he wanted, Norman Snider says, but he
certainly did so in the consciousness of more than one young writer
November 17, 2007
When I was a teenager, my father haunted second-hand bookstores,
buying whole cardboard cartons full of used paperbacks. Rummaging
through the pile one day, I discovered a book, published a few years
earlier, titled Advertisements for Myself, by somebody called Norman Mailer.
There I was, mired in the early-sixties tedium of Toronto's Lawrence
Park Collegiate, surrounded by white-shoe WASPS, mostly headed to
Queen's University commerce and the family business. By the time I
finished with this collection, I was changed forever.
I was not only on fire to become a writer, I wanted to be a hipster
just like Norman Mailer. In an essay called The White Negro, Mailer
wrote, "One is Hip or one is Square (the alternative which each new
generation coming into American life is beginning to feel), one is a
rebel or one conforms, one is a frontiersman in the Wild West of
American night life, or else a Square cell, trapped in the
totalitarian tissues of American society, doomed willy-nilly to
conform if one is to succeed."
Not much of a choice there for me. Mailer's was a message calculated
to appeal to adolescents with a desire to rebel. The Churchillian
cadences, elegant in their very formality, had a prose rhythm as
compelling as anything Elvis ever put out.
Mailer was pounding a generational drum and, like millions of others,
I was all too eager to follow him into "the Wild West of American
night life." Failing that, the Wild West of Yorkville would do fine.
(There was a skinny kid in my class at Lawrence Park named Neil
Young. But that's another story.)
In the essays of Advertisements for Myself, Mailer, using all his
novelistic cunning, involved you intensely in his own persona not
only as a writer, but a writer with Napoleonic ambition. "The sour
truth," he wrote, "is that I am imprisoned with a perception which
will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the
consciousness of our time."
Imprisoned with a perception. The guy had an unmatched gift for
combative metaphor. Not only that, he took you backstage in his
writing career, described what it felt like to be catapulted at the
age of 25 to worldwide fame with The Naked and the Dead, "a mode in a
new electronic landscape of celebrity, personality, and status."
Mailer was as hip as Kerouac but much more profoundly intellectual.
Marx and Freud stood behind his writing, and Stendhal and Malraux. He
didn't have much respect for the small ambitions of the competition.
J. D. Salinger was "the greatest mind never to leave prep school."
Ernest Hemingway was "afraid to think." Saul Bellow was "timid."
Mailer depicted himself, the embattled author, feuding with lunkhead
editors, critics and publishers, and battling his way onto the
bestseller lists with The Deer Park.
He showed you, page by page, his revisions to the novel, made under
the influence of marijuana and bebop, how he had created that crazy
rhythm in his prose style. It all looked pretty damned attractive to
me, a good way to spend your life.
Mailer became one of those charismatic figures of the times, like
Kennedy, Trudeau, the Beatles. The exact same lunkheads who detested
Pierre Elliott Trudeau were liable to deplore everything about Norman
Mailer and his books. It's been said a thousand times, but it's worth
saying again: Norman Mailer created modern political journalism with
his Esquire article about John F. Kennedy, Superman Comes to the
Supermarket. In Canada alone, journalists like Peter C. Newman and
Dalton Camp showed his influence every time they sat down to write.
Then, just as much as his pal Truman Capote did with In Cold Blood,
he made an indelible mark on the modern true-crime epic in The
Executioner's Song. Check out Stephen William's book about the
Bernardo-Homolka case, Invisible Darkness, if you doubt me.
At every step of the way, the protean Mailer created stylistic
innovations. In Armies of the Night, he wrote about himself in the
third person, creating a wry comic distance on his own persona. In
The Executioner's Song, he reversed field. He appeared nowhere in the
text, he excised all that Churchillian rhetoric; the sentences were
spare, short; all flashy metaphor was banished. The effect was
powerful. Last year, at 83, in his much-underrated novel about Adolf
Hitler, The Castle in the Forest, Mailer created a narrator out of a
spirit, a demon. What he had done, in fact, and brilliantly, was
reinvent the omniscient Balzacian narrator of the 19th century.
Mailer's influence was not restricted to those of us who aspired to
be writers. Those countercultural activists of the sixties, such as
Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, were clearly his disciples in their
shit-disturbing antics. Mailer once tried to take over heavyweight
champ Sonny Liston's press conference in order to promote a book in
front of a national audience. Hoffman lurched onstage at Woodstock to
promote his agenda. Like Mailer, Hoffman and Rubin weren't afraid to
be seen as ridiculous in order to make an impact.
It has to be said that there were few women among Mailer's admirers.
For feminists like Germaine Greer, he mostly served as a sparring
partner or a target. All the same, you had the feeling he represented
an attractive opponent for intelligent women such as Greer. They
wanted to hug Mailer, pudgy though he might be, just as much as they
wanted to wrestle him. They picked up on his disruptive methods of
making a public point. Nobody ever wanted to get in the ring with a
zhlub like Norman Podhoretz.
"The literary world," the 32-year-old Mailer wrote in Advertisements
for Myself, "likes to murder their writers, then decorate their
grave." For six decades, censorious critics tried to do Mailer in,
panning his books, ridiculing his marriages, his feuds, his run-ins
with the law. They were the ones who failed; Norman Mailer was
writing and battling, right to the very end.
True enough, like Kennedy and Trudeau, his legacy is bound to be
eternally controversial. However, his example and teaching endure.
For Mailer, as for Ernest Hemingway, the prime virtue was courage.
Without courage, they were always saying, there is little else good
in life. And that's lesson enough for anybody, man, woman or child.
Norman Snider's collection of essays and articles, The Roaring
Eighties and Other Good Times, has just been published.