Mailer's nonfiction has been honored with praises and prizes. One might sensibly argue that it contributed to a revolution in the consciousness of his time. But his fiction is still a matter of vigorous debate, and the Mailer Question persists. Simply put: How good are his novels? Two Mailer scholars having drinks and dinner two years ago in Provincetown discussed the Question. The night wore on, the restaurant closed, but their discussion continued in the months that followed and developed into this dialogue. It opens with two overview statements on Mailer the novelist, debates three novels, then assesses Mailer's other novels starting with The Naked and the Dead.
Bufithis: Norman Mailer's career as a literary celebrity clouded his standing as an authentic artist. An accurate measure of that standing depends on how we judge his novels. Ranging from realistic to mythopoetic, they comprise an adventurous body of work. And Mailer is an impressive prose stylist. But how high is the evaluation we can finally apply to his novelistic achievement? Mailer himself sets the measure when he says, "For if I have one ambition above all others, it is to write a novel which Dostoyevsky and Marx; Joyce and Freud; Stendhal, Tolstoy, Proust and Spengler; Faulkner, and even old moldering Hemingway might come to read, for it would carry what they had to tell another part of the way."
To rank Mailer among the masters, which he invites us to do, is to recognize that on the whole his fiction presents more sensation than substance. We see an abundant vitality in the service of rebellion, but rebellion is not construction. He seldom substantially portrays the meaningful life his combativeness supposedly moves toward. Indeed, against the violence and power of the State or the corporation, Mailer's protagonists exert their own violence and power over others. And we're left with a sense not only of sensation but of sensationalism. Mailer's continually lurid evocation of sex amplifies this sense. Nor is it clear what application his metaphoric treatment of sex and violence has to actual human experience. His characters have little relevance to the serious problems and preoccupations of mature life. His fiction does not appreciably present a sincere consciousness articulately alive to essential values: love beyond the erotic, a viable morality, and a spiritual affinity with nature. These are qualities not only typically intrinsic to great novels but primary to life itself. That this needs to be said at all is grim testimony to the condition of the American novel and of literary criticism since at least the mid-twentieth century.
The great importance of the novel has much to do with its being a book to live by. We question the quality of Mailer's novels when early in his career he said, "For I wish to attempt an entrance into the mysteries of murder, suicide, incest, orgy, orgasm, and Time. These themes now fill my head ... " We have only to read his last novel, The Castle in the Forest, to see a continuation of these mysteries and themes which, when central to literature or life, yield small benefit.
Begiebing: I view Norman Mailer's fiction (complemented by his nonfiction) as a series of experiments--some failed, some producing meaningful results--in the author's bold effort to free himself from the derivative naturalism of The Naked and the Dead in order to create not only "a revolution in the consciousness of [his] time," but, and no doubt first, a revolution in the consciousness of Norman Mailer. Mailer's revolutionary effort began, to my mind, with Barbary Shore--a strange, allegorical narrative consumed by an ideological debate that even Mailer has admitted collapses "into a chapter of political speech." To transform consciousness through fiction Mailer dived deep into his own psyche to better understand and confront the deepest psychic roots of his compatriots. …