Column: Norman Mailer may not be well remembered, but no, he was not ‘canceled’

Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune

I have something embarrassing to admit: I forgot about Norman Mailer. There was a time, maybe 30 or so years ago, when I would’ve said that “The Executioner’s Song,” Mailer’s rendering of the life and death by firing squad of Gary Gilmore, was one of my favorite books. Gilmore the first man executed after the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976.

But the truth is, prior to a brief, recent kerfuffle over a supposed “cancellation” of Mailer (who died in 2007 at age 84), I hadn’t thought about Mailer for a long time.

The kerfuffle was triggered by a story from Michael Wolff, most recently known as a chronicler of the Trump Administration, and a writer apparently as flexible with facts as Mailer himself. Wolff claimed that a collection of Mailer’s essays planned for 2023 (the centenary of Mailer’s birth) was canceled by Penguin Random House because of the objection of a “junior staffer” to Mailer’s 1957 essay, “The White Negro.”

The tale of the tyranny of the young and woke fell apart almost immediately. Penguin Random House denied the story’s accuracy — there was no actual contract for a book — and Alex Shephard at The New Republic did the legwork to ask some junior staffers if they wielded so much power (answer = no). Shephard also shared the extremely modest recent sales numbers of Mailer’s work, making a compelling case that there is a sound business rationale for not putting a newly packaged collection of Mailer’s writing into the world.

It’s interesting to contrast the difference between the feelings about Mailer’s work with that of one of his fellow pioneers of New Journalism, Joan Didion, who died in late 2021.

Didion’s death triggered a spate of remembrances and tributes from contemporary writers and critics attesting to her continuing and lasting relevance. At the New York Times, former chief critic Michiko Kakutani praised Didion’s “prophetic eye” that gave her insight into a “fractured” America.

At Slate, Laura Miller wrote of Didion’s ability to maintain an air of mystery even as she revealed so much of her inner self as in her exploration of grief following the deaths of her husband and daughter chronicled in “The Year of Magical Thinking.”

Mailer was undoubtedly a giant in his time with a publishing career which spanned almost 60 years and included 11 bestsellers in addition to a life as an activist and prominent public personality.

But here we have a publisher already thinking that a fresh volume of his work is a bad bet.

On the other hand, it seems likely that Didion is a writer who will continue to resonate for generations down the line. It’s impossible to know or predict which writers will stick around and which will fade, but considering the work of Mailer and Didion, I see some distinctions worth considering.

Mailer tended to declare and pronounce while Didion was more of an observer and explorer. Mailer’s strength during his life was his willingness to mine a current vein of interest in the culture, shape-shifting project to project.

Didion was consistently herself, and that air of mystery that Laura Miller identifies seems to be alluring to each new generation. Perhaps too much of Mailer’s prominence was wrapped up in his public fights and belligerence than his books all along, and once he was no longer around to draw attention to himself the work faded. Certainly Mailer’s brand of machismo has less cultural saliency in 2022 than in his heyday.

There is no eternal right to notoriety. Confusing Norman Mailer’s fading relevance with a forced exile is a sign someone isn’t thinking too clearly.

John Warner is the author of “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.”

Twitter @biblioracle

Book recommendations from the Biblioracle

John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you’ve read.

1. “Shuggie Bain” by Douglas Stuart

2. “A Line to Kill” by Anthony Horowitz

3. “Matrix” by Lauren Groff

4. “Cloud Cuckoo Land” by Anthony Doerr

5. “Mexican Gothic” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

— Lara V., Evanston

Lara’s clearly tapped into contemporary fiction, so to avoid something that might already be on her radar, I’m going to go back a few years to Ben Fountain’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” a war novel that reads as prescient about a certain strand of American jingoism that seems prevalent today.

1. “How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning of Slavery Across America” by Clint Smith

2. “Three Girls from Bronzeville: A Uniquely American Memoir of Race, Fate, and Sisterhood” by Dawn Turner

3. “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” by Charles M. Blow’s

4. “Don’t Let It Get You Down: Essays on Race, Gender, and the Body” by Savala Nolan

5. “Punch Me Up to the Gods” by Brian Broome

— Elaine S., Evanston

This is a request on behalf of a book group dedicated to anti-racist books. I’m choosing a novel about one of the most strident anti-racists in history, John Brown: “The Good Lord Bird” by James McBride.

1. “Picasso’s Tears” by Wong May

2. “The Descent of Alette” by Alice Notley

3. “Jar of Plenty” by Ruelaine Stokes

4. “Madwomen/Locas Mujeres” by Gabriela Mistral

5. “Fast Speaking Woman” by Anne Waldman

— Zachary J., Grand Rapids, Michigan

Zachary’s list is all poetry, so I’m going to recommend a book of poetry that I think everyone should read, “Nox” by Anne Carson.

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