Academic journal article The Mailer Review

The Curious Story of Norman Mailer's Engagement with Short Fiction

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

The Curious Story of Norman Mailer's Engagement with Short Fiction

Article excerpt

NORMAN MAILER BEGINS HIS INTRODUCTION to the 1967 paperback collection of his short fiction by telling us that he agrees with those who find his efforts in this genre "neither splendid, unforgettable, nor distinguished." He shortly doubles down on himself when he also agrees with the notion that in this realm he is simply a "journeyman" (9). Mailer gives us still more grounds to dismiss his short fiction when he tells us "it is painful to push one's own plain efforts so far forward. Yet we do it. Yes, for the bucks first, paperback reader!" He also confesses he does not have "the gift to write great stories . . . the interest, the respect, or the proper awe. The short story bores him a little... he rarely reads them... is, in secret, not fond of writers who work at short stories" (9). His clinching argument in the form of a "terrible confession" is that "he thinks the short story is relatively easy to write," because it takes only a few days, whereas the novel may take years (10-11). Since we know this writer as someone who enjoys making advertisements for himself, we may begin to suspect that all of this deprecation of the genre and of himself as its exponent is some kind of ruse--a ruse to induce us to find out for ourselves, what is this short fiction of Norman Mailer all about, and is it really as undistinguished as he is leading us to believe?

We also know Mailer as someone who is refreshingly frank in his assessments of other writers, and he does not let us down here. His list of those short story writers for whom he has "admiration or affection" is not long: Chekhov, Hemingway, Isaac Bashevis Singer, James T. Farrell. He soon adds Fitzgerald to the list and speaks favorably about Isaac Babel and finds pleasure in Maugham, Conan Doyle, and Poe, and Mary McCarthy, who "wrote very good short stories," but "Hawthorne seemed unreadable." A whole host of other well-known--some would say distinguished--practitioners of the art of the short story--all come up short in one way or another in Mailer's evaluation: Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, and Cheever and Updike, "old Prince and young Prince of good old maggie The New Yorker--why push on with the list?" (10).

Nevertheless, at the end of this introduction in which he spends so much time pooh-poohing himself and a number of others, Mailer cannot resist announcing that "The Time of Her Time" and "The Man Who Studied Yoga" "are superior to most good short fiction" (13). This then is the aha moment, the long-awaited Advertisement for Myself Mailer has so deftly put off until the point where we thought it might not arrive at all. And so now we have no choice but to try out not just these two stories but the others, just in case they too turn out to be "good short fiction," or perhaps even better than that.

Now that we have been put on alert that Mailer favors the likes of Chekhov, Hemingway, and Poe, we may be on the lookout for traces of these masters, either in form or content. With respect to the former, that is the form, i can say that if there is a chunk of Chekhov to fasten onto here, it may be that Mailer likes to leave the fates of his characters up to our contemplation of what their future(s) may be. If we are looking for the short story structure that Poe advocated, however, i think we are going to be disappointed, because Mailer does not hesitate to veer off the track of his plots to indulge in all kinds of asides and observations, as he does in his novels. Put another way, Mailer's inclination is toward expansion rather than direction, that is, the direction in which Poe believed all parts of a story should lead. The story of Mailer and Hemingway is, as we know well, a long and complicated one that moves between the poles of admiration, as here, and ridicule, as in his assessment of The Old Man and the Sea in Advertisements for Myself (20-21). In brief, Mailer does not like the fact that he sees the face of Hemingway on the Cuban fisherman. …

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