Saturday, November 10, 2007

Death of a Celebrity Writer

A month or so ago, I received a telephone call from a friend who was at a Norman Mailer conference, somewhere in Texas I believe. I didn't know they organized such things. Today, sadly, I read that Norman Mailer has died.

"He's always been at the center of a number of cultural storms and issues," Sipiora says. "He engaged the feminist movement in the '60s and '70s. He's been a prolific sports commentator. He's also been a critic of contemporary fiction forms. So in that sense, he's been very influential in a cultural way."

Conflict seemed to be at the core of Mailer's life and his work. Whether writing about war, murder or boxing, he seemed fascinated by the idea of violence But if critics sometimes found this fascination excessive, Mailer never apologized for pursuing life with a vengeance. Everything, he told Fresh Air's Terry Gross, was fodder for his writing.

"You know, if you're just bookish, there's a tendency to get terribly bitter about people who are physical," Mailer said. "My feeling from the beginning always was, if you are going to be a novelist, I've got to be a novelist who can encompass all kinds of experience. Don't ever narrow down the horizons of what you want to write about."

Although many people have had some quite despicable things to say about Norman Mailer, I kind of like that he was so volatile, complicated, and controversial.

Mailer always wanted to be taken seriously as a writer. But his private life often got as much attention as his prose. Married six times, he was jailed briefly in 1960 for stabbing his second wife, Adele Mailer. And his feuds with fellow writers, including William Styron, Truman Capote and Gore Vidal, were infamous. Biographer Mary Dearborn says Mailer was one of the first true celebrity writers.

"This is somebody who aggressively sought out fame," Dearborn says. "He understood the politics of celebrity before anyone else did. The person comparable is Hemingway — who also had celebrity thrust upon him and then came to embrace it."


Adam Shprintzen said...

Mailer is one of those writers who I have always had conflicted feelings about. Undoubtedly a genius, yet on a fundamental level kind of an asshole (umm, not to be flippant). And I think that the Hemmingway writer/celebrity parallel is certainly valid, especially when you consider Mailer's writings for Playboy and the like. Yet, through all of the silliness of his literary feuds and exaggerated, hyper-masculinity are his words which we can all agree are beyond reproach. And as such, I think is his ultimate legacy.

Monica said...


Yeah, you're right about the asshole part. I guess there are some people/writers whose complexity and attitude I can appreciate from afar, but who I'd never want to be close to. You know, now I'm thinking that he reminds me of I.B. Singer, who also wrote for Playboy and such, and was both a literary rockstar and an asshole. What is it about these guys...

Adam Shprintzen said...

I struggle about Mailer the same way that I do The Beats (hard to make sweeping generalizations to be sure since the was a big difference in every way from say Ginsberg through Corso). People who--and all of us in academia know them--are really brilliant, yet in some ways use that brilliance as an excuse to just be generally dickish, womanizers, etc...So even The Beats who in many ways I have spent a good part of my life idolizing intellectually (I still have a photo of Ginsberg, Burroughs, Orlovsky and Bowles in Tangiers sitting on my desk at home) still frustrate me to no end; were they anything more than really smart versions of the mysogynistic, misanthropic assholes that women must run into every day? Does being smart and creative excuse someone from just generally being an asshole? Or does it even somehow make it worse?