Sunday, November 11, 2007

Mailer Madness

Last night I had the misfortune to catch the Radio 4 'news' at midnight. Was I, I wondered, the only one whose jaw dropped in disbelief at the epic coverage given to Norman Mailer's death? I thought it would never end (and it was, of course, the lead item)... Here was a writer who has been little but a predictable 'turn', an extinct volcano, for decades, and who could hardly, on the strength of his works, be described as one of the true American greats, let alone the world greats - and his death was being treated as an epochal event of the utmost significance. I guess the reasons are not far to seek - his truculent anti-Bushism (and anti-Reaganism) commended him to the BBC and inflated his importance accordingly. And, of course, he was always 'good copy' - a celebrity. As Leavis said of Edith Sitwell, he belonged more to the the history of publicity than of literature. When Gore Vidal dies, he will no doubt get similarly reverential treatment from the adoring BBC, for similar reasons. And when Philip Roth dies? Well, if he sneaks half the coverage of Mailer, it will probably be because he was once married to Claire Bloom. Ah well, twas ever thus...


  1. Well, Nige, my predecessor and I had to interrupt our weekend to come into the office and prepare an obit of the great man. As I indicated in a post on my blog, he had his good qualities (de mortuis, etc.), but I am afraid I have to agree with your assessment of him as a writer. He was important to the media, of course, because he had skillfully turned himself into a writer ... for the media.

  2. Nige, I think you're being terribly hard on Mailer. If I write 100 words on why his books meant something special to me, I'd have to write 10,000. So I’ll just say that Mailer wrote books I enjoyed reading and in 'Harlot's Ghost' he wrote a novel I wouldn't swap for all the Booker Prize winners of the last twenty years.

    There are few sadder sights than when a novelist dies and it is left to critics to explain their lives.

  3. Vidal's novels tend to be unconvincing, but he's a superb essayist.