Norman Mailer: The Most Overrated Writer of the 20th Century

We all knew this was coming: the approbations, the lionizations, the veritable bullshit that Norman Mailer was a gift to the world. All this largely perpetuated by a man advertising for himself. Literally. Not just the book. Mailer was so insecure, so arrogant, so unwilling to listen, that he took out advertisements in newspapers that panned his work.

Well, I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to dissent. I’ve been asked multiple times today about what I feel about Mailer kicking the bucket and I have quietly nodded my head to allow those who cared for him to have their quiet moments of consideration. But I never really cared for the man’s writing. There was an interview opportunity for The Castle in the Forest that I didn’t pursue a few years ago. Could have made happen if I really wanted to. But I didn’t, not only because the novel was the most trite and preposterous nonsense I had read in three years, but the idea of talking to Mailer was like being trapped in a closet with an insufferable narcissist.

What did Mailer give us? What was his chief contribution to letters? Mailer as King of the Universe. Mailer as knowing egomaniac. Mailer as hyper-masculine creature of the day and night. Mailer who never listened to anybody but himself. Mailer who, if he considered your work, did it because he wanted you to know he was Mailer and that you were not Mailer. Mailer the sexist pig who got his ass whooped by Germaine Greer.

Well, fuck Norman Mailer. Someone needs to do an HST-style obit for the man. I am not the person to do this, in large part because I don’t have the time. But if I read one more bullshit item about how Mailer was the King of the Universe, then I’m going to require a shotgun or something.

(This writeup, however, is a good start.)

UPDATE: More on Mailer’s “genius,” from the comments in the above link:

Later, Mr. Mailer wrote a piece for a magazine where I worked as an editor, for which he was paid $50,000 (a shocking amount, then and now). The literary lion had trouble delivering and had to be given a conference room at the magazine (Esquire) and an “assistant” to help him meet his deadline. The piece was a routine interview. The final result was such a horrific mish-mash that, once again, I couldn’t finish it without much determined skimming. All in all, he seemed to have no special talent for either long-form works or routine culture pieces. So what was his talent anyway? Self-promotion, I guess.


  1. It is one thing to refuse to take part in the canonization of a writer that was never as good as he thought he was – and most of his work do leave me cold-, it is an entirely different thing to piss on his grave.

  2. One thing is for sure. Norman Mailer won’t be asked multiple times for an opinion about Edward Champion’s eventual passing. Nobody will be. “The Castle In The Forest” was published in 2007, and yet you say that ” a few years ago”
    you had a chance to interview him about it. Just calling you on your bullshit.
    What did he do to you ? Not answer the door at 142 Columbia Heights in Brooklyn Heights because he thought that you were the hirsute Avon Lady ?
    As the kids say, “Pwned !!!”

  3. Obviously, Helena, your ignorant scrawny ass hasn’t heard of galleys. I had the galley for CASTLE in 2006. The difference between Mailer and me is that I couldn’t give a shit about what people think about me, whereas you and all the other Mailer freaks have been conned into defending a piece of shit novel like CASTLE and anything else that came from the “master”‘s hand. Not pwned at all here, you know-nothing dunce. On the contrary, if you’re defending such dull and ridiculous prose as

    “He stared at us. Could we share his excitement? “The next question,” he said, “soon arises. Will the genes of the woman be compatible with the sperm cell that has managed to reach her? Or will these separate elements find their respective genes to be in dispute? Are they about to act like unhappy husbands and wives? Yes, I would answer, dispute is often the prevailing case. The meeting may prove sufficiently compatible for procreation to occur, but the combination of their genes is hardly guaranteed to be in harmony.”

    then it seems to me that you’re the one who’s been pwned into fawning over an ass as bloated as Mailer’s.

  4. Well, considering he was eighty-three when the book was published, Castle has some surprisingly good moments. Burning the hives for example. But it’s not fair to judge him exclusively on the work he did long after he’d lost his fastball. Armies of the Night is an important book. The Executioner’s Song is a great book. Naked and the Dead is a book that matters. It’s impossible to care about literary culture and how it developed in the USA in the second half of the Twentieth Century and not feel a loss. A big lion has passed. Whether or not every book was good — many were not, no doubt about it — the guy was serious, he was a heavyweight.

    But whether you are a heavyweight or not, you probably deserve better than to be badmouthed like that on the day you’ve passed.

    Really disappointed in you on this one Ed, or Dr. Marbuse, or Bat, or whoever. I enjoy this blog, and you are entitled to your feelings, but this was not right.

  5. Yes, he wrote too much — he had a million in monthly alimony to pay. But whatever you think of his personality, he wrote ARMIES OF THE NIGHT, THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG, THE NAKED AND THE DEAD, “The White Negro” — accomplishments enough to put him in the front ranks.

  6. Good riddance. An awful human being and THE most overrated American writer of the 20th century. I know one thing: the person who was the saddest to see Norman Mailer go was Norman Mailer. What a buffoon.

  7. I’m glad you at least linked to the Kimball post. You might want to ponder the differences between his (intelligent, substantial, reasoned) and yours (just bleating noise).

    > Obviously, Helena, your ignorant scrawny ass hasn’t heard of galleys. I had the galley for CASTLE in 2006.

    Will you listen to yourself? How on Earth does “2006” somehow make “a few years ago” not sloppy? And yet you still bluster on in full attack mode.

  8. Great post. In nearly every interview he gave, Mailer woud spout the most ludicrous nonsense. Several years ago, I obtained his book Advertisements for Myself because the title intrigued me and also because it contained “the White Negro,” which a number of other writers I’ve read over the years proclaimed a work of genius. I found “The White Negro” to be ridiculous. A number of his other essays from the Village Voice were included, and they only confirm that he was a very poor thinker.

  9. Nobody deserves to have their grave pissed on more than Norman Mailer. He was a ridiculous man and I hoped the last minute of his life was spent thinking about all the rotten things he did, including the whole J. Henry Abbott tragedy.

  10. Don’t worry, A.R., you’re not missing out. His writing has dated horribly and on makes sense within the very limited context in which it was written. Do yourself a favor and read Something Happened by Joseph Heller instead of reading anything by Mailer.

  11. Oh please. His writing is horribly dated, is it? The Naked and the Dead just happens to be one of the finest war novels ever written. So the man had a bloated ego — that’s no reason to go maligning his work, which should exist on a plane above and beyond the artist himself. I’m disgusted by the venom his death has brought out in people.

  12. Disgusting people tend to bring out the disgust in others, leon. I don’t remember this kind of vitriol when Vonnegut died. He was not a gentleman in life and therefor for does not deserve to be treated as one in death. He was a walking erection, a Hemingway-manque, and there was absolutely not one ounce of compassion in any of the books of his I have forced myself to read, books, that line for line, are as painful and tedious to read as anything I have ever encountered. He had enough fame for five or six lifetimes, and I hope his memory evaporates by the time my life is over.

  13. “What was his chief contribution to letters?” Probably Barbary Shore, although there’s some good journalistic stuff here and there; and the Buckleyesque Why Are We in Vietnam? has its fans. I’d be harder-pressed to answer that question about your other favorite macho Jewish egomaniac, although I guess there’s some nice bits in Deathbird Stories.

    And Ed, you should totally link more often to essays that include the argument, “This illustrates David Horowitz’s insight . . . ” Kimball’s a hoot.

  14. I have to disagree with your premise. The most overrated writer of the 20th Century was Hemingway. Mailer was the 2nd most overrated — he couldn’t even be first at that.

    I believe the quote “The literary lion had trouble delivering” could be applied to many areas of his life. CD, “The White Negro” is a racist bullshit piece that was all about Mailer’s advertising his supposed erection. How on earth can you laud that junk? His chief contribution to civilization was to assist in the birth of The Village Voice.

    And when did we come upon this notion that once folks are dead we should lie about them? Did this ride in on the horns and tail of Nixon or has it been with us longer? If speaking the truth about the dead makes me a horrible human being I can live with that.

  15. Ed —

    At the very least, as someone who is as intelligent and book-promoting as you are, you should have acknowledged that in an increasingly illierate age, Mailer demanded to be known as a writer, and did not apologize to be such. Like him or not, he brought attention to the literary world, attention that is sorely lacking today. While not the best analogy, remember how much better tennis was when John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg and Connors were at each others’s throats AND playing magnificent tennis?

    Certainly it’s your blog and your opinion, so all of these comments are tilting at windmills, but for you to write off Mailer because you found his last book “trite and preposterous,” and because you found his behavior boorish, is ridiculous. I find the openings to your podcasts “trite and preposterous” and yet I still manage to make my way through them to listen to your interviews that are for the most part conducted with intelligence and grace.

    Furthermore, in merely scanning the list of Segundo guests, there are certainly a few who’ve been as much a jackass as Mailer in their day. Will you now be deleting those podcasts because you find their behavior objectionable? If you remove, say, the Ricard Ford podcast, will you then return money to people who donated to you because of that podcast?
    Surely you must accept all or accept none who meet your standards, whatever they may be.

    Mailer was a man of letters. He wrote three classics, (Naked…, Armies,… Executioner Song) won two Pulitzers, helped create the Village Voice, etc., etc, etc. He was someone who mattered more than most ever will. You at least should have the decency to acknowledge such as his “chief contributions.”

    Lastly, it’s this sort of thing that gives blogs a bad name. Piss on those older and established, no matter if they deserve it or not, because it’s the cool thing to do, and don’t bother backing it up with anything more than vitriol. Were I a first time visitor to this blog today, I wouldn’t be returning.

    But I will, because you’re better than that. And I hope you’ll least re-address your post with some actual content to back up your opinion, regardless of what it might be.

  16. I’m ambivalent about Norman Mailer – there are only so many white male authors I make time to read, and he isn’t one of them, honestly.

    But I do think it was cool that he appeared on an episode of “Gilmore Girls”. It seemed silly and ridiculous, but it made me think he had some semblance of a sense of humor. Maybe.

  17. ‘m an admirer of just about everything Mailer did in what I think of
    as the Sixties — the years from 1964-73. “An American Dream,”
    “Cannibals and Christians,” “Why Are We In Vietnam?”, “The Armies of
    the Night,” “Miami and the Siege of Chicago,” “A Fire on the Moon,”
    “Existential Errands”: these are terrific pieces of thinking, writing,
    and reporting, despite and also because of the author’s healthy self-
    esteem and machismo. (I haven’t read “The Prisoner of Sex,”
    “Maidstone,” “St. George and the Godfather,” or “Marilyn”). Alas, I’m
    not as impressed with anything of Mailer’s that I’ve read (or tried to
    read) from before or after this period, though — despite James’s
    enthusiasm — but I do find Mailer a mostly admirable figure. He’s
    easy to mock, but that’s because he was a clown, in the edgiest,
    weirdest, even religious sense of the term. (He once called Abbie
    Hoffman a “ballsy wonder of a clown”; I think that should be on
    Mailer’s grave.) We should all be so clownish.

    “Advertisements for Myself,” though a fun period piece, worth reading
    to understand certain aspects of the 1950s in New York, isn’t nearly
    as good stuff as Mailer’s later nonfiction, I think.

  18. Anyone who bothered to read it, “The Executioner’s Song,” by Mailer, was a superb piece, and the only one I’ve completed. I read the first 150 or so pages of “The Castle In the Forest,” and let’s say I was as impressed by the writing as I was by the apocalyptically bad sex. Okay, the inclusion of the bad sex into a whole-heartedly bizarre project. I’ll finish it, I only bought it this year, and then I’ll judge. He was a talented writer, though; the killing scenes in “The Executioner’s Song” were fourth dimensional. Oh yeah, he was entertaining. Ever see the fight with Rip Torn? A marshmallowed buffoon rolling down a hill with a crazed hippy, that was disgracefully hilarious. And he stabbed his wife in the back with a penknife, less amusing, but he regretted it at least his entire life. Overall, a strange man who got his ass “whooped” by at least Madonna and Germaine Greer, but he was educational and thoughtful/though provoking in his later years, and possibly more modest. Check him taling about Lee Harvey Oswald, or the great Muhammad Ali-George Forman ticket in Zaire, or the cultural importance of plastic.

    (He won the “bad sex award” for “Castle In The Forest”).

  19. You’ve been chewing the same fetid resentment for too long , friend. You sound over rehearsed with this guttersniping. The fact remains is that Mailer is both utterly disliked by a great number of readers, a situation that isn’t likely too change this early in the century; however much you dislike him, though, will not change the general consensus that he is the author of a handful of books that well exceed his excesses. Masterpieces, in other words, those books being “Naked and the Dead”, “Armies of the Night”, “Of a Fire on the Moon”, “The Executioner’s Song” and “Harlot’s Ghost”. Beyond these he published quite a few books that provoke debate. It’s likely the debate will continue for some time to come; when one wants to discuss American life and culture in the second half of the twentieth century, Mailer is someone who must be read, like him or not. What angers most of his most vocal critic is that for as big an asshole as he could be, as brilliant a writer he often was.

  20. Coward. I hate winterlectuals. Obviously he did his job, which was to die and be called a sexist pig by a bleeding cunt like you. Try living through something, killing something because you have to, and then read your own printed pussy farts and be embarrassed as you should be. If your life in this country, as a man, does not include violence or braggadocio or the occasional bout of misanthropy, it is because you are one of two kinds of people
    (who’s opinions blow away in the wind). The privileged snot nosed punk…or the coward. Come te chiami sorca. Still need that shotgun?

  21. Yeah Norman Mailer, maybe he was a Sexist and an Egomaniac.

    But the point is: “he was a very poor thinker” – Peter Winkler (see his comment).

    He catered to a literary class that enjoyed a voyeuristic escapade into a hyperreal, mythological landscape of sleaze and power. Nothing wrong with that, necessarily, but the tension between his alleged realism and the two-dimensional mythological representations of his characters is hard to swallow.

    Also, “The White Negro”, if it’s the essay I’m thinking about, is a pile of shit, relishing and communicating in retarded stereotypes about black people, making Norman Mailer or any other “hip” person feel better about themselves because they have some weird insecurity towards black people. Is this essay where he claims that the US government is motivated by penis envy towards black men??? haha what a corny piece of shit

  22. “He catered to a literary class that enjoyed a voyeuristic escapade into a hyperreal, mythological landscape of sleaze and power. Nothing wrong with that, necessarily, but the tension between his alleged realism and the two-dimensional mythological representations of his characters is hard to swallow. ”
    Funny, but none of this sounds like reasons for Mailer to be considered a bad writer, a dishonest one, or gives evidence, for that matter, that he was a “poor thinker”. Anyone with a glancing familiarity into 20th century literature can cite a good number of writers who defied the ever-nervous middle ground of delicate sensibilities of what literature should do for it’s audience–edify and instruct in a State defined qualities of virtue. Mailer, among others, interrogated the status quo and struggled to express experience in terms that were sensual, immediate, instructive in ways that one’s narrative isn’t chained to a fixed storyline but rather based on the quality of one’s decisions and the effectiveness of one’s capacity to achieve what the can and learn from resulting incidents, good or bad. You might not like his slant–masculinist, mystical, Reichian, post war Marxist–but he didn’t waiver in his ideas. Mailer’s writing, his ideas still provokes long debates sixty years after the publication of his first book, a fact that informs us that Mailer is hardly over rated.

  23. He was overrated and narcissistic, but he wasn’t talentless, for Christ’s sake. His piece in ESQUIRE on Pat Buchanan was riveting, for one.

  24. Was Mailer’s towering ego compensation for deep insecurity? I won’t disagree. What I will say is to see a small man, quivering in self-doubt, push himself out center spotlight and howl to the masses, gloves up and prepared for some hits, is not a negative quality. It takes guts, and this mofo pressed a big wet needle of adrenaline into the literary world.

    It isn’t a crime to speak poorly of a man on the day of his demise. In poor taste? Sure. But this article is not geared toward setting the record straight. It’s insecurity forged into hot resentment.

    Know thyself, Champion. Those outer irritations are no more than a reflection.

    That said, my favorite response was written by “chuck.” Thank you, Chuck. We’re eye-to-eye on this one.

  25. Hey now, cool it little boy. Mailer wrote one hell of a lot of great novels, even the under appreciated “Ancient Evenings” which I quite love. That is a hugely imaginative, meticulously conceived and feverish novel.

  26. Norman Mailer was born with a huge chip on his shoulder. He was a hater and in turn was despised by those who knew him well. We’re talking about a man who stabbed his wife with a fountain pen and gave a character reference to a homocidal lunatic who when released ( because of Mailer’s support) went on to stab a Waiter to death. Mailer’s response…culture is worth a little risk. Apparently the Murderer had a flair for the written word. As for his work, I could barely get through The Naked and the Dead. Much like Mailer, it was criminally dull without the least bit of affirmation or hope. Through the years, I read some of his critical essays on boxing, Marilyn Monroe, the Kennedy assassination, I saw him on talk shows in his later years he had mellowed some ( how could he not)? but he was still unimpressive. Woody Allen said it best in the film Manhattan, ( although he puts the words in the Diane Keaton character’s mouth). “ Norman Mailer belongs in the academy of the overrated “.

  27. Edward Champion — what a nom de plume, combining sardonic irony with
    a sort of comic-book flair.

  28. Hemingway (that Hemingway) referred to critics as “the lice that crawls on
    literature.” Given that image , what would that make of someone who isn’t even a critic, but rather a dispenser of intemperate opinion in dusty corners of the Internet?

    The Vermin only teaze and pinch
    Their Foes superior by an Inch.
    So, Nat’ralists observe, a Flea
    Hath smaller Fleas that on him prey,
    And these have smaller yet to bite ’em,
    And so proceed ad infinitum:
    Thus ev’ry Poet, in his Kind
    Is bit by him that comes behind

  29. Just watch a drunken Norman Mailer on the Dick Cavett show ( you tube it), trying to exchange barbs with Gore Vidal and Cavett. His Narcissism is on full display, the crowd turns on him and he’s destroyed by two men who overwhelm him with their witticisms. Mailer was a pathetic guy, the world is that much lighter without him!

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