The Non-Existent "Cancellation" of Norman MailerBreaking News
tags: publishing, Cancel Culture, Norman Mailer
Last year, it took two whole months for the year’s first overhyped publishing cancel culture story to break, when the estate of Dr. Seuss decided to cease the publication of several controversial but little-read books and a multiweek meltdown among culture-war watchers ensued. In 2022, it took only three days for the first such story to plop into the media chum bucket.
On Monday, writing in The Ankler, Michael Wolff broke the news that Penguin Random House had decided not to move forward with plans to publish a collection of Norman Mailer’s nonfiction in 2023, citing an unidentified “junior staffer’s” objections to the title of Mailer’s controversial 1957 essay “The White Negro.” Here was, it would seem, another instance of publishing’s gatekeepers sacrificing the American canon to the whims of a mob of woke twentysomethings. First they came for Milo Yiannapolous. Then they came for Woody Allen. Now they were coming for … wait, Norman Mailer?
One of the most important and influential writers of the twentieth century, Mailer’s misogyny and other problematic attributes—and the fact that he stabbed his then-wife in 1960—have rarely gone unremarked in discussions of his work. But there are still reasons to doubt that he’s being canceled—even if Penguin Random House isn’t going ahead with this new nonfiction collection. Instead, the publishing conglomerate’s decision to back away from Mailer points to a different set of financial imperatives, as well as a growing impulse among publishing executives to blame business decisions on junior staff—the industry’s version of inventing someone to be mad at.
The reasons for the book being pulled are, per Wolff’s own account—and like all Wolff accounts—rather cloudy.
The back-door apologies at Random House include as the proximate cause—you hardly have to look hard in Mailer’s work to find offenses against contemporary doctrine and respectability—a junior staffer’s objection to the title of Mailer’s 1957 essay, “The White Negro”, a psycho-sexual-druggie precursor and model for much of the psycho-sexual-druggie literature that became popular in the 1960s. A Random House source also cites the objections of feminist and cultural gadfly Roxane Gay. Her name however may have been employed as merely a generic type of objector (as in, she or someone equally cause-minded who might object). Indeed, she protested in an email that she never voiced a view, that she knows “next to nothing about Norman Mailer,” and that—already eliminating him from the modern canon—she has “never read” among the most consequential figures of that most consequential (yes, mostly white and male) post-war American literary generation.
Even by the recent standards of books being canceled or pulled, the protestations of a junior staffer and the speculative complaints of other authors make for some extraordinarily thin pretexts. Indeed, the junior staffers I’ve spoken to at Penguin Random House laughed off the insinuation that any of them had the power to kill a book. “The idea that any objection to the essay by a junior staffer could be taken so seriously that they’d pull the book is absurd,” one told me. The junior staffer also noted that there had been no discussion of the book among her colleagues prior to Wolff’s piece but that they had been sharing memes and jokes about the insinuation that they had the power he ascribed to them. (A rep from Penguin Random House did not respond to a request for comment.)