Saturday, November 10, 2007


In 1983, Norman Mailer, in one of his many anti-technology statements, explained why I shouldn't be sitting here staring at the computer screen right now:

I think that the working conditions of the computer are atrocious. It's bad enough to sit before a television set, but to sit for hour after hour before a computer screen is not conducive to much human happiness.

Moving from the age of wood to the age of iron was a great shock to the human nervous system, and I don't know that we have recovered from that. Now we are moving to the age of electronics, and that is much worse.

But we didn't listen, so here we are now.

I like The Naked and the Dead, yes; I like some of Mailer's essays; but I have to admit I find his personality -- as a writer and as a public figure -- to be off-putting. Especially the whole misogyny thing, for which there really is no excuse. (I remember Mad Magazine once had a song parody that imagined the worst husband a woman could possibly have: "A husband like a jailer/Who will quote from Norman Mailer.")

Yes, the worst of Mailer -- as a person and as a writer -- is balanced out, at least as far as his reputation goes, by the good stuff he wrote and the influence he had, perhaps even by some of the good causes he championed along with the bad ones. But that brings up the question: were his personality problems a help or a hindrance to his work? There are two ways of thinking about an artist with an off-putting personality. One is that his failures as a person or a husband are connected to things that are part of his artistic personality, that if he were a better-adjusted person he might not be as interesting an artists. The other is the exact opposite, that his personality flaws are connected to his artistic flaws, that the things that kept Mailer from fulfiling his full potential as a novelist are the same things that kept him from having a successful relationship.

I suppose there's probably some truth to both views. But Mailer was not only one of the last superstar authors, he was one of the last authors who managed to turn his less-appealing personality traits into a public asset. Because bad behavior was seen as a necessary part of being an official artistic genius, you could, if you were talented enough and a canny enough self-publicist, make your bad behavior almost a positive trait, something to mark you as a genius and gain the respect of the public.

James Thurber parodied this kind of view in a story about a writer, Elliot Vereker, who is a drunk and a complete raging asshole, but is loved, supported and respected by the whole literary community because they've decided he's a genius (even though he never actually finishes anything). Mailer was not Elliot Vereker; he was a genuine talent, even a great talent, and his personality had appealing aspects as well as unappealing ones. But he did take advantage of how much easier it was for a "genius" to get away with things that a mere writer can't.

It's harder to get away with this now, even for authors who might otherwise be inclined to act badly or just weirdly, because it's so hard to make a living as a writer of books (well, it's always been hard, but it gets harder). A writer has to learn to be a schmoozer and a diplomat if he or she wants to get published, which means that you don't often see authors on talk shows displaying outsized personalities or saying bizarre things. It does make talk show interviews duller. Whether it means literature has gotten worse, I'm not sure.

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