Norman Mailer is not 86 today

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Norman Mailer would have turned 86 today, except that he died in November 2007.

But his memory lives on in The Mailer Review. Its fall 2008 issue, the journal’s second, weighs in with more than 500 pages. It includes conversations and criticism, interviews and remembrances. Some of these were written and published; others were read at the April 2008 memorial for the author at Carnegie Hall. There are Mailer anecdotes from Günter Grass, Charlie Rose, Tina Brown, Lonnie (Mrs. Muhammad) Ali and Mailer’s nine children, one of whom recounts mixing his father his last drink.

Norman Mailer won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1979 for ‘The Executioner’s Song,’ and his novels were often considered secondary to his new journalism and essays. But not, apparently, by everyone:

‘It’s all fiction,’ William Kennedy quotes Mailer as saying. ‘It’s a great swindle that civilization is pulling on itself, that there are two literary forms.... Nonfiction is fiction because you never get it right.’ Kennedy went on to say that Mailer ‘said more than once that the novel was on the way out.... He decided neither he nor any writers of his generation ever achieved it, but he was resolute that the novel was how you reached the broadest and deepest possible meaning of human experience.’

And in his 2005 acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation Award, Mailer emphasized the importance of the novel:


The serious novel may soon be in danger of being adored with the same poignant concern we feel for endangered species.... The passion readers used to feel for venturing into a serious novel has withered.... The good serious novel, and most certainly the rare great novel, is now inimical to the needs of this market-place.... Novelists are rarely heroic. Gawky, half-formed, shy, perverse, spoiled, vain in their youth, so too, can their vision be astigmatic. Nonetheless, the best of them do look to honor the profound demands of their profession by offering insights with which good readers can enrich themselves the meaning of their lives. Whose comprehension of society is not more incisive after reading Proust, who does not know more about language once James Joyce is encountered, whose sense of compassion has not been deepened by living in Tolstoy’s novels? So, here is to future Tolstoys, future Joyces, Dostoyevskys, Prousts.

After the jump, Don Delillo, E.L. Doctorow and Gay Talese on Norman Mailer.

Don Delillo, Gay Talese and E.L. Doctorow took on Norman Mailer as an author and cultural figure. Talese, writing for the New York Post just after Mailer’s death, considered his achievements:

Mailer had what few writers had. He was both a great fiction and nonfiction writer. He was an essayist and a journalist and, as much as any historian, he caught the middle of the 20th century. He wrote about all the great disasters and all the great wonderments of the mid-20th century. He wrote about space, he wrote about astronauts, he wrote about the political forces from the Kennedy years on through. He wrote about war and peace and sex and feminism. He was a chronicler of the chaos and the great orgasmic climax of the whole half-century in which he thrived as a writer.

At the memorial, Delillo took note of Mailer’s prominent public persona:

A novelist is supposed to be an individual alone in a room, but Mailer seemed to be everywhere, writing everything -- novels, poems, plays, stories, essays, journalism, movies and advertisements for himself. He was the writer in opposition, the individual who confronts power, and in his case reaches for a handful himself -- ‘running for president,’ he said, ‘in the privacy of my mind.’ And of course running for mayor as well, not so privately, a spectacle in three dimensions, or maybe four or five. In those converging tides of war, politics, protest, liberation, assassination, conspiracy, sex and death, God and the devil, Mailer was not just a voice but a force -- chronicler, participant, and provocateur.

E.L. Doctorow saw this as a problem.

There is a price to be paid by the writer who becomes a public figure: Social judgments of the writer attach to the work. At times it seems as if the work cannot be clearly understood or assessed, the writer having gotten in the way. Mailer’s output is still to be measured in true critical fashion, the dross stripped away, and the gold left to shine.

But for me, Mailer’s celebrity did not get in the way. I’d be happy if authors today appeared as frequently in the news, were as important cultural voices, or tried to run, obnoxiously, for mayor of New York City. But it’s not likely we’ll have another Norman Mailer anytime soon.

-- Carolyn Kellogg