I never thought much of Norman Mailer, and explained why in a 1998 essay called “Forgotten but Not Gone” that can be found in A Terry Teachout Reader:
Why is Norman Mailer still famous? He hasn’t written a good book since The Executioner’s Song. Except for The Naked and the Dead, none of his novels continues to be read, and his magazine journalism long ago curdled into self-parody. I’ve never met anyone under the age of forty who took him seriously….
So what is it about this seventy-five-year-old has-been that continues to make aging editors weak in the knees? The answer, I think, is that he is to literature what the Kennedys are to politics, a living, breathing relic of the vanished era of high hopes. Even though he was already washed up as a novelist by 1960, Mailer had retooled himself as a middlebrow journalist just in time to bang the drum for JFK. Talk about sucker bait: Mailer had spent the Fifties bemoaning the “partially totalitarian society” that was America under Dwight Eisenhower, and along came a handsome young Democratic philosopher-king, a glamorous millionaire who wrote books (or at least signed them), flattered susceptible authors (including Mailer), and hung out with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe. All at once the joint was jumping, and everything seemed possible, from racial equality to free love…
No doubt Mailer, like Kennedy, will never lack for bootlickers, at least while his generation is still alive. It’s hard to accept that a once-promising writer has become a burnt-out case, especially when the memory of his promise is part of your own lost youth. Who would have guessed in 1960 that the first literary star of the electronic age would end his days as a nostalgia act, the Glenn Miller of Camelot? Once again, Jack Kennedy got it wrong. Life is fair–all you have to do is give it time.
I haven’t changed my mind.
(To read the whole thing, go here.)
UPDATE: A reader writes:
Your feelings about Norman Mailer are clear. It’s fine, I suppose, that you haven’t changed your mind, but your timing makes the reiteration of your views from nine years ago seem merely mean-spirited. Nobody is asking you to praise Mailer, or to change your mind. But why not just stay quiet, instead of regurgitating something from a decade ago? Your timing caused the piece to reveal much more about you than about Mailer.
I replied to this e-mail avant la lettre in 2005. And no, I haven’t changed my mind about that, either.