Prior to the Christmas holidays, I had coffee with a friend who announced she was reading a biography on Norman Mailer. I confess, I’ve never read his novels, the most famous being The Executioner’s Song and The Naked and The Dead; but I am familiar with his essays and columns and have watched a few of his television interviews. That he is a master of words, I’ve never doubted but his fictional subjects never interested me. Nor did I admire his macho contempt for women writers which I consider ironic, because he couldn’t stay away from “broads” having had 6 wives.
Oddly enough, after I’d said goodbye to my friend and arrived home, I discovered a review of two books recently published about Mailer. (“Does Mailer Matter?” by Christopher Beha, Harper’s, December 2013, pgs. 88-94.) According to the writer, his biographers agree that Mailer was haunted by his desire to write the great American novel. For him that meant he could settle “for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time.” (Ibid, pg. 90)
I sat for a moment to think about Mailer’s objective. If true, it struck me that he’d gotten the cart before the horse. Surely a writer’s ambition should focus on having something to say rather than groping for effect. Writer’s don’t change minds, generally. Rather, they marshal the public in a direction it is already going — as Harriet Beecher Stowe did with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Betty Freidan with The Feminine Mystique. Hubris is required to believe that ideas rise up from the writer as if from the void and that once created, these ideas alone can change the world. True, J. D. Salinger’s, Catcher in the Rye may have looked revelatory – the story of a teen age boy expelled from a private school and forced to examine his grievances. But the novel survives because it touches upon the insecurity of the young, a condition which is constant and universal. Salinger didn’t create that consciousness; he tapped into it.
Like Icarus, Mailer attempted to fly too high. He gave himself god-like ambition and suffered for it. Too bad he forgot that Life makes the statement. The writer is merely its humble scribe.
(Courtesy of callipoewrites.wordpress.com)