The Famous and the Unread
Is Norman Mailer being cancelled?
In 1973, the literary critic Roger Sale published “Unknown Novelists”, an invaluable essay in The American Scholar. In that piece (and a few follow-up essays) he championed an array of novels he felt were generally neglected by reviewers and critics, such as Theodore Weesner’s The Car Thief, John Williams’ Stoner, Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog, Allis McKay’s They Came to a River, Gladys Schmitt’s Rembrandt, Janet Lewis’s The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron. I once spent a happy summer tracking down the novels Sales advocated and was invariably rewarded with a meaty read from writers whose names I had never before encountered.
Literary reputation is a tricky business. Since Sale wrote his piece, a few of his unknown novelists have won wider fame. In 2013, NYRB Classics had an unexpected best-seller when they reissued John Williams’ Stoner. Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog, after years of having an underground reputation, is now enjoying a much wider readership thanks to the new film adaptation by Jane Campion. Williams and Savage got lucky, although only posthumously. Most of the writers Sale’s promoted are either out of print or kept available only by small speciality publishers.
It's the fate of most good writers to live in the shadows, to never have as wide an audience as they might merit based on the quality of their work or the pleasure they give to the relatively few fortunate enough to chance on their work.
As against the unknown writers, there are those on the other extreme who, perhaps unjustly, achieve the pinnacle of fame. As Sale notes:
Such [unknown] writers must occasionally look around, or up, and feel envious and bitter. They stand, as it were, at the base of a pyramid, and all the other novelists are somewhere, probably above them. At the top of this pyramid, at what I will call level 1, are those very few American novelists who are always and instantly news; if we do not fuss much about identifying the precise or total membership, we can say that at level 1 right now are Bellow, Roth, Nabokov, Updike, Mailer. Level 2 at its upper reaches blends easily into level 1, and consists of novelists who are guaranteed serious reviews in many places, who win prizes, who have admirers convinced that they are among the very best: Pynchon, Malamud, Morris, Welty, Barthelme, Ellison, Heller, Gass, Vonnegut, Salinger, Oates, Hawkes, Styron, Capote— again, we do not so much need to agree on the names as to recognize the category.
What’s striking here is the relative stability of the literary canon. Almost all the writers Sale lists off remain famous to some degree: they almost all get republished, anthologized, and taught. The major exceptions might be Wright Morris, Bernard Malamud, and John Hawkes. To my sense of things, they don’t get talked about much these days.
The main way the literary canon has changed is that it has expanded to include writers who were once excluded. Sale noted that genre writers tend to be unfairly scorned, giving Raymond Chandler as an example. Chandler is now in the Library of America, as are many other writers of detective fiction as well as westerns and science fiction. In 1973 it would have seemed incredible that Philip K. Dick or Ursula K. Le Guin would one day be in the same pantheon as Bellow or Nabokov.
Of the top writers Sale mentions, Mailer is perhaps the one who has suffered the most precipitous fall in reputation. He was a prolific writer but only intermittently a novelist. His fiction is the lesser part of his legacy. His most vital work was in his journalism, but that took up controversies like the Vietnam war and candidates like Hubert Humphrey that are now less than pressing.
Mailer was perhaps better known as public controversialist with the aura of violence, the man who stabbed one of his wives. He also duked out Gore Vidal at party. That last event led to one of Vidal’s greatest one-liners. Lying flat on the floor, Vidal quipped, “Norman, once again words have failed you.” The incident was memorably parodied by SCTV in the form of a Tide commercial.
This week, Random House has cancelled a book of Mailer’s writing they were planning on publishing. According to Michael Wolff writing in The Ankler:
With slow-mo hammer-dropping predictability, Norman Mailer’s long time publisher has recently informed the Mailer family that it has cancelled plans to publish a collection of his political writings to mark the centennial of his birth in 2023, confirms Michael Mailer, the author’s oldest son. The back-door apologies at Random House include as the proximate cause – you hardly have to look hard in Mailer’s work to find offenses against contemporary doctrine and respectability – a junior staffer’s objection to the title of Mailer’s 1957 essay, ‘The White Negro.’”
Wolff is not, in my experience reading his many pieces and books, a reliable narrator. His account will be used to argue that Mailer is being cancelled. But in fact, there are many reasons to think much more is at work than merely Mailer’s offence to 21st century sensibilities.
It’s worth noting that the most controversial part of “The White Negro” is not the antiquated title but the fact that Mailer equates black masculinity with violence, which he encourages “hipster” readers to emulate:
It can of course be suggested that it take little courage for two strong eighteen-year old hoodlums, let us say, to beat in the brains of a candy-store keeper, and indeed the act—even by the logic of the psychopath—is not likely to prove very therapeutic for the victim is not an immediate equal. Still, courage of a sort is necessary, for one murders not only a weak fifty-year old man but an institution as well, one violates private property, one enters into a new relation with the police and introduces a dangerous element into one’s life. The hoodlum is therefore daring the unknown, and so no matter how brutal the act it is not altogether cowardly
Mailer’s work has been falling out of popularity with readers for decades. In 2006, AP did a report comparing the robust popularity of Kurt Vonnegut with the lower sales of contemporaries like Mailer and William Styron:
According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of industry sales, Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" has sold about 280,000 copies since 2006, more than four times the combined pace of six of the most talked about books of the past 60 years: Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead," "The Armies of the Night" and "The Executioner's Song," and Styron's "The Confessions of Nat Turner," "Sophie's Choice" and "Darkness Visible."
In 2018, the Library of America issued a two volume set of nearly a thousand pages reprinting two novels and two journalistic books Mailer wrote in the 1960s. Given that Mailer isn’t setting any sales records and the Library of America volumes exist, Random House might have felt that the market for Mailer is oversaturated. The idea that Random House might make a major decision like this based on a complaint by a “junior staffer” is, to put it mildly, highly unlikely.
Should Mailer be cancelled? If that’s the question, I would say no. For all his flaws, he was an often interesting writer. His political journalism of the 1960s and 1970s has a permanent interest. Even as odious a piece as “The White Negro” has a historical interest which will ensure it will read by anyone trying to understand 20th century American intellectual life.
But the question of cancellation is nonsensical. Mailer is still in print. Indeed, the Library of America volumes will stay in print as long as the publisher exists, which means many decades into the future.
From his writerly debut, with 1948’s The Naked and the Dead, until his death in 2007, Mailer was near the top of the American literary pyramid. He is now a little lower. There are many writers, including those of more merit, below him. He’s not a victim of cancellation but the natural fluctuation of literary reputation. To have enjoyed immense fame and wealth in life is no bad fate, even accounting for minor posthumous reputational slippage.
The real question is, should Mailer have the same place of prominence in the literary pantheon that he had in the 1960s. The answer to that is no. He didn’t write as well as Bellow or Nabokov and many writers that were neglected or marginal in his time (John Williams, Le Guin, Thomas Savage) now have come to the fore. There’s no injustice in Mailer joining the ranks of the relatively obscure. To paraphrase Gore Vidal, words failed Norman Mailer—it’s time now for other voices to be heard.
(Edited by Emily M. Keeler)
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