Mailer’s Back

News of the first Norman Mailer novel in ten years has leaked. Never one to deliver a short, sensitive volume filled with quiet observations of everyday people, the 83-year-old author has written a detailed fictional biography of Adolph Hitler and other members of Hitler’s family.

I have mixed feelings about Norman Mailer. I like it that he’s politically outspoken, uncontrollable and unpredictable. He’s great in panel discussions and in front of audiences. But, while I am not generally devoted to political correctness, I can’t get past Norman Mailer’s rabid sexism.

A 60’s-era interview with Paul Krassner in The Realist comes to mind. Now, I love Paul Krassner and The Realist, and I understand that Mailer was trying to live up to his reputation as a professional asshole in this interview. The subject turned to masturbation, and Mailer declared that masturbation was misunderstood to be healthy when it is in fact traumatic and damaging to men, because it is an essentially isolating act. He then counseled men to do anything necessary, even if they had to commit rape, in order to avoid having to masturbate.

Now, like I said, I know this is Mailer’s schtick, but this goes too far and it makes me not want to read his books. Let’s also consider the fact that Mailer actually stabbed his one-time wife, Adele Mailer, in 1960 at a Manhattan party. What’s most offensive is that this was so obviously an act of proclamation. He stabbed his wife at a party. Why is it that both Mailer and William S. Burroughs committed their infamous acts of violence towards women in front of audiences? I wonder.

Norman Mailer, William S. Burroughs, hmm … Harlan Ellison. They’re all jerks, and in my opinion Burroughs is the only great writer of the three.

So if Mailer’s not a great writer, what is he? He’s a pretty interesting personality, and he’s probably a victim of Larry-David- style cultural Tourette’s syndrome. He’s an innovator in the form of postmodern historical fiction, predating Don DeLillo and William Vollmann. Personally, I don’t sit there reading his books, but I’ll always sit and listen to him if he shows up on Book TV, because that will be a good half hour.

Sarah Weinman dismisses Mailer as lately irrelevant in GalleyCat. But I think we can at least give Norman Mailer this much credit: he was never in step with his times, and even at his best he was probably not relevant to his times. He was a stuffy, fancy “famous author” in the 50’s when the better writers were running around being beatniks. He spent the age of women’s liberation as a loudmouthed naysayer. Norman Mailer has never been cursed, or blessed, with relevance to his times.

21 Responses

  1. Burroughs is BestI get tired
    Burroughs is Best

    I get tired of hearing about Harlan Ellsion’s cantankerous outbursts.

    As for Mailer, what bothers me is that when Burroughs’ Naked Lunch first came out, Mailer didn’t like it. Then, during the obscenity trial, he testified that he read it again and suddenly realized, “Burroughs is the only living American novelist who may conceivably be possessed of genius.”
    Was this a ploy by Mailer to appear cutting edge on Burroughs’ coat-tails?

    Personally, I do believe William S. Burroughs is, by far, the best writer of the three, but I couldn’t say he was the only living genius writer at the time.

  2. Village Voice & 4 of
    Village Voice & 4 of Mailer’s

    Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, The Gospel According to the Son, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, and Harlot’s Ghost–100% solid books that I’ve read and liked and found flawless–will probably outlive Mailer. Mailer co-founded the Village Voice, something that no one else was doing at the time and has since been copied by alternative weeklies in every US metroplex. I only read parts of The Executioner’s Song, never finished due to time constraints, but it is riveting realism. Mailer has said that all he’s ever wanted to was be a writer so his other stunts and verbiage could be taken as exaggeration and any disparaging without being acquainted with his writing is unwarranted. Possibly, due to the body of his work, he could be awarded the Nobel before his demise.

  3. Mailer and BurroughsMailer is
    Mailer and Burroughs

    Mailer is a fine writer, uneven as all first-rate talents must be. For me, The Executioner’s Song demonstrates Mailer’s scope: the ‘Norman Mailer’ voice is absent from this spellbinding work of non-fiction.

    Burroughs was a singular talent and a genius of the highest rank. His work utterly original, influencing all writing that came after it. It will be read long after the work of merely first-rate writers like Mailer is forgotten. It is unfortunate that the ‘Burroughs as murderer’ myth still survives; Mailer’s act was deliberate, Burroughs’s a drunken accident.

  4. Warren — I believe you that
    Warren — I believe you that these books are worthy in their own ways — thanks.

    But, one thing I must say — I am quite sure that the Nobel committee will not be giving Norman Mailer any awards, either humous or post!

  5. Dan — it’s interesting that
    Dan — it’s interesting that we’re discussing this for the second time in recent weeks. Bill took his secret to the grave with him, so nobody will ever know the complete truth about why Joan Vollmer Adams died. I don’t personally believe that Burroughs intentionally and definitely aimed to kill her, but I do believe that in taking the risk of aiming a gun inches away from her head he was already committing an act that looks and feels something like murder. Even if the bullet hadn’t hit her head, it’s a sick thing to do. If Burroughs didn’t have a history of saying demeaning and dehumanizing things about women, I wouldn’t make the connection that this was an expression of hatred towards women. But I see the evidence before me, and this is how I add it up. Respectfully, I hope we can both agree that neither of us know for sure what happened that day.

  6. i think that your idea that
    i think that your idea that burroughs “will be read long after the work of merely first-rate writers like Mailer is forgotten” is simply ridiculous…both burroughs and mailer will be read by future generations i’m sure…

    i guess one of the nice things about mailer’s books is that you can actually find them at libraries because they aren’t stolen…

  7. i don’t think it’s any
    i don’t think it’s any surprise that you think so bill…

  8. Mixed FeelingsMailer is hit
    Mixed Feelings

    Mailer is hit or miss with me. I really dislike some of his stuff. On the other hand, The Executioner’s Song is probably my 3rd or 4th favorite book in the world. Go figure…

  9. The Naked and the Dead is #51
    The Naked and the Dead is #51 on the Modern Library’s list of 100 best novels. His Armies of the Night won the National Book Award and a Pulitzer. Executioner’s Song also
    won the latter. Prominent authors are often ignored by the Nobel committee. The last American awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, Toni Morrison, only won one Pulitzer and no National Book awards. The Nobel is never awarded posthumously.
    It is the height of irony that Mailer, an American Jew, whose last crtitically acclaimed novel, The Gospel According to the Son, a biographical novel about Jesus and the world’s most famous Jew, now chooses to go to the extreme opposite and novelize Hitler, the man who has on his hands the most blood of them.

  10. James
    James Grauerholz–bibliographer and literary executor of the estate of William S. Burroughs, editor of Word Virus: The William Burroughs Reader and in Burroughs’ life for more than two decades–told of the Joan Vollmer manslaughter in Word Virus. While drinking at home with a couple of drunks, Burroughs had bragged of his marksmanship to them and that he could hunt wild game to feed his family. Vollmer taunted him and said that they’d starve if they had to rely on Burroughs’ shooting but agreed when Burroughs said, “It’s time to do our William Tell act.” Grauerholz didn’t say whether he shot too low or didn’t aim high enough or how much the alcohol affected Burroughs’ famous marksmanship; but did say that Burroughs’ started to cry after the bad shot and cradled the dead woman in his arms.

  11. burroughs probably started to
    burroughs probably started to cry as most drunks or other substance abusers do when they are high…i honestly doubt that burroughs gave a fuck about women…same applies to bukowski another user not a heroin user but a miserable alcoholic…

  12. I think we can all agree that
    I think we can all agree that this sort of craziness, coming to fruition in the famous William Tell accident, isn’t off par for the beats. I mean, that sort of risk is the force behind most of the words these men have written. William also was perhaps the most extreme of the these writers. It all adds to the mythical tale.

    However, as Brooklyn stated, Burroughs had that history of misogyny. Maybe the shooting was his feelings bubbling to the surface?

    In the end, I think it all comes to how we’d like to think of Bill. Is he the lawless extremist that would commit murder on whim? Or just a man who happens to push his luck too much (this is true, of course). I’d like to think the second, but the first may hold just as much truth.

  13. Dan, I enjoy Burroughs as
    Dan, I enjoy Burroughs as much as the next guy, but: “Burroughs was a singular talent and a genius of the highest rank. His work utterly original, influencing all writing that came after it.” That’s a bit too far fetched.

    I just wanted to point out that if you’re referring to his “cut-ups” then you must know that he actually borrowed that idea from the Dadaists.. namely one Tristan Tzara.

    by Tristan Tzara

    Take a newspaper.

    Take some scissors.

    Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.

    Cut out the article.

    Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.

    Shake gently.

    Next take out each cutting one after the other.

    Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.

    The poem will resemble you.

    And there you are – an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

    Kerouac himself said in more than one interview he actually liked Bill’s writing before he started doing the mash-ups or cut-ups and even said that they were just “an old Dada trick.”

  14. I can’t resist
    I can’t resist ….

    Interesting comments on Burroughs and others. As to the shooting incident: I think the main idea here is that murder requires intent. No one present at the shooting (see the Burroughs-in-Texas book and the Morgan bio) thought that it was other than an accident. In Mexico Burroughs was charged with the equivalent of manslaughter or negligent homicide – not murder. Certainly any drunken act that results in a death is not right, but it’s not murder. He said it altered the course of his life. I think he loved her.

    As to the cutups – Far from basing his career on them, after Naked Lunch and the trilogy Burroughs moved away from cutups. Of course they didn’t originate with him, any more than Joyce originated stream of consciousness.

    Women – Burroughs and Buk were complex men and not always politically correct. Both men’s attitude toward women changed throughout their lives. Simplistic determinations pro or con never suffice. (Burroughs beamed whenever he saw my wife, and asked about her if she wasn’t present, so I’m biased.)

    The personal actions of the beats or any other artists have should nothing whatsoever to do with the evaluation of their work.

    Harlan Ellison has a big talent for commercial writing and a bigger mouth. Mentioning him in the same company as Burroughs, Mailer, and Buk borders on heresy (grin).

  15. Cutting-edge!Despite his

    Despite his apparent woman-hating remarks & past stabbing incident, I LOVE Norman Mailer. I like everything about him. He’s endlessly entertaining. I’m not naive enough to think that if I met him he wouldn’t stab me or something because I’m most certain that he would, but that doesn’t really change my high opinion of him. He’s one of my MySpace picks for people I’d like to meet along with St. Joan and Tom Waits. I can’t wait to read whatever it is that he has to say about what’s-his-face and his nasty family.

  16. Also, I completely
    Also, I completely disagree…

    …I also completely disagree with you Levi. The Naked and the Dead (1948), Armies of the Night (1968), and Executioner’s Song (1979) were timely reflections on WWII, the anti-war movement, and the death penalty debate (The Executioner’s Song was published right around the time of the moratorium on executions). Mailer is a HIGHLY timely and relevant author. People may have disagreed with his outlook, and yeah, perhaps LATELY he hasn’t been the most important author on the scene, but I don’t think Mailer is very out of step with the times at all…he’s a reflection of them. Remember, it was Mailer that really lent cultural capital to the better writers who were running around being beatniks. His article on “The White Negro” even pre-dates Kerouac’s beat writing if I’m not mistaken. I mean, you admittedly didn’t spend much time with his books, so despite his personality being abrasive, I’m not really sure how you could make such a sweeping claim about Mailer being neither “cursed nor blessed” with relevance? It’s more like he was neither “cursed nor blessed” with appealing to yr taste and sensibilities, which is fine, but it seems to me his relevance isn’t much of a question.

  17. Well, here’s the thing. A lot
    Well, here’s the thing. A lot of people have done things they regret.

    Jack Kerouac says he used to steal wallets and clothes on one of his spoken word recordings. Certainly, stealing is hurtful to others. Either he really did it, or at least he made it sound like fun.

    Ginsberg, unless I’ve got my facts wrong, may have advocated sex with minors.

    When Hunter S. Thompson was very young, he supposedly terrorized some people just because they were gay.

    We don’t necessarily define someone by a particular action unless they make a life-long pattern of it.

  18. I doubt he would stab you
    I doubt he would stab you now. He might swing a crutch at you, I don’t know.

  19. Mailer revisitedOne of
    Mailer revisited

    One of Mailer’s more annoying traits was his use of the first person in his work. Almost everything that he care to comment on was self-consciosly tainted by being strained through his well developed ego. Lord, he would even refer to himself in the third person. It was also one of his greatest strengths.
    Having said that there exist the need to add that I find most of the comments on this page comparing Mailers work with that of Burroughs as somewhat fruitless. Kind of like comparing Kerouac with . . . oh Robertson Davies or perhaps Henry James. What’s your point?

    Mailer, more often than not, placed himself directly into his work as a participent where-as Burroughs strove to remove the ‘authors presence’ from his work entirerly. Granted, Burroughs work was touched by a singular genius that shone so brightly in his early works. Still our boy Norman was not without his own weight of effect upon the literary scene. He helped to re-invent the personal essay for his time (even if a lot of it was stolen from James Baldwin)and many of his novels were exceptional not mearly good. The Prisoners Song, An American Dream, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, Harlots Ghost, The Deer Park, and The Naked and the Dead in somewhat that order to my mind.

    The other question, of course, was his violence towards women. I do not want to place myself in the position of defending violence against anyone but I find the issue in Mailers case to be a little more complex that as stated by Levi. In his own words read An American Dream and The Prisoner of Sex. Adele, who was Kerouac’s girlfriend just previous to her marrying Mr. Mailer, was not seriously injured. Joan was shot dead.

    And, I must caution, that I find the contention that Mailer somehow rode into the spotlight on Borroughs coattail by testifying for him at the obscenity trial as simply wrongheaded. Mailer had previously praised William S, in Advertisements for Myself which was written before Naked Lunch was published in North America.

    If I find myself with the time I read any new work by Mailer.
    And then there was Ancient Evenings … has anyone finished Ancient Evenings?

  20. “The White Negro” appeared
    “The White Negro” appeared before the publication of On the Road but the first draft had been completed several years earlier along with much of his other ‘spontaneous bop prosody.’ Kerouac, Ginsberg et al were part of the phenomenon Mailer was attempting to write about in ‘The White Negro’.

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