Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Norman Mailer as literary critic


When I was 18 or 19 and looking for something to read in Corte Madera circa 1960, I tried the drugstore on the town square that had one of those revolving wire racks with mostly trash and best sellers in paperback editions. There were few bookstores in Marin; there was one in San Rafael and another in Sausalito. The drugstore was where I picked up a paperback of Norman Mailer's Advertisements for Myself, who I had never heard of. Reading that book was an important event in my life, since Mailer was the first serious contemporary American writer I read, except for the Catcher in the Rye, which I loved, and some short stories by Hemingway, who would be dead within a year.

Though Mailer was a novelist, much of Advertisements is non-fiction, political polemic and social criticism, though that description is too tame to describe Mailer's writing. Most of all I liked it because it had real bite, unlike most of the bland stuff I read in school and the magazines my parents subscribed to.

In one of the essays in the book, Mailer has thumbnail critiques of other important writers of the day, including J.D. Salinger: "Salinger is everyone's favorite. I seem to be alone in finding him no more than the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school." Well! I was shocked and thrilled at the same time, which was the effect on me the rest of the book had. His judgment of Salinger I finally had to admit made a good point, which might be altered if Salinger was actually writing all those years when he lived as a hermit and was incommunicado.

A collection of Mailer's letters has just been published. The NY Times has some tidbits, including some more literary judgments, in today's review:

“Faulkner writes his long sentence because he never really touches what he is about to say and so keeps chasing it; Hemingway writes short because he strangles in a dependent clause; Steinbeck digs into the earth because characters who hold martini glasses make him sweat; Proust spins his wrappings because" a gay man “gets slapped if he says what he thinks.”

Unfair and untrue, more or less, but good stuff. Mailer was in the Pacific for World War 2. In a letter to his wife from the Philippines: “I was given a machine gun. Your baby is awfully heavily armed now.” Mailer with a machine gun!

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