Jan 24 • 53M

Podcast: The “Cancellation” of Norman Mailer

Alex Shephard on hypothetical censorship

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Norman Mailer being kicked out of boxing match in 1962 (Getty)

In a January 3 post, I expressed skepticism about Michael Wolff’s reporting that Norman Mailer was the victim of cancel culture. Subsequent reporting by Alex Shephard in The New Republic has lent ammunition to my argument that Wolff was conflating the decline of Mailer’s reputation with active censorship and that he was spreading an unfounded narrative that scapegoated junior publishing staffers for the unwillingness of their employers to invest in maintaining Mailer’s literary reputation.

Reading Alex’s piece, it occurred to me that Mailer is one of many examples of a new media genre: the conjectural cancellation, whereby a purely hypothetical story of suppression is put forward as evidence of widespread censorship. This post on Bari Weiss’ substack by Peter Kiefer and Peter Savodnik, for example, claims that Blazing Saddles and Rocky could not be made in today’s Hollywood. A recent Ross Douthat column, for another example, defends Joan Didion from a cancellation her legacy does not face, and in fact was only supposed, imagined, by Douthat for the purposes of defending her against it. 

Why are some commentators mongering fear of cancellations that have not happened yet? Is it because cancel culture is now a bogeyman, totally without any reference point in reality? And how does this genre of imaginary cancellation hamper our understanding of the real state of culture? For this episode of the podcast, Alex, who covers culture for The New Republic, and I discussed these and other matters. Along the way we take up the issue of what is living and what is dead in the legacy of Norman Mailer.

(Post edited by Emily M. Keeler)

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