Norman Mailer vs. Everyone
In this selection of letters, the legendary author pulls no punches in correspondences with James Jones, Cynthia Ozick, Larry L. King, and others. Then he hits back hard at New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani.
In this response to a long letter by From Here to Eternity author James Jones, who was disillusioned about his generation of writers, Mailer tells his friend about a row with his publisher over six lines in his own book The Deer Park.
August 25, 1955
I’ve been planning for months to answer your letter with a real long one, and now that the time has come, I don’t know how far I’ll get, because I’m empty, vitiated, flat, bored, wrung out rag-like, and all the other states that I guess you know as well as me. I finally finished The Deer Park, and a trip like that I never want again. It was really weird, Jim. I had the book done last summer, and I wasn’t satisfied with it, but I’d worked my balls off for three years and I had come to figure well the hell with it, you can’t stay on one book all your life. Then in November with the thing in page proof Stanley Rinehart insisted I take out six lines. You know, it never fails, whenever a publisher wants you to take out something, it always ends up being the most important thing in the book. So I told him no, and the son of a bitch broke his contract, and of course the shit had hit the fan. All through publishing the word was out that the new Mailer must really be a dog if Rinehart lets go of one of his two name writers (the other being Philip Wylie.) So it went to six houses, and each one had something different to object to, or dislike. By the time Putnam took it, I was as mad as I had been at any time since the Army because the book as it stood then had faults, but it was still so much better than the kind of shit which is printed all the time that I was livid enough to publish it myself. Anyway, Putnam took it in January, and along about February I decided I’d touch up the Rinehart galleys a little bit because there were places where I began to see after a two-year drought how to improve it. So then a totally weird thing happened, Jim. As I started to work, the book kept changing and getting better, and before I was through six months went by, and I rewrote the Rinehart galleys, and then rewrote the new typewritten manuscript, and then by God rewrote the Putnam galley, and for six months I worked on it like I’ve never worked on anything. I think the key to it all was that I discovered I was much more of a fighter than I had thought I was, and that gave me the self-respect to really dig in. The word around town now is that I have cleaned it up, which of course is just about what one would expect after working your balls off, and making the novel more outrageous, more wild, more “it” than it was before. Anyway, I know what writer’s exhaustion is now. I have real post-delivery physical depression now.
“So I told him no, and the son of a bitch broke his contract, and of course the shit had hit the fan.”
There’re supposed to be copies ready on Sept. 7th, and I’ll send the signed copies to you and Lowney as soon as they arrive. And after you read it, I want a long evaluation of it from you, because that’s one of the few pleasures we get from writing is to know what a few real professional friends think.
Incidentally, Jimbo, The Deer Park is going to make you ill. Envious-ill, admiring-ill, wistful-ill, etc. And knowing you, competitive-ill. Which is all to the good. Because it’s a good enough novel (I think it’s better than Naked—smaller but deeper) and new enough to make it tough to read while you’re on your own stuff. At least if you’re like me. I remember when I read Eternity, I was sick with grippe at the time and I just got sicker. Because deep in me I knew that no matter how I didn’t want to like it, and how I leaped with pleasure on all its faults, it was still just too fucking good, and I remember the still artist’s voice in me saying, “Get off your ass, Norman, there’s big competition around.” But what the hell, I don’t have to explain it to you. I think in a way Styron, you, and me, are like a family. We’re competitive with each other, and yet let one of the outsiders start to criticize and we go wild. And there’s a reason for it, too. I think our books clear ground for one another. I opened ground for you, you opened ground for me, and I think and hope The Deer Park is going to open sexual ground, because as Calder reported maliciously but truthfully the book is all about “fucking”. And anyway as writers we’re all prison inmates serving life terms. So tell me exactly what you think about The Deer Park, and if you don’t like it, I’ll be furious at you, but if your reasons are good enough, I’ll finally accept them. Incidentally, one funny thing about it is that everybody who’s read it a second time digs it much more the second time. Because it’s a very funny book. I don’t know a single one like it.
Enough about me for the time being. I loved your letter, and I knew the whole business you feel about working with your hands. I’ve never done that steadily, but occasionally I’ve given a week or a month to such things as putting in the plumbing in the old cold water flat, and I don’t suppose I’ve ever been happier. And in Vermont when I was living there about five years ago, I had power tools and even built a little furniture, although as my ex-wife commented acidly once, “Norman’s hobby is to buy power tools and build stands for them.” And I had a workbench which I was proud as hell of because I built it out of a hundred year old plank which was over two feet wide and more than six inches thick and was irregular enough so that every one of the supporting legs was of a different size and bevel to support it. But it ended up so solid that I swear I think you could have dropped a truck on it.
Your invitation to come out your way appeals to me, and I might just take you up on it some time in the next six months, especially if I get a to hell and away with it all feeling, and want to have a couple of days of talk with you. I’ll just assume it’s generally all right with you, subject to your work, and if the mood hits me, and I can get away, I’ll call you first to make sure it’s not going to come at a time when you don’t want to have work-distractions.
There’s a lot more I’d like to say, but I feel kind of written-out, so I’ll let this suffice for the time being, and will answer Lowney’s letter in a couple of days and pass on any further news to her.
Love from one old man to another,
Disgruntled by pop culture after a trip to England, Mailer writes this playful letter to novelist and screenwriter Don Carpenter, proposing new slang.
October 23, 1961
Just a note this time. Back from England and I’m digging into the mail again and singularly without wit this afternoon. London turned out to be a very funny place. Reminded me a little of the way New York was back in 1946 and 1947. A great deal of innocence, a great deal of sexual vitality and a fascination with—God save the mark—our own dear Hip. I thought if I heard one more Englishman say, “I dig” that I would never dig again. I got so sick of “hip” and “square” as words that from now on they’re out. I mean let’s start something new. Existentialism is the word we have to use now as in “That’s very E - X, man, very E - X.” Squares will now be called essentialists, as in “That’s very E - S, man, straight 8.” Which occurs to me is the first useful separation of the letters in sex that’s been made for a long time.
Nothing much new here except for the uneasy feeling that my personal life is likely to get some disagreeable publicity soon. I hope not but it’s in the air. Time did a nice knife job last week. Had a small picture of me doing the Twist. Mentioned that I was perspiring (naturally everybody in the fucking joint was perspiring) and said I had a dazed look on my face which my probation officer will naturally read as drugged. In the dreams of Walter Neo-Mitty there is one recurring fantasy. He comes to power like Fidel Castro and enters Time magazine with a burp gun.
Best for now Amigo,
Mailer gets personal about sobriety, and throws a few jabs at the movie business, in this letter to his friend Larry L. King, author of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
May 11, 1981
Thanks for the clipping from the Lone Star Review. I’ve come to decide that the better I feel during an interview, the worse it’s going to look in print, but at any rate, they’re nice kids.
I’m still on the wagon—I guess it’s close to a year now—but I think I’m afraid to take a drink. When it began, I thought I’d stay off long enough to get to the point where I could drink a little and enjoy it, and then not drink again for a few days, but the longer I stay away from it, the more I begin to feel if I take one drink, I’m going to want to be drinking every night, and then I’ll be bloated again and dragging my ass around the ring. I think when I get down to it, the reason I stopped drinking is because of boxing, and I have to laugh when I think of all the dedication and abstention I’ve put into a sport where on my greatest days I rise within sight of being a mediocre amateur-gentleman-boxer. Since it’s the only thing that gives me the illusion that I’m not heading rapidly toward the decrepit, then once in a while there’s a high to it. When you get in with a guy who bangs about at your own level and you both feel bruised and virtuous at the end of three minutes. Also, hitting a heavy bag does move the piss around in one’s system. I guess if I weren’t on this regimen of jogging three times a week and boxing on Saturdays, I couldn’t help but go back to drinking. There has to be something to cut off the great rage.
Larry, it looks like traveling up the royal road you slashed through the forest of penury. I’m working with a kid named Richard Hanum on an adaptation of my quickly assassinated last book, Of Women and their Elegance, and at present there looks to be one chance in two or three that we’ll have a Broadway production next year. Tom O’Horgen’s directing it and it could be very funny. It’s being called Strawhead and it is not a musical, although all but. It has a form and seriousness and modest penetration of a play devoted to good music ( The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas naturally excepted—I love the penetration in that one). Anyway, it has some interesting and amusing things to say about Marilyn and I may be hitting up on you for advice if and when the thing gets closer to production, cause, God, that’s a new world for me. But interesting, I fear, much too interesting. I find I work on my novel three days a week in order to give myself the sanction to enjoy going to casting sessions (for a workshop) two or three of the other days in the week. But, Larry, it seems like a holiday to me. Probably it is.
Give our warmest to Barbara and let us know if you’re thinking of a trip this way.
In this letter to novelist and critic Cynthia Ozick, after she took issue with Mailer’s statement about the fatwa on Salman Rushdie.
April 22, 1989
When I saw you name on the return address, I thought, “That’s nice,” and had a passing image of you and me on the same podium reading from The Satanic Verses should the awaited catastrophe ever come to Salman Rushdie, and other authors have to stand in his place. Twenty seconds later, having read your billet-doux, I could recognize all over again that I qualify to run for the world’s first romantic.
I must say, I’m overcome by your epistolary style. For a writer of talent, your letter is so unhappily composed. I’ve seen you employ that harsh and jargon-ridden vain before, and suspect it is due to the intensity of your feelings. I would remind you, however, that one test of our skills is to keep to our style when we are in a state of agitation.
In any event, you show enough clarity to consider the possibility that the Times might not have quoted me in good measure. Of course, they didn’t. My statement was a page and a half long, and had a few things to offer. The Times left out the middle, crucial, of course. If you’re interested in what I’m really saying, please call PEN or my assistant, Judith McNally [. . . ], and they’ll be happy to forward you copies of either my first statement about standing for Rushdie, or the second, to which you refer, or both. I may not be speaking for you, but then, I don’t pretend to. At any rate, you’ll be able to attack properly, if that is your desire.
As for the “star chamber proceeding,” why don’t you consult [Cy] Rembar about the role I played in that? You may have a surprise or two, if you are ready for any.
As a result of this scathing letter to Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., the publisher of The New York Times, the paper ran a correction, noting that The Spooky Art did indeed have thorough source notes, compiled by the editor, J. Michael Lennon.
March 24, 2003
Dear Arthur Ochs Sulzberger,
Over the last ten years, Michiko Kakutani has reviewed every one of my books published in that period. In order, they were Oswald’s Tale, Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man, The Gospel According to the Son, The Time of Our Time, and The Spooky Art. All five were given bad reviews ( The Spooky Art perhaps the least awful), but three of those five could make the claim that the ugliest review all received came from Kakutani. What underlined the procedure and could give it a willful subtext was that four of those five reviews came out a week to two weeks ahead of publication. Michiko was first with the worst. One of the basic tricks in book criticism is to get out early if you really detest a book. Still, four out of five! Kakutani was abusing her privilege.
Indeed, even this much determined deconstruction of my later writing seemed not quite enough for the lady. In the course of reviewing The Spooky Art, she summarizes my lifework as follows:
“There was a very solid [ italics mine] World War II novel ( The Naked and the Dead), some ground-breaking [italics mine] journalism ( The Armies of the Night, Of a Fire on the Moon), a brilliant piece of Americana [italics mine] ( The Executioner’s Song), two huge oddball [italics mine] novels, one about Egypt ( Ancient Evenings), the other about the CIA ( Harlot’s Ghost) and a steady but wasting trickle of minor works [yes, italics mine] about everything from Marilyn Monroe to graffiti to Lee Harvey Oswald.”
Now, Michiko Kakutani is obviously entitled to her opinion. She is even, given her status, able to downgrade the reception of each of my new books by persevering in her lust to get out there first (it does take three good reviews to overcome a bad one, if the bad one is a potential reader’s first acquaintance with the work).
What she may not be entitled to, however, is to attack my editor for The Spooky Art on grounds that are without basis.
Let me put on record Dr. J. Michael Lennon’s letter to the Times (January 22, 2003). When he received no answer to the first, he sent a second, also without reply.
“To the Editor: In her review of Norman Mailer’s The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing (The Arts, Jan. 22), Michiko Kakutani claims that “all too often dates for statements are not supplied.” She is in complete error. I am the editor of the collection and the source notes come to ten closely printed pages. Mr. Mailer felt it was important for interested readers to see the provenance of all his comments, be they an essay or two lines from an old interview. I fear that the sloppiness Kakutani imputes to Mailer fits her review more closely than his text.
J. Michael Lennon
Professor of English, Wilkes University”
Conceivably, Kakutani didn’t look all that closely at what she was writing about. In any event, she came forth with this imputation of careless work on the part of Dr. Lennon, an academic of some stature. Did she skip over the ten full pages of source notes in the Appendix? Dr. Lennon uses the word sloppy to characterize this. I would call it slovenly. She was slovenly.
Mind you, this is in no way a request that some Times person other than Michiko Kakutani be assigned to me in the future. If I were Janet Maslin, Richard Eder, or any of the other professional daily book reviewers, I would be a hair reluctant to give Norman Mailer a positive review given Kakutani’s control of the bandstand. I expect she has an acute sense of tenfold repayment for any transgressions against her critical dominance. Rather, I choose to put this information on recording the hope that the Times will agree to a quiet meeting with one or two of the people who have received this letter, plus Ms. Kakutani and myself. I must say I hope to receive a reply. I would rather keep all this in camera than disseminate it to the teeming raptors of the Internet. Did I say raptors? I mean raptures, teeming raptures.
Norman Mailer was the author of more than thirty books, including The Naked and the Dead; The Armies of the Night, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize; The Executioner’s Song, for which he won a second Pulitzer Prize; Harlot’s Ghost; Advertisements for Myself; and The Deer Park. He died in November 2007.
With approval from the Norman Mailer Estate through Norman Mailer Licensing, LLC. © 2009, The Norman Mailer Estate, All Rights Reserved.
The original Mailer letters are located at the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.