The Execution and Un-Execution Of Norman Mailer

Millennials hate him and he must go, but he’s not going anywhere

On Monday, the first literary scandal of 2022 crashed across the bow. Donald Trump biographer and all-around media gadfly Michael Wolff reported, on the rising Substack platform The Ankler, that Random House has canceled a collection of Norman Mailer political writings to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Mailer’s birth.

“The back-door apologies at Random House,” Wolff wrote,  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”.

And there you have it. The world has canceled Norman Mailer. But has it? Wolff’s reporting was only the tip of the spear. Joyce Carol Oates, the oldest living American writer, unleashed a multi-tweet fusillade in his defense, highlighting his tough eloquence and wide-ranging intellect, as well as his brash and outrageous public life. “(it’s touching, or ironic, that, when we were all publishing books, Mailer, Roth, Updike, Styron drew virtually 100% of literary attention; the rest of us were small satellites. now, I find myself defending them. how surprised / appalled they would be!)”

Joyce Carol, queen of the undead, wins the day!

Meanwhile, prominent book critics like Ron Hogan stood up for Mailer, or at least tried to explain the situation. Carolyn Kellogg, former books editor of the L.A. Times, tweeted: “Mailer was definitely problematic: a great writer who behaved monstrously. Why couldn’t his work have been put in context?” Kellogg also pointed out that it was “cruel to blame this publishing cancellation on a ‘junior staffer.’ Executives must have been involved.”

Certainly, no one of sense thinks that a junior staffer has the final say in the nixing of a posthumous Norman Mailer collection. Yet let’s look at the evidence online. Most of the people defending Mailer are of a certain age, let’s say 50 or older, while the millennial pile-on has been something to behold. Mailer was a misogynist, they say. A hack. He stabbed his wife. He championed the work of a violent criminal. “Norman Mailer has as much relevance to Millennials as fax machines do,” one Tweeter wrote. 

Meanwhile a backlash to the backlash is forming, and people are talking about the brilliance of Mailer’s ‘The Executioner’s Song,’ and his political reporting, and Harlot’s Ghost certainly still has its aging fans. None of Mailer’s newly minted critics have produced even a tenth of his literary output, or of his public obnoxiousness. They’re mostly the kind of wormy hangers-on who he would have crushed beneath his boxing glove.

And I don’t say this as Mailer’s biggest fan. I devoted my entire first book to mocking the outsized literary personas that he and Gore Vidal wasted a lifetime cultivating. For all his substantial genius, he was also a preening clown. And yet he’s worthy of having Random House publish him, still, whether or not anyone currently rising in power in the publishing industry cares about him, or has even heard of him.

Norman Mailer

This is how censorship happens on the left. When the right censors books, they do it loudly, at public meetings, with pathetic retrograde expressions of bigotry and intolerance. When the left does it, it happens quietly, corporately, unless a reporter gets a hold of a story. The reasoning is different. The right censors because they believe material is immoral, youth-corrupting, pornographic. The left chooses racism, misogyny, or dated opinions about other topics as their reason. But they both represent the censorial impulse. They both keep books out of the marketplace.

Who cares if a book offends a junior staffer, or a senior staffer, at Random House? Who cares if a few suburban parents are uncomfortable with graphic depictions of gay sex? Why do they get to decide what the marketplace can handle? A Norman Mailer book of essays would have come out. The usual places would have reviewed it. Maybe it would have sold 10,000 copies.

Instead, as Michael Wolff reported just a half-hour before I’m typing this, Skyhorse Books, which is part of the same book group that published the Woody Allen autobiography in 2020 after his publisher made a cowardly 11th-hour retraction, has agreed to step in and reintroduce Norman Mailer to a new generation. Suddenly, a book that would have disappeared without a whiff of interest will be everywhere. The censorial impulse always loses. Somewhere in hell, Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal are having a mighty fine laugh.

(Cover image, Norman Mailer photographed by Jill Krementz).

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 11 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

3 thoughts on “The Execution and Un-Execution Of Norman Mailer

  • January 4, 2022 at 7:28 pm
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    Excellent, timely piece and there’s barely a line here I disagree with. Publishing should never be subservient to the wishes of one or another narrow segment of the population. You said it well. Just to be clear, Mailer did more than champion the work of a violent criminal. If all he did was advocate for the writings of Jack Henry Abbott, then no harm no foul. But he led a campaign to have Abbott released from prison to kill again. That’s a bit more of an issue.

    Reply
  • January 5, 2022 at 7:19 pm
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    Hi Neal! It’s been a long time since I’ve been confused with Ron Charles over at the Post, but I’m always flattered by the comparison.

    However, I should clarify that I wasn’t sticking up for Mailer (which hopefully becomes clearer over the course of my entire thread). I just thought that, if Random House *had* decided to cancel the book over that essay, which turned out more likely than not to be precisely what happened, the editor in charge should have taken responsibility, and that any “junior” staffer who could make such a thing happen would deserve to be moved a level or two up the pyramid.

    It might be the reason the Random House contract for this book was never signed was because of a fight over whether to include the essay or not, or there might be another explanation. Either way, Random doesn’t seem to have been satisfied with how the deal was going, and Skyhorse seems to have lucked into a deal it wants, and Mailer’s literary estate is publishing a book pleasing to its sensibilities, so the market seems to have fulfilled its function and worked exactly as intended for everyone involved, including the consumer. So happy days all around, I say!

    Reply
    • January 5, 2022 at 7:25 pm
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      hey, Ron, I will make the correction. Thanks for the extra info!

      Reply

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