It was at The New Criterion that I internalized the pitiless conviction that De mortuis nil nisi bonum is a lot of sentimental twaddle. So it didn’t surprise me at all to see my former boss’s name on Arts & Letters Daily in this context:
Norman Mailer, American novelist, is dead at the age of 84 . . . NYT . . . AP . . . LAT . . . Nation . . . Guardian . . . Reuters . . . Telegraph . . . Salon . . . Chic Trib . . . BBC . . . Newsday . . . Boston Globe . . . NPR . . . Time . . . CNN . . . NYT . . . USAToday . . . Wash Post . . . London Times . . . dissent from Roger Kimball
Most people pass unremarked from this world, and those lucky enough not to shouldn’t begrudge the living their honest assessment. Here’s just a taste of Roger’s:
The news that the novelist Norman Mailer died earlier today at the age of 84 has already elicited little hagiographical murmurs. That hushed choir will doubtless turn into a deafening chorus of praise in the coming days and weeks—how much space do you suppose The New York Times will devote to its (I predict) front-page obituary? What grand superlatives will be dusted off and rolled out to commemorate the polyphiloprogentive wife-stabber and booster of homicidal misfits? “Genius” will be paraded early and often, I’ll wager, as will the extended family of adjectives emanating from the word “provocative.” One early notice described Mailer as “the country’s literary conscience and provocateur” and characterized The Armies of the Night as one of his (presumably many) “masterworks.” Perhaps, before the celebratory paeans entirely drown out critical judgment, there is room for a few dissenting observations.
Mailer epitomized a certain species of macho, adolescent radicalism that helped to inure the wider public to displays of violence, anti-American tirades, and sexual braggadocio. . . .
Read the whole thing here. Roger makes the best case we are likely to encounter that Mailer’s reputation has been grossly inflated by the reading public’s ignorance or gullibility. I will allow that reading Armies of the Night was a mind-blowing experience, but only in the sense that it suggested a time when the public was embarrassingly susceptible to self-promotion and self-mythologizing. And the title Advertisements for Myself is downright Barnumesque: It tells you it’s a ketchup popsicle and you reach out your white-gloved hands anyway.
It is fitting, then, that Mailer’s death gives us the chance to reflect upon something other than Mailer. What I refer to is the free pass that our literary culture gives to those who have achieved a certain level of status. This may seem like a no-brainer: Don’t certain privileges always follow fame? Isn’t that the point? Yes, but I wouldn’t consider it a privilege to have my worst work cheerfully disseminated by opportunistic publishers. I’d argue that Mailer was given this free pass right from the beginning: He managed step one—getting famous—by acting out instead of by writing several very good books. Other writers of considerable merit are just now beginning the slide into their late and not-so-great periods. Consider Cormac McCarthy’s dreary, one-dimensional bestseller The Road, or John Updike’s hilariously inept (though at times beautifully written) Terrorist, or Philip Roth’s auto-satirizing Exit Ghost. Why is this happening? How can we encourage a return to the high standards required to midwife the classics of the future?
When we idolize mediocrities, or let great writers get away with mediocre works, we give younger writers much less to aspire to. Considered sub specie eternitatis, saying you want to be “the next Norman Mailer” is like saying you want to be on a reality TV show—which, incidentally, was Dave Eggers’s first big goal in life. Welcome to the decline.