Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Norman Mailer's Presentation of Self

The frequent complaint against Norman Mailer’s style was that he was “boring, boring, boring” in the words of one recent poster on Slate’s Fray discussion board, as if repeating the charge three times conveyed a deeper, more profound depth of dullness. Fitting, perhaps, for Mailer, who, in what I consider his richest years as a prose stylist, rarely passed up a chance to make use of an apt qualifier. Taking pioneer feminist literary critic Kate Millett to task for what he regarded as her literal minded and agenda-included misreading of one of his favorite writers Henry Miller, Mailer dismantles her criticisms and concludes that Millett was
“…a pug nosed wit” and had “…a mind like a flat iron”. That gets across not just an opinion that a writer is not just boring in a shrugged-off generic sense, but also a pitiful state of being. Millett, though, had much in the way of criticism of male writers’ habits in the treatment of women in their work, and much of what she opined in her Sexual Politics remains an empowering motive for women writers and critics to define their traditions and styles in literature tradition, but Mailer, I think, scored in his defenses of Miller, Lawrence (less so with Jean Genet), doing so in a way that made his flat iron remark sting and linger particularly long. Unfair and cruel, well, yes, but effective and lasting.

That’s how you call someone boring. Actually, what I would reject is an all encompassing pronouncement that Mailer is an awful writer, or that the majority of his work is dreadful and merely the extensions of a massive, clueless ego. The fun in all this, though, is contrasting one's peculiar justifications for enjoying or disliking a writer (or filmmaker, poet, painter) and seeing what responses come forth that think differently. There is something to be said about Mailer being the second hand and slap dashed in his writings--I'm thinking of his foghorning pomp on the state of American theater in his introduction to his play version of The Deer Park, his glorification of juvenile delinquency and his homophobic mewling in Advertisements for Myself—but he did, for me, rise above was mere petulance and high-octane ass holism in his writing, which is to say in his thinking, that he kept me interested over the course of forty plus years of reading him. Of a Fire on the Moon, Harlot's Ghost and Why Are We in Vietnam are written in three distinct styles, with varying diction and pitches, and it would be a plus in Mailer's column that he could vary his tone as it suited different subjects. He was not the perfect writer, but from the excess of his self-promotions and cracker barrel prophecies comes a voice unlike any other, and a voice as well with sufficient mastery to have produced a handful of masterpieces as well as a selection of egocentric subject groping.

Mailer's use of the third person in referring to himself didn't bother me nearly as much as it annoyed others; "annoying others" might be a clue to why he used it, to tweak his detractors again and again in service to a narrative. I got whatever it was Mailer was after with the device, though, and considered it an ingenious way for him to blend his reporting with the occasional biographical detail and his fluid, often brilliant, often obfuscating speculations on what foul conditions were destroying the ability of his country to do better in the world. Performance is a word used more often than not regarding Mailer's writing, and it frames the quality and conditions of the books, for better and ill. For better, because the whole "factional", New Journalism ploy allowed him to create a narrator who could allow his thoughts to intrude on the intentions and thoughts of those he wrote about and to mine significance from places and things that would remain inert, unviewed. For all his amateur standing as psychologist, sociologist and philosopher, he frequently succeeded in writing the sort of heroic criticism that marked the writings of an earlier era, from Matthew Arnold, through Montaigne, Oliver Goldsmith, H.L. Mencken and George Orwell. Orwell, an author claimed by the Left and Right as one of their intellectual saint, may well have been the person who most influenced Mailer to call himself a "left conservative". Ambivalent about absolute plans for solving the world's problems, he investigated other options. A counter puncher was how Mailer described himself, and he often scored points; he also missed just as often. Mailer was inconsistent as a writer, but he had a professional career that lasted nearly sixty years; from the thirty-nine or so books he published, he has written what I consider the requisite number of work, five, that will probably insure his reputation. He, in fact, exceeds my arbitrary conditions. There is, in my view, The Naked and the Dead, The Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Why Are We in Vietnam?, Of a Fire on the Moon, The Executioner's Song ,Harlot's Ghost, Ancient Evenings, The Castle in the Forest.

The debate over what of his reputation will be intact and which of his works last at least to the end of this century will rage, quietly or loudly, for decades to come, and it may be that Mailer’s hi jinx will be forgiven as critics seize upon a group of selected Mailer books for championing another Great American Writer. Time has a way of seeing that productive and problematically gifted authors are forgiven their sleights, errors, and all-purpose displays of self-serving as holism as the concerned reading collective no longer has a reputation to argue with and only books to contend with. Succeeding generations of readers, with no vested interest in Mailer’s ignoble follies, will perhaps bring us a new consensus. Why not? Faulkner, Steinbeck, O'Neill, and Eliot have been absolved by a critical apparatus that was wise enough to return to what he'd actually written and published. Mailer might be a tougher nut to chew, but it can be done, yes, it will be done.

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