Why did Norman Mailer write novels?

He was hell-bent on writing great fiction, but his best work was his journalism

By Allen Barra

Published November 3, 2013 1:00PM (EST)

Norman Mailer    (AP/Kathy Willens)
Norman Mailer (AP/Kathy Willens)

Somebody – Octavio Paz, Robert Frost, I don’t know who but somebody – said that “Literature is journalism that stays journalism.” I’ve always taken it to mean that writing that truly reflects its time stays fresh and relevant.

Whatever it does mean, I thought of it while reading J. Michael Lennon’s huge and satisfying biography, "Norman Mailer, a Double Life." Lennon recounts the famous scene in Mailer’s great book about the 1967 march on the Pentagon, "Armies of the Night," when Robert Lowell tells Mailer, “Norman, I really think you are the best journalist in America.” Mailer, taking slight umbrage, replied that he sometimes thought of himself as “the best writer in America.” (I love that “sometimes”; Mailer thought he was the best every waking minute of the day and in his dreams.)

I think what Lowell meant was that Mailer was the best writer precisely because he was the best journalist – that he had invented a new kind of journalism more vital than the fiction being written by their contemporaries.

"Norman Mailer, a Double Life" – I assume the subtitle has something to do with what Lennon calls “Mailer’s desire for fame, and his distaste for it” -- spurred me to an orgy of reading and rereading Mailer’s massive oeuvre, and in the end I was beaten. The early novels meant no more to me than they had when I first read them in college, though I admit "The Naked and the Dead" was better written than I remembered. (I was amused to find that Lennon had dug up comments from V.S. Pritchett and George Orwell in defense of it after the British attorney general denounced Mailer’s first novel as “foul, lewd and revolting.”) Mailer’s own assessment of the book was probably correct when he wrote, 20 years later, that “It had a best-seller style, no style… I knew it was no literary achievement.”

I couldn’t finish "Barbary Shore" or "The Deer Park," both of which seemed contrived and overblown. Marilyn Monroe, of all people, may have shown more insight into Mailer than Mailer showed when writing about Marilyn when, after reading "The Deer Park," she commented that Norman was “too impressed by power.”

Of the later novels, "Why Are We in Vietnam?" still crackles and "The Executioner’s Song," all 1100-plus pages of it, remains awesome, but I simply can’t read the huge, floppy,  shapeless novels – such as "Ancient Evenings," "Harlot’s Ghost" and "Oswald’s Tale." As Lennon’s biography makes clear, these were the books in which Mailer poured the purest distillation of his own soul. Or as he put it in "Cannibals and Christians," “A man lays his character on the line when he writes a novel.”

What bullshit. Mailer didn’t put his character on the line when he wrote his best books? He told Lennon in an interview (collected in "Pieces and Pontifications") that "The Armies of the Night" “was written in a towering depression … I did it in two months, and those were some of the worst weeks in my life.” In order to establish the book’s greatness he couldn’t think of it as journalism: “I always think of 'The Armies of the Night,'he told Lennon, “as a nineteenth-century novel.”

Tipping us to the truth that "The Executioner’s Song" (surely one of the best three or four) was more a nonfiction work than a novel, he said during a 1981 interview at Columbia that “more than any other book I’ve ever done, was an exercise in craft. I’ve never felt close to it.” Hemingway, Mailer thought, looking over his shoulder at the ghost of his icon, “would have called 'Executioner’s Song' bad Hemingway.” If so, Papa can go to hell – I call "The Executioner’s Song" American Stendhal.

I wish Lennon had not shared some of his subject’s literary taste; perhaps it’s impossible to chair the editorial board of The Mailer Review and not think like Mailer. Could Lennon really feel that huge, dark, amorphous unfinished mess "Harlot’s Ghost" “may be his finest novelistic achievement, one of the last high peaks of his writing…”? I mention this because it’s one of Lennon’s few lapses in an extraordinary biography of an extraordinary life, easily the best of the swarm of books Mailer has inspired over the years.

Norman Kingsley Mailer was born on Jan. 31, 1923, in Long Branch, N.J.; it must have tickled him no end that his father Barney had immigrated from South Africa and had not applied for American citizenship when he married, meaning he and Norman were technically British citizens. (Lennon describes Mailer’s father as “an elegant impoverished figure out of Chekhov.”)

Growing up in Brooklyn, Nachum Melech, his Hebrew name – Melech means king – had as reasonably happy a childhood as could be expected. “I was close to my parents,” he told Lennon in a 1980 interview, “I didn’t have to break away... My mother and my father treated my sister and myself as important people. At home, we were the center of their universe.” Consequently, his own childhood never interested him much, and he never wrote about it.

He was a brilliant student at Boys High in Brooklyn and read voluminously, including the wonderful potboilers of Rafael Sabatini. He then went to Harvard, writing  his mother a letter that said, “It’s all happening too easy.” Fanny Mailer preserved it in a scrapbook with other memorabilia of her son’s accomplishments.

It did happen too easy. Mailer seemed to read more for gratification than to expand his horizons. His prose style was in large part formed by what Lennon calls “A ‘triangle’ – Hemingway, Faulkner, and Farrell.” But at, I think, a price: “The influence of the three was heightened because Mailer never took any courses in English or continental literature except for a drama course in his senior year… during his four years at Harvard, the only contact he had with European literature came when he sat in on some classes on Proust, Mann, and Joyce. Mailer had scant interest in eighteenth-century British poetry.”

One of the few English novelists he was influenced by in his formative years was, of all people, William Somerset Maugham; later he would read and admire Isherwood’s "Goodbye to Berlin." After reading Evelyn Waugh he grudgingly conceded, “That English fairy can write, much as I hate to admit it.” As far as Lennon has determined, he read no Kafka, no Virginia Woolf, little Proust, little Joyce and, even after World War II, no Camus, a writer one might think his sensibility would be attuned to. Mailer doesn’t seem to have read much that connects him to one of his favorite catch-all words, “existential,” as in running  for mayor on what he called the “Existential Ticket” and  maintaining “One’s condition on marijuana is always existential.” As Gore Vidal famously cracked, “Norman uses existential like a truck driver uses ketchup.”

He did love Stendhal’s "The Red and the Black" (and, in a fascinating tidbit supplied by Lennon, tried to interest Montgomery Clift in playing Julien Sorel. He also thought JFK’s decision to run for president “worthy of Julian Sorel”).

When it came to the competition, he seems to have set his sights rather low: “The only one of my contemporaries who I felt had more talent than myself was James Jones.” Even into the late 1950s he felt that “I can still say now that 'From Here To Eternity' has been the best American novel since the war.”  He expressed little but withering contempt for most American writers of his own time.

Of J.D. Salinger: “I seem to be alone in finding him no more than the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school.”

Mary McCarthy: “'The Group' is the best novel the editors of the women’s magazines ever conceived in their secret ambitions.”

Saul Bellow: “I cannot take him seriously as  a major novelist. I do not think he knows anything about people, nor about himself.”

Ralph Ellison: “Essentially a hateful writer: when the line of his satire is pure, he writes so perfectly that one can never forget the experience of reading him. It is like holding a live electric wire in one’s hand.”

Truman Capote: “A stylist and a very good writer, but he’s not done anything memorable lately.” (This was in 1980. He did once call "Breakfast at Tiffany’s" “a small classic.”)

Jack Kerouac: “Lacks discipline.”

Gore Vidal: “A wit and a good essayist. Not a good novelist.”

Thomas Pynchon: “I’ve never been able to read him. I just can’t get through the bananas in 'Gravity’s Rainbow.'”

If the comment on Saul Bellow is a little bitchy, it should be admitted that not all of Mailer’s critical opinions were wrong. It should also be admitted that several of these criticisms could be applied to Mailer himself.

Like so many of the writers who came out of World War II, Mailer was obsessed with writing The Great War Novel – which, by their definition would have meant The Great American Novel. This, of course, would lead inevitably to the Nobel Prize -- which, he liked to pretend at times, he thought he was unworthy of. “Indeed,” he wrote in "The Prisoner of Sex," “it would be an embarrassment to win. How could one really look Nabokov in the eye?” (Especially, one might add, after Nabokov told Time magazine in 1969, “I detest everything in American life he represents.”)

Willie Morris, the wonderful essayist and novelist from Mississippi who edited Mailer at Harper’s (and who was fired for devoting an entire issue to "The Prisoner of Sex") once said to me, “Can you imagine how many more great books Norman might have written if he hadn’t wasted so much time making movies or writing plays or running for mayor of New York?” (which he did – twice). Marlon Brando was probably thinking along the same lines when he saw Mailer at a Hollywood party and, according to Lennon, said, “Norman, what the fuck are you doing here? You’re not a screenwriter. Why aren’t you on a farm in Vermont, writing your next novel?”

Certainly Mailer wasted a huge amount of energy with some ridiculous films. Pauline Kael nailed him in her review of his  completely unscripted, "Wild 90": “There are many movies that are worse … but 'Wild 90' is the worst movie that I’ve stayed to see all the way through.”

Of course, if we’re going to speculate, we may as well speculate on how many more great books he might have written if he hadn’t taken time to get married six times and had nine children  – every detail of every relationship, including the myriad infidelities, lovingly recalled by Lennon. An editorial writer to the New York Times once quipped that Mailer was a “matrimoniac.”

My feeling, though, is that Mailer, whatever his other interests and distractions, would have written better books if he simply hadn’t been so hell-bent on writing Great Novels. “I wouldn’t want ever,” he wrote in "Cannibals and Christians," to be caught justifying journalism as a major activity. It’s obviously less interesting to write than a novel.” But not necessarily more interesting to read.

“We have a funny situation at present in American letters,” he said to Lennon in 1980, “there are no giants around. Once we had Hemingway and Faulkner. Now, we’re all like spokes in a wheel.” And Mailer, of course, wanted to be the entire wheel. He simply could not see that the kind of novel he wanted to master was no longer of great interest to American readers. His great talent was for sensing the crest in the national mood and surfing out in front of it. (As his arch-conservative friend William F. Buckley told him, “You are a magnetic field in this country.”) On the crests of twentieth century fiction he was always hopelessly behind.

In 1980 he was asked who the most important writers of fiction the world at that time were and replied, “Borges and Marquez… I sometimes think Borges may do in five pages what Pynchon does in five hundred.” And, “In 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' he created not one word but a hundred. I don’t know how Marquez does it… in ten pages he’ll create a family that has eighteen children and they go through ten years, and you know every one of the children, and all the events that occur in their life. In ten pages, I have all I can do to get around one bend in the Nile.” In reading the Latin Americans, he must have finally understood that the battle to write the old-fashioned Great American Novel was over, yet he would continue punching after the bell.

So what, then, is Mailer’s place in our literature, and what is it likely to be for the next few decades? The novels, probably all -- except "Why Are We in Vietnam?" and "The Executioner’s Song," will fade, even the best of the rest forever consigned to the twilight realm of the praised but unread. But the journalism has stayed journalism. The grab-bag collections of essays, profiles, sketches, interviews and self-interviews -- "Advertisements for Myself" and "Cannibals and Christians" -- still read like intellectual popcorn shrimp. His accounts of political conventions --  "Miami," "The Siege of Chicago," "St. George" and "The Godfather"– continue to send a charge from the page. Even though Mailer was so spectacularly wrong about Goldwater in 1964 and McGovern in 1972, sweeping to the nominations of their parties and then the presidency. Pauline Kael, who had his number, wrote that “His instinct is famous because it’s so often bad.” But Kael, who also liked his book on Marilyn Monroe, which she called a “rip-off with genius” also noted that “When it comes to reporting the way American rituals and institutions operate, Mailer’s low cunning is maybe the best tool anyone ever had.”

Collections like "The Presidential Papers" and "The Idols and the Octopus" still make for exciting reading; as Pete Hamill said, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” Mailer’s first piece on Kennedy, “went through journalism like a wave. Something changed. Everyone said, ‘Uh, oh. Here’s another way to do it.’” It is, as Lennon says, “A classic piece of reportage and a foundation stone of the New Journalism.”

As for "The Armies of the Night," a writer named  Sandy Vogelgesang wrote, “Future historians must consult [it] to understand how and why the American Intellectual Left…  moved from dissent to resistance.” "Of a Fire on the Moon" is the best nonfiction ever written on the space program. His books on Muhammad Ali’s great fights, "King of the Hill" and "The Fight," are works that A.J. Liebling at his best couldn’t lay a glove on; they will probably outlive the sport of boxing.

Will these books appeal to future generations? That’s always a tricky question; as Hemingway once snapped at an interviewer when asked if he wrote for posterity, “Who the hell knows what posterity is anyway?”

Mailer’s books aren’t history per se, but they go a long way toward explaining the motivations and mind-sets of people who made history. Compared to Mailer’s best work, the other avatar of the so-called New Journalism, Tom Wolfe, seems facile and dated. History doesn’t change, but what we want from it does. I think  those who want to know what caused the rumbles that resulted in the eruptions of the 1960s and 1970s will always go back to Mailer.

In the end, what does it matter whether a book such as "The Executioner’s Song" is classified as fiction or nonfiction? Himself, he called it a “true life novel,” probably to deflect  the inevitable enmity of Truman Capote, who thought that with "In Cold Blood," he had invented a new genre, “the nonfiction novel.” But Mailer did not need Capote’s torch to help light his way.

If he fell short of greatness, it was  only by his own standards. As Wilfrid Sheed put it, “Genius or nothing has always been his proposition.” Any book that didn’t reflect genius was, well, not likely to be Mailer that lasts. Sheed was probably correct when he said that “In terms of artistic production, his career is a disappointment.”

If his best books don’t quite constitute an artistic achievement, they succeed as something else just as important, a genre no one has yet been able to put a label to. The 1960s and 1970s were an invigorating time to be alive, in large part because Norman Mailer was there to help make it so. No event seemed complete, no vogue validated until he had written about it. No other American writer, with the possible exception of Mark Twain, so reflected and effected his times. That ought to be good enough to ensure his work to posterity. And if it doesn’t, what the hell is posterity anyway?

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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Books J. Michael Lennon Norman Mailer Norman Mailer A Double Life