Predictably, conservative critics are filing past Norman Mailer’s bier and throwing black roses onto his literary corpse, thorns first. I can’t say that from their point of view he doesn’t deserve it, but despite my own conservative views I liked Mailer. I had much the same reaction to the harsher critics of Hunter Thompson when he ended it all a while back with a bullet.
Billy Beck links to this machete attack by Lisa Schiffren:
Mailer was, of course, a literary icon of that funny generation â€” not the Greatest, not the boomers. His audience was largely his peers, and the men who came of age in the 50s. I am guilty of blaming the generation of the 60’s â€” Bill and Hillary, Marx and Coca-cola â€” for tearing down the culture. But it was the cohort ahead of them who felt the first itch, who goaded them at the barricades, and who surrendered authority without much of a fight.
And then there is the only question said to matter with a writer: Who now reads Norman Mailer? Will any of his books be in print twenty-five years from now? If you were going to teach them, what would the course be called? American Culture 1960 â€” 1975; Fictions, “journalism,” style and hype â€” is my candidate.
I honestly don’t know what “funny generation” Schiffren is talking about. I don’t even know that Mailer was an “icon” to anyone. From my point of view, a writer’s point of view, Mailer was a guy who made money, and quite a tidy sum of it, writing literary novels, and he did it for 60 bloody years. I was not a big fan of his writing, nor an avid reader, but how could I not be impressed by his success, whoever it was who repeatedly returned him to the best seller lists?
Mailer inserted himself into some of his journalism, most preeminently Armies of the Night, probably on the inspiration of one of his literary heroes and one of mine, Henry Miller, whose writing Mailer loved. I look back on Henry Miller now and see all of the huge gaping flaws in writer and man, but what he did for me was teach me to more fully embrace life and to throw off what Martin Heidegger called the “triviality of everydayness.”
I don’t think that it was either Henry Miller or Norman Mailer who destroyed or symbolized the destruction of American culture, literary or otherwise. They were who they were, rogues, but not cultural landscape architects.
The very fact that Mailer was still writing in earnest at 84 and still publishing and selling what he wrote is, whatever Lisa Schiffren or Roger Kimball might think or feel about him, a singular fact in the world of novel writing.
But what I liked about Mailer, more than his capacity to keep on keepin’ on with his work, was precisely the public rogue, the inquisitive and acquisitive head-butting (literally and figuratively) booze-soaked and sex-drenched buccaneer writer. Mailer was not some sissified academic with tenure. I love that he ran for mayor of New York City and that he helped found the Village Voice. If his obsessions with boxing and Marilyn Monroe strike me as a tad arcane, so what? I appreciate that he had obsessions. And I really love the fact that he punched Gore Vidal in the mouth at an exclusive Manhattan dinner party. Had I only been there to have his back.
Mailer’s original success came with The Naked and the Dead, a novel about WWII. That came to him at the age of 25. He might well have taken that and worked the war novel genre for the rest of his career. Just as a successful writer of a mystery or science fiction or horror novel might stick with what worked. Mailer did not do that. He went here and there, into the antiwar movement, into the Apollo moon mission and boxing and an infamous criminal case and ancient Egypt. However far he got with any of it, he at least went for it, and he sold it.
But the one thing Mailer assured, whether you liked his writing or not, was an enthusiastic conversation. He liked to talk about things, and frankly I’m just so bloody tired of people who cannot even put two thoughts together, I’m more than willing to miss a man who put hundreds of thousands of them together and probably wanted more than anything else to leave people being able to do that.
If there was a part of Mailer that fell down on the Left and couldn’t get up from it, he still mixed an unholy rumble in those ashes.