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A life battling against bullshit and bores


In my late teens and early 20s, I read a lot of good books. And among the best of these, clearly, were Norman Mailer's.

As his friend Jimmy Breslin put it last week, Mailer had a natural writing style which stood up to all the demands he made on it. And, even if he couldn't write at all, his energy and ambition in themselves were dazzling.

But the thing about Mailer, was that he had this combination of extreme talent and extreme ambition, a combination that is now so rare, it may actually have died with him.

Certainly, he was a far better class of celebrity than anything doing the rounds today. It is amazing to think that on American TV talk-shows in the Sixties, you had the likes of Mailer holding forth on the events of the day and on the meaning of life.

But then, he was also probably a better class of literary man than anything doing the rounds today, because he just did more, his abilities were more diverse than those of almost any other living novelist.

There is a common misconception that literary folk don't do journalism or television or politics, because they are somehow above all that, being so fiercely devoted to their solitary craft. But, really, they don't do these things because they can't. They have the one gift, while Mailer had so many.

And eventually, it was this very abundance which worked against him with the literati. They just didn't trust a guy who could knock out a superb piece of prose, in which he thought deeply about how he could come across better on television. Perhaps they just couldn't accept that a major writer could be so fond of sport.

Nor did his battles with feminists help him with the Nobel committee, which never deigned to honour him, though he was clearly both a great writer and one of the great Americans of his time. In fact, as a youth, my first inkling that all was not right with all feminists, was their extraordinarily stupid reaction to the works of Norman Mailer.

I recall in particular a piece on An American Dream, in which the reviewer slated the novel, on the grounds that the main character kills his wife and the author doesn't seem to be sufficiently critical of this.

I had just read An American Dream and loved it, and found it mind-boggling that a supposedly intelligent woman couldn't make the basic distinction between the personality of a fictional character and the personality of the author.

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It was a perfect example of someone blinded by ideology. And Mailer's disputes with feminists often seemed to be concerned with the way that their devotion to an ideology had reduced them to such bullshit. For Mailer, you felt that bullshit was always the ultimate enemy, and indeed when he ran for mayor of New York, with Jimmy Breslin as his running mate, his slogan was "Stop The Bullshit".

And he would probably always feel morally superior to those feminists who just couldn't write as well as he could. In The Prisoner Of Sex, I mainly recall his attacks, not on Kate Millett's opinions, but on her dreary writing style, which he felt had all the spark of a boring PhD thesis, echoing his finest riposte to the women's movement: "How is all of this supposed to make life less boring?"

He was well within his rights here, as he wasn't just some misogynistic braggart, but a fine artist who was undoubtedly making life less boring and raising the level of the culture in his own work, with The Armies Of The Night and Miami And The Siege Of Chicago. I loved these too with their storming energies, though I was reading them about 20 years after the events which they so vividly captured.

They weren't officially novels and they weren't officially journalism, though they contained the best of both. Mailer was ahead of his time as a crossover act of the highest quality, who know too much about "popular culture" to treat it with the disdain it usually receives from the men of letters, and who knew too much about "high" culture to have much hope for it.

In one of his last interviews, he talked about novelists as a dying breed who should look after one another. By this, he must have meant novelists like himself who try to write good books, the sort of books that can change your life if you read them in your teens or early 20s. Or any time.

He didn't mean the books which are currently stacked high in every bookshop in the western world, books which are often described as novels, but which are just bad, bad books. The fact that these are mostly written by women, for women, might make Mailer crack a wintry smile -- yes, they have destroyed his world -- but I suspect he would mainly criticise the old chicklit and the general pandering to female sensibilities on the basis of its appalling conservatism.

Not only is it not making life less boring, it is disgracefully unadventurous on every level. And, no doubt, he observed that the better class of novelists, far from standing their ground and raising hell as Mailer did in his time, have mostly retreated into academic irrelevance, to their tastefully furnished rooms where they fashion their award-winning novellas, their "deeply-felt meditations on memory and loss", the way that well-bred ladies used to devote themselves to embroidery.

They know nothing about rock'n'roll, and they are mostly incapable of creating a main character with a voice which isn't that of the novelist. You can read a narrative written from the perspective of a 12-year-old boy, a very old woman, or an Islamic fundamentalist student, and somehow it always sounds like the voice of a novelist. And their contests are about as exciting as a competition between professors for a much-coveted chair at Oxford. You long for the mad fighting spirit of Mailer, who once declared himself the greatest writer in the world. And why not?

The literati never gave him his due, they are too full of prejudice, so they need to be told these things. And those who read Mailer without prejudice would be pretty relaxed about such braggadaccio. They could see that he was only telling the truth.

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