Norman Mailer: Genre Bender

Article excerpt

GIVEN THE PREVALENCE OF SOPHOMORE LITERATURE SURVEYS IN OUR COLLEGES and universities, courses whose primary purpose is to provide an historical overview of major writers' works and times, the anthologies assigned in such courses play a role in establishing and revising the canon, a process reflected in their shifting tables of contents over multiple editions. To cite one example, as recently as 1979, the Norton Anthology of American Literature included excerpts from Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night (Part I, Chapters 5-6, and Part II, Chapters 2-3), as well as his story, "The Man Who Studied Yoga" and a critical essay, "The Dynamics of American Letters" but subsequent editions contain fewer and fewer selections. As of 1998, Norton editor Jerome Kilinkowitz chose no longer to feature anything by Mailer--no novel excerpts, no short stories, no essays, no journalism. By excluding and thus marginalizing Mailer, the Norton has ignored one of the most popular, prolific, relevant, and controversial American writers of the post-WWII era, as well as one of the most versatile and accomplished across a range of genres: from novels as diverse as The Naked and the Dead (1948), An American Dream (1965), and Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967); to literary journalism like The Armies of the Night (1968), Of a Fire on the Moon (1970), and The Executioners Song (1979); to short stories, "The Man Who Studied Yoga" (1956); to essays, most notably "The White Negro" (1957); to literary criticism, The Spooky Art (2004); to biographies, Picasso (1995); to a collection of poems, Deaths for the Ladies (1962); to a drama, The Deer Park: A Play (1967); to sportswriting, The Fight (1975); not to mention letters and lectures, reviews and interviews. (1) Just as importantly, Mailer was a writer who consistently challenged the traditional distinctions between and among genres, a practice I have previously described in the Mailer Review as genre-bending, (2) and it is within this context of the fusion of genres, especially fiction and journalism, that Mailer so vitally matters and within which his absence from the anthologies is most profoundly felt.

Mailer's genre bending was nowhere more evident than in his literary journalism, specifically the New Journalism of the post-WWII era, a hybrid genre created by some of the most important formal and stylistic innovators of the 1960s and beyond, figures some of whom have also been omitted from the current edition of the Norton. Tom Wolfe, whose The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and other early reporting revolutionized American journalism, is excluded entirely. So is Truman Capote, whose In Cold Blood (1965) introduced the genre bending phrase "nonfiction novel." The Norton excerpts Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972) but, first, Vegas is largely fiction, as Thompson has freely admitted in interviews; moreover, the Vegas selection, Thompson's carnivalesque description of the Circus-Circus Hotel, is curiously included in a section called "Postmodern Manifestos." Also excerpted is Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), but that text is a memoir dealing with the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne. By these exclusions, the Norton has de-canonized a form of literary rebellion that mirrored the larger political, social, and cultural revolutions of the 1960s counterculture. (3) New Journalism emerged at a tumultuous period in American history, when reporters were becoming increasingly skeptical of official news sources, the pretense of journalistic objectivity, and the role of journalists as tools of corporate and governmental elites. In the current media climate of polarized punditry and partisan spin, of cable news networks and internet blogs, the New Journalists' critique of practices still adopted by the mainstream media remains a valuable resource for the teaching of media literacy. As a journalist, Mailer was also frequently a media critic who, like Noam Chomsky, exposed how the dominant culture asserts its hegemony through a corporatized media whose credibility derives from its pretense of objectivity. …


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