Norman Mailer | Critical Essay by Donald Fishman

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of Norman Mailer.
This section contains 4,074 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Donald Fishman

SOURCE: "Norman Mailer," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 9, 1975, pp. 174-82.

In the following essay, Fishman discusses Mailer's three-fold persona as public celebrity, social critic, and American writer in relation to his experiments with the New Journalism genre. As Fishman asserts, this "new form accentuates the strengths of each of the personae so that the whole is unquestionably greater than the sum of the parts."

Why does he [Mailer] have to push himself forward all the time and make such a spectacle of himself … why can't he let his work speak for itself?

                             —Flannery O'Connor

Norman Mailer's public career presents an ever-changing face. His latest works fall conveniently into neither fiction, literary criticism, nor political commentary. His diversions into politics and political campaigning as well as film making have only added to the confusion of those critics who attempt to categorize and dissect his interests. Yet, the fact that his writings defy traditional classification is itself of some importance; the uneasiness may arise from the nature of the categories as much as the merits of the works. What appears to be new in Mailer's writings is not only his use of memoir-like accounts of politics and culture and his concentration on nonfiction, but this combination of these two elements into an imaginative genre of reporting.

The purpose of this essay is to suggest that the difficulty in understanding the variety of Mailer's recent writings is lessened when one examines how the three personae of Mailer are successfully combined in the New Journalism.

Mailer's career has traditionally been constructed around three personae. Mailer's most recognized persona has been that of the public celebrity. As the most publicized and colorful man of letters in America since Ernest Hemingway, Mailer is widely known for his stormy encounters with his former wives, his unsuccessful attempt to become mayor of New York in 1969, and his sparring matches with such popular boxers as Muhammad Ali and Jose Torres. Featured in headline stories, maligned by national columnists, and discussed on late-night talk shows, the "legend" of Mailer has become as imposing as the writings of the man. "The legend," says Mailer, "becomes your friend … a front man, a procurer of new situations. You live with a ghost that is more real to people than yourself." There is a large segment of the public that has never read a single sentence of Mailer yet knows him as a controversial and flamboyant exhibitionist.

It is not altogether clear how fully the "legend" affects the private life and writings of Mailer. The legend itself, however, has been subjected to a large measure of speculation. It has been argued that the role of the celebrity is at odds with the perspective of a serious writer. Celebrities tend to subordinate their ideas to their personalities. As a result, when a writer becomes a public personality, he tends, like an actor or movie star, to trade off his image and his eccentricities, which presumably are easier to sell than his ideas. His image represents a marketable product, often independent of his literary skill, that the audience recognizes. The side-effect of recognition is that the writer may adapt his public and private lives to conform to an artificially created image; frequently this means adhering to a role that he has previously presented and that the public expects him to play. For writers who thrive on new experiences and flexibility, the price of celebrity status can be damaging. Success corrupts not because it brings money and recognition but because it changes the writer's view of himself and his ability to react to changing events. Above all, the legend may obtrude on the works as well as on the man.

Although the writer-public celebrity pitfall may have some validity, the notion fails to account for Mailer's recent successes. Mailer's literary triumphs appear to occur because of—not despite—the clash between his public personality and literary ambitions. As a writer, he has emphatically destroyed the aesthetic distance between himself and his subject matter. Unhappy with self-abnegation, he has placed his ego alongside of his pen as a tool in writing. Whatever else his recent work suggests, he has demonstrated that personality, subjectivity, and empathy can be important ingredients in writing.

Mailer's second persona is that of a social critic. Agitated by changes in modern urban life, especially the rapidly expanding technology, Mailer, by his own account, has devoted himself to creating a "revolution in the consciousness of our times." Although his social criticism contains what critic Dwight MacDonald has called "Mailer's Messianic-cum-Superman nonsense," Mailer's ideas on politics, technology, and the organic society have generated interest and praise. Indeed, Irving Howe in his article on New York intellectuals flatteringly refers to Mailer as "our genius," while noting that Mailer's social criticism has been severely neglected because it challenges many time-honored beliefs among intellectuals:

My point is that the New York writers have failed to confront Mailer seriously as an intellectual spokesman, a cultural agent, and instead have found it easier to regard him as a hostage to the temper of our times. What has not been forthcoming is a recognition, surely a painful one, that in his major public roles he has come to represent values in deep opposition to liberal humaneness and rational discourse.

Despite Howe's warm appraisal of Mailer's importance, it would be misleading to urge critics to spend their energies analyzing Mailer's criticism as if it were a "school of thought." Admittedly, Mailer's writings do not lack interesting ideas. In this respect, he overshadows his followers and imitators. Yet Mailer's thinking is neither systematic nor consistent; his work reflects more the insightful observations of a journalist than the careful formulations of a philosopher or skillful polemicist. His shallow comments on technology and existential politics serve more as a "cover for his intellectual malfeasances" and a "banner for his crusades" than as statements from a deep-thinking critic.

More importantly, a large part of Mailer's appeal is derived from the tone and style of his commentary. As a critic, his voice adds a distinctive dimension to his observations. Other critics—Gore Vidal, Benjamin DeMott, Dwight MacDonald—primarily trade off their insights and ideas. Mailer's talents, a volatile amalgam of ideas, tone and style, allow him to resuscitate the commonplace and familiar with urgency and conviction.

Whereas past critics such as Carlyle, Ruskin, and Lawrence often wrote with a mixture of argument and satire that was bitter in tone, Mailer's tone is frequently comical. In fact, one of the characteristics of his vision is a comic-apocalyptic view. His basic uncertainty that rules and consistency are important has guided him to a view encapsuled with irony:

It has been the continuing obsession of this writer that the world is entering a time of plague … the continuing metaphor for the obsession has been cancer … an ultimate disease against which all other diseases are designed to protect us.

Yet every year the girls are more beautiful and the athletes are better. So the dilemma remains. Is the curse on the world or on oneself?

Yet there is a prophetic quality to his voice. Mailer is constantly warning his audience about the impending doom with such phrases as "Apocalypse or debauch is upon us," "the ill of civilization is that it is removed from nature," and "New York is not a machine but a malignancy." The prophetic voices reinforce his tendency to reduce all life to ultimate alternatives: cannibals and Christians, God and the devil, outlaws and conformists, being and nothingness. Although these dichotomies promote simplification in his thought, they also generate a sense of urgency about his message.

While Mailer's tone has often taken the form of prophecy, reproach, insult, teasing, and mockery, his most successful stylistic device has been his use of metaphors. Without a doubt, Mailer's indisputable talent seems to be in creating metaphors to explain the modern environment; the key terms in this vocabulary—cancer, plague, disease, cannibalistic, and demon—make him unique, at least among left-leaning social critics. His own explanation for the prominence of metaphors in his writings indicates that he views them as part of a strategy of opposition:

The argument would demand that there be metaphors to fit the vaults of modern experience. That is, in fact, the unendurable demand of the middle of this century to restore the metaphor and displace the scientist from his center.

The value of metaphors for Mailer is that they serve as a lively vehicle for explaining changes in our society. Mailer's putative goal as a critic is to create understanding while science and technology blindly displace people from traditional sources of meaning. The metaphor aids in bridging the gap between our prior condition and our current malaise.

The striking fact, however, that emerges from focusing on Mailer's criticism is that his writing reveals a limited number of strengths: a stylistic inventiveness, a flair for articulating social questions in an amusing manner, and an ability to convey a sense of urgency about his message. Given the right literary vehicle, the cumulative force of these features probably would be powerful enough to overcome the obvious deficiencies in his critical works: unsustained analytical interpretation and loosely reasoned argument. In a standard political essay, however, Mailer's work would be glaringly weak.

The third persona of Mailer which can be clearly recognized is that of the American writer. Regarded by many as the greatest novelist of his generation, Mailer's first novel, The Naked and the Dead, achieved immediate acclaim. Mailer's subsequent two books, Barbary Shore and The Deer Park, alternately received hostile reviews and lukewarm praise. Despite unfavorable reviews, Mailer was obsessed with becoming a major writer as he began to brood openly over his failure to recapture fame. Ironically, the more shrill his statements became about the importance of the novel and his own potential masterpiece, possibly three thousand pages in length, the more he experimented with writing in a semi-autobiographical vein. With the passage of time, he became more innovative in both substance and form, the latter calling more public attention to itself than the former. Beginning with "The Existential Hero: Superman Comes to the Supermarket," an article published in Esquire in 1960, Mailer started to unite the various facets of his skill into a coherent structure. The new form was more open, lacking the inhibitions of the novel and the formulas of conventional journalism. Of course, he still wrote novels and the "name power" of Mailer guaranteed that even a potboiler like Why Are We in Vietnam would receive a fair hearing. Still, the high-water mark of his writing came from the publication of The Armies of the Night, an exemplary piece of writing that not only won a Pulitzer Prize but earned the applause from many writers dissatisfied with conventional journalism.

The subjects of his books published after 1968 were usually contemporary and topical but the subject-matter had been long-standing concerns of his. The egotistical self-indulgence had been evident before and the writing had been foreshadowed in earlier works. As Richard Gilman pointed out in discussing The Armies of the Night:

A more advanced novelist than Mailer, one less interested in getting at social or political reality, would not have been able to bring it off; that Mailer is only imperfectly a novelist, that his passion for moving and shaking the actual has prevented him from fully inhabiting imaginary kingdoms is the underlying paradoxical strength of this book.

Yet, perhaps the most important reason for the success of this work and subsequent efforts is that they combine the three personae of Mailer—public celebrity, critic, and writer—in one all-consuming perspective. The new form accentuates the strengths of each of the personae so that the whole is unquestionably greater than the sum of the parts.

It is tempting to presume a connection between Norman Mailer and the New Journalism without defining the basis of the relationship. The surface features of personalized reporting, partisanship, and stylistic similarities seem to place Mailer's latest works into the New Journalism camp. Conversely, the difficulty of analyzing Mailer's works in traditional terms associated with literature and criticism and the apparent openness of the New Journalism make the connection between the two not only logically coherent but strategically expedient. In order to understand the nature of the relationship, however, it is first necessary to examine the conventions identified with the New Journalism.

By common testimony, the term "New Journalism" is a misnomer. Tom Wolfe, the leading theorist of the genre, has argued that the New Journalism is not new at all; it has a number of precursors that have not only inspired the movement but resemble the genre itself. What is new about the New Journalism, according to Wolfe, is the excitement the term generated after it began to circulate. Others have maintained that since the primary expression of the New Journalism has been located in books and magazines but not in newspapers, a more appropriate name for the movement is the new nonfiction. Still others have asserted that New Journalism is not journalism in any meaningful sense because the treatment of factual materials is secondary to the artistic imagination of the writer. In this view, it is the author's imagination that is the pivotal force: the events themselves are merely showcases for one's personality as if the author were an impressario—Tom Wolfe presents the Mau Maus, Norman Mailer introduces the moonshot, Gay Talese hosts the mafia. In a milder version, the argument recognizes the possibility that the impressario may adopt a low-keyed stance. Lillian Ross, for example, but the overall results are the same; fiction overshadows fact, personality governs events.

The conflict in the New Journalism between the artistic component of fiction and the factual component of journalism has taken precedence over the appropriateness of the label itself. Journalists indict the New Journalism for its slipshod reporting, creation of imaginary dialogue, and subjective assessments. Literati belittle it for its lack of imagination, suggesting that it presents evocative journalism anchored in facts and actual events without the resourceful creativity of serious fiction. "It is a bastard form, having it both ways," contended critic Dwight MacDonald, "exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction."

It is not surprising, however, that the most heated attacks on New Journalism have come from journalists. While literary critics can dismiss the movement as lacking the creativity of serious fiction, or, paradoxically, praise it for its uplifting effects on reporting, at issue for journalism is the paramount question of objectivity in investigating and writing. It is also little wonder that the critique on New Journalism resembles the objections many critics extend to Mailer's work. Both share many of the same strengths and excesses, and to a large extent the essential characteristics of New Journalism can be exemplified in Mailer's work.

There are three time-honored rules which old journalism believes the New Journalism violates. The first of these axioms is that every story has, at least, two points of view. The task of the journalist is to provide balanced space for opposing viewpoints, possibly even exactly equal space. Mailer, in his writings, rarely assumes that each side has a valid point. What Mailer assumes is that his point of view is the valid one. In Marilyn, a book published twelve years after the death of Marilyn Monroe, Mailer discussed a new theory concerning her suicide. He claimed that Marilyn Monroe killed herself after a telephone conversation with former Attorney General, Robert Kennedy. Almost everyone connected with the case attempted to refute this assertion and Mailer himself added little credibility to his argument when he admitted that he interviewed no one directly associated with the death before he published the book. Having conceded that the book was largely conjecture on his part, Mailer vigorously defended his argument in public as if conjecture were fact. Mailer labeled the facts of the case as "factoids," by which he means rumors which have no other existence except that they appear in print and then people begin to repeat them as if they were facts.

This case, admittedly not one of the showcase examples of the New Journalism, nevertheless reveals the underlying attitudes that separate the two strains of journalism. For conventional journalists, Mailer's chief pitfall was his sloppy investigating and his failure to step outside of his preconceived notions and examine the views of the participants in the event. For new journalists, viewpoint itself was not bad; partisanship, however, demands more rigorous standards of investigating. Mailer's error was that he accepted inadmissible evidence, heresay, and conjecture as fact.

The confusion of fact and factoid by Mailer raises doubts about the accuracy of his reporting. This confusion may account for the skepticism and lack of seriousness that often greets his writings. At the same time, there is no compelling evidence to suggest that Mailer abuses factual materials more than other new journalists. Although Tom Wolfe has censured him for his lack of investigating, Wolfe is silent on the question of accuracy. On the other hand, Dwight MacDonald and Robert Lowell testify openly about the accuracy of the account in The Armies of the Night. Mailer may very well be a writer who deals in factoids rather than facts. His partisanship is, however, clear; and the possible distortion in his works, created by a distinct viewpoint, does not seem beyond the boundaries of the other new journalists.

A second tradition that old journalists see being destroyed by New Journalism is the notion that reporting should be detached and objective. "Journalists are taught they must provide impartial disinterested accounts of what was seen and heard; validity was left to the reader to decide." It is evident from Mailer's writings that he does not believe in being impersonal about his subjects. In The Armies of the Night, Mailer not only participates in the action, but he also helps shape the events. In covering the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight, Mailer did not merely report the fight itself, he attempted to learn all he could about the participants before, during, and after the fight. Sparring with the principals would not have been beyond his scope. In a sense, this coverage represents saturation reporting at its best. At the same time, "This brand of nonfiction is so intensely personal," note Dennis and Rivers in the book New Journalism in America, "that most of those who dislike Mailer automatically dislike his writing."

Yet the problem of separating the man from his work does not uniquely belong to Mailer. The statement by Dennis and River can reasonably be extended to other authors in the New Journalism. When the author is intimately involved in the events, the reader reacts to the situation through the eyes of the writer, and the reader-author relationship becomes more salient than in conventional journalism. Michael Arlen has commented that "involvedness" has allowed new journalists to see the events on their "own terms" and not on the merits of the situation. To be sure, this observation characterizes much of Norman Mailer's writings as well as the works of other practitioners of New Journalism. Involvement has often led to a "king-of-the-hill" approach to journalism, where the author bullies the events so that he is on top of the subject-matter rather than getting inside of the situation.

The alternative of detachment, however, offers an equally severe limitation. The conventions of objectivity—a good lead, impartial reporting, a headline—allow a clever manipulator to take advantage of events as well as journalists. "The rules of objectivity are such," notes veteran correspondent Peter Lisagor of the Chicago Daily News, "that a man can make political capital out of them by being clever in the way he presents a particular issue." Ultimately, the New Journalism can provide a complement to the allegedly objective accounts by adding analysis and interpretation to information. In Norman Mailer's case, however, the king-of-the hill approach may not be a tool of the trade as much as a personal predilection to grandstand.

Finally, conventional journalists contend that the emphasis on style among the new journalists subordinates information to entertainment. In this view, the preoccupation with style can be analyzed as an entertaining departure from straight nonfiction, at best a stimulant to more information and at worst a series of techniques "to confuse and mislead readers." While old journalists were taught to avoid value-laden adjectives, imaginary dialogue, composite profiles, and lengthy descriptive passages, new journalists concentrate on these techniques. There is little disagreement, moreover, that at the core of the New Journalism are four stylistic devices that distinguish the movement from conventional journalism and other forms of nonfiction: scene-by-scene construction, interior monologue, point of view, and status-life symbols. To what extent these devices mislead and confuse the reader is the more serious question underlying the arguments about style.

The claim that Mailer's writings reflect these stylistic devices can be made without deeply examining the stylistic devices themselves. His third-person protagonist, variously named Aquarius, Mailer, or the Novelist, attempts to rescue ideas from abstractions and daily events from triviality as the reader follows the author through a narrative story. At the outset, however, the reader is usually forewarned that the reporting is subjective. In The Armies of the Night, a story written by Time magazine is juxtaposed at the start of the book with subsequent subjective assessment of the events. In Marilyn, Mailer develops the notion of factoids to distinguish his account from more factual reports. In St. George and the Godfather, an examination of the Republican and Democratic national conventions in 1972, Mailer immediately reminds the readers of the subjective nature of the report:

So Norman Mailer, who looked to rule himself by Voltaire's catch-all precept, 'once a philosopher, twice a pervert,' and preferred therefore never to repeat a technique, was still obliged to call himself Aquarius again for he had not been in Miami two days before he knew he would not write objectively about the convention of '72.

Whether one warning or many explicit admonitions are necessary to remind the reader of the personalized nature of the account remains an open question; but the responsibilities for confusing information with personalized reporting, or what some critics regard pejoratively as entertainment, rest with the readers as well as the writer. The absence of style, moreover, is not a bona fide guarantee of accuracy.

As a writer, Norman Mailer is probably the most graceful stylist among the new journalists. He is, of course, the only one to earn a Pulitzer prize and a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. That his works are also entertaining should not be a blanket indictment to fault the informative nature of his accounts. There are a plurality of road signs to indicate the way to the truth and Mailer's reports, written in an entertaining style, appear to have as much information as old journalism. What differs is the focus of the writer and the nature of the topics considered; on the whole, the amount of information does not seem to be lacking or confusing.

Norman Mailer seems torn between his self-canonization as a novelist and his experiments with journalistic forms. At one point, he is amusingly annoyed at Robert Lowell when the noted poet refers to him as the greatest journalist currently writing. Elsewhere, he is less defensive about his forays into journalism:

Journalism never does a writer any harm until he starts repeating himself, and if you do that, then you start presiding over the dissolution of your own literary empire.

Grudgingly, Mailer seems to be accepting his success as a new journalist without acknowledging his difficulties as a writer of straight fiction. Mailer, however, may not be the best theoretician of his own work. As a multi-faceted talent, he is legendary as a public celebrity, shallow as a critic, and incomplete as a novelist. With the development of the nonfiction novel, the best features of his work are highlighted and his "literary empire," more mythical than real, seems enriched and revitalized.

Yet, Mailer's pull between fiction and journalism coincides with the tension in New Journalism itself. From a literary point of view, the New Journalism is a superior form of journalism but not fiction; from a journalistic perspective, it is the application of novelistic techniques to actual events but not journalism. Perhaps this ambivalence over time will resolve itself for both Mailer and the New Journalism. Even Dwight MacDonald, once reluctant to recognize New Journalism as anything but a flawed form, confessed in an after-thought written nine years following the publication of his well-known essay on "Parajournalism" that in "more talented hands, parajournalism is a legitimate form." In any event, it is unlikely that we have heard the last word on the controversy.

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