The verdict on Norman Mailer is swayed too easily by a revulsion to his private behavior, rather than by any examination in the quality of his writing. The problem stems from Mailer himself, whose need to impose his personality and his opinions, on anyone who would listen, placed his private life on center stage. This he did without thought to the damage it would cause his literary reputation.
While his opinions were sometimes daft and offensive, it did not mean Mailer couldn’t be original and vital.
Much of his essays and journalism, which he fired off like some revolutionary pamphleteer, are crucial to an understanding of recent American history. His non-fiction books were ground-breaking, in particular his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Armies of the Night and The Executioner’s Song, which are two classics of New Journalism.
This is all well and good, but Mailer considered himself a novelist first, with ambitions to write “The Great American Novel.” This never happened. Indeed, his fiction never achieved the critical and popular success of his first novel, The Naked and The Dead, which says much.
There’s a truth in John Updike’s observation that Mailer had once the potential to be the greatest American writer of the twentieth century—if only he hadn’t squandered his talent on a desire to being a respected public figure. Writers write, they don’t run for office, or make unwatchable movies, or compensate for their own insecurity by turning everything into a fistfight.
With all this in mind, it is perhaps time for Mailer’s reputation to be reassessed. This week sees a new volume of his essays, Mind of an Outlaw (with an introduction by Jonathan Lethem) and a new biography, Norman Mailer: A Double LIfe by Peter Lennon. Both will be published on October 15th. A book dealing with the infamous Norman Mailer/Gore Vidal spat, will be published in December. Sales of these books should give a good idea of Mailer’s current standing and relevance.
In 1966, Norman Mailer was interviewed in a documentary for Swedish television. It contains what was good and bad about Mailer—an overweening need to push his ordinary ideas (today’s word Norman is “totalitarianism”), with those occasional sparks of brilliance. It can be summed up by the know-it-all-booze-in-one-hand-Mailer versus Norman-being-a-father-and-husband, who is willing to admit he sometimes doesn’t know the answer.
(As a footnote: Nice juxtaposition to all of the above with the freeze frame below…)