How perverse is it to be a woman writer carrying a literary torch for one of the most sexist novelists of our time?
The one man who has ever made me wish I had a penis is Norman Mailer.
I never met Mailer, but ever since reading The Executioner’s Song at 22, he’s represented something to me: life force, swagger, stone-cold bravado. I was just out of college and starting a new life, living a few blocks from the paper he founded (The Village Voice), in an East Village studio so lopsided anything you dropped would roll across the floor. I needed courage, and though a half-century older than me, this guy—with his aggressive, massively ambitious prose and super-persona—had it in spades. I wanted a dick like his to swing around—you know, in the literary sense.
"I wanted a dick like his to swing around—you know, in the literary sense."
I recognize the perversity of this: that as a female writer (a “lady writer,” Mailer would have said) I still find myself referring back again and again to a proudly sexist literary lion for my injection of guts and adrenaline. But for a quick lesson in making your own mojo, few can match Mailer. He was a Writer writ large, who spun himself into the towering character around which his genre-changing nonfiction revolved. While the big, self-absorbed “I” has long since invaded nonfiction, few even today dare to write about themselves, as he did, in the third person.
His ferocious Pulitzer Prize-winning monster of creative nonfiction, The Executioner’s Song, is a book of such scope that Joan Didion called it “ambitious to the point of vertigo.” His fiction was built on just as much hubris: the man wrote a first-person novel in the voice of Jesus, followed by another in the voice of a devil. Beyond that, he was a phenomenally successful self-mythologizer, a writer who created a public self that was deafeningly loud and unflappable, who didn’t give a rat’s ass what you thought of him or his work, you small-minded little cockroach, you “intellectual polluter” (or whatever else he called Gore Vidal to his face). He sometimes made a cartoon of himself, but he was always full of brass and never an apologist.
I’m rethinking my attachment to Mailer on the occasion of the release of two new, jumbo-sized books: J. Michael Lennon’s Norman Mailer: A Double Life, his first official biography; and Mind of an Outlaw, an essay collection spanning six decades, introduced by Jonathan Lethem. Of course, Lennon’s biography, while drop-dead serious, also doubles as a laundry list of all the non-literary stuff the writer spent his energy on. Playing out a kind of macho kabuki theater, he brawled in public (often picking fights in an embarrassing faux-Texan accent), engaged in cringe-worthy intellectual pissing matches (see Mailer and Vidal on “The Dick Cavett Show”), was flamboyantly defeated in a delusional run for mayor of New York, and generally drank like an angry fish. Occasionally the drinking ended very, very badly—as when he stabbed his second wife in the chest with a penknife.
"As if that were the lady writers’ ultimate challenge, our mission impossible—maximum sensitivity!—while the writer-dudes, those literary soldiers, get to conquer epic new territory on Planet Cojones."
Removing all penknives from my imaginary bar, tossing back a few whiskeys with Mailer in his prime would have been an excellent adventure worthy of a Hollywood stuntman. But I’m uncertain he would have been interested in (non-handsy) drinks with me. To say Mailer had a conflicted relationship with the opposite sex is an awesome understatement. An active crusader against feminism, he also dubbed himself an “enemy of birth control”—a bold stance for a famous philanderer who wrote entire books simply to keep up with all the alimony, child support, and other expenses accrued by a grand total of five ex-wives, nine children, and however many mistresses. Then there were the memorable toss-off statements, like the time he casually announced, during a university talk, that “a little bit of rape is good for a man’s soul.” Stating the way obvious, feminist author Kate Millett called him “a prisoner of the virility cult” (membership still growing).
Mailer’s relationship to lady writers in particular—I personally prefer “writers with panties”—seemed reluctant at best. In one essay he wrote about the novel, the form he was out to conquer, as a demon-woman you can’t shake, “the Great Bitch in one’s life.” “Every novelist who has slept with the Bitch comes away bragging afterward like a GI tumbling out of a whorehouse spree,” he wrote. “We’ve all”—and here he ran down a list of his guy-novelist contemporaries—“had a piece of her.” Grudgingly, he admitted there were also “all the women, all the lady writers, bless them. But one cannot speak of a woman having a piece of the Bitch”—and in this way he avoided name-checking a single one.
Years later, in a lecture not long before his death, Mailer argued that a male writer should not try to create a character who was braver than himself. He paused to add, in a generous nod to the women in the audience, “Perhaps this means women writers shouldn’t try to create characters who are more sensitive than they are?” As if that were the lady writers’ ultimate challenge, our mission impossible—maximum sensitivity!—while the writer-dudes, those literary soldiers, get to conquer epic new territory on Planet Cojones.
"My “good ideas” naturally had to be manly. At the time, this was probably a mark of my own slowly expanding self-confidence; but looking back, it’s a real bummer."
Possibly the most ridiculous of all literary categories remains “women’s fiction”—a category that, without irony, places Jennifer Egan’s work alongside the Bridget Jones series. No one would ever accuse a writer as heroic as Mailer of producing “men’s fiction.”—“Men’s fiction,’” a male writer friend recently said, sounding out the uncomfortable phrase, “is what’s called ‘a novel.’” Mailer and his fellow literary lions (the term alone is so macho) wrote not for men or women but for the universe. His was the Voice of the Universe Expressing Itself. Or, put another way: Dick Lit is for everybody!
Even as a little girl I remember telling a friend, “When I have a really good idea, the voice in my head is a man’s voice.” As a precocious, artistically minded kid beginning to take herself seriously, my “good ideas” naturally had to be manly. At the time, this was probably a mark of my own slowly expanding self-confidence; but looking back, it’s a real bummer. Even with a gutsy free-thinker as a mother, I picked up the cues: the voice of Greatness belonged to a dude.
Apparently, I continue to have this hang-up—then again, so does much of the publishing industry, not to mention the boatload of male readers who feel weird about reading first-person stories told from a female perspective. At least today, as a non-fiction writer, the voices in my head are occasionally those of Joan Didion and Janet Malcolm, whose cool, precise prose and unforgiving reporting cut through the bullshit every time. So maybe I need to take this “Norman Mailer,” the Super-Writer who still lives in my head, and leave him to his own ambitions. You don’t need a dick to induce vertigo.