Michael Wolff on Random House's Cancellation of Norman Mailer
Exclusive: The author's “White Negro” essay helps sink a book set for 2023
Today’s installment of The Ankler is from Michael Wolff, best-selling author of 10 books including the international bestsellers Fire & Fury, Siege, and Landslide and A Biography of Rupert Murdoch, The Man Who Owns the News. His latest book is Too Famous: The Rich. The Powerful. The Wishful. The Notorious. The Damned.
If you prefer, listen to this piece, read by Wolff, here.
With slow-mo hammer-dropping predictability, Norman Mailer’s long-time publisher has recently informed the Mailer family that it has canceled plans to publish a collection of his political writings to mark the centennial of his birth in 2023, confirms the film producer Michael Mailer, the author’s oldest son. 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.
With Random House having previously gobbled up most of the publishing industry (including with it many of Mailer’s former publishers), and having most recently agreed to acquire Simon & Schuster, one of its few remaining rivals, there aren’t many options left for a major new publication of the Mailer essays, many of which have helped reshape modern journalism.
A public brawler (his physical altercations have involved punching, head butting, biting, sometimes on television, and, in 1961, stabbing his then-wife with a pen knife during a drunken party) and radical contrarian whose themes have included the challenges of masculinity and his own tenuous and often violent relationships with women, the novelist, journalist, playwright, filmmaker, and one-time candidate for New York mayor, has, well before his death in 2007, worn a ‘cancel me’ sign. His has flashed even brighter than those around the necks of his literary contemporaries, including Philip Roth (for sexism and bad relations with women), Saul Bellow (for same, plus his conservative politics), Vladimir Nabokov (for Lolita), J.D. Salinger (for weirdness, sexually and otherwise), John Updike and John Cheever (for unrelenting Waspiness), William Styron (for appropriating the life of slave rebellion leader Nat Turner), among others. All of their publishers await the next cultural boil, each author just an objection away from disappearing.
But Mailer — whose sins and obsessions, dark, comic, revealing, have always been his subject; and whose centennial collection has been uneventfully underway for many months — helps make the curious point that it isn’t, in fact, the work that causes concern but rather the prospect of controversy itself that scares corporate entities away.
Trying to avoid more controversy as a byproduct of trying to avoid controversy, no senior editor or executive at Random House was willing to talk about the Mailer project, referring all comment to a publicity department representative who issued a non-denial denial saying that — although agreement had been reached with Mailer’s estate, the book had an editor, David Ebershoff, and Random House had agreed to foot the bill to pay Mailer’s biographer, J. Michael Lennon (Norman Mailer: A Double Life, published to acclaim in 2013), to select the essays — a final contract had not been signed, therefore the book was not technically canceled, it was instead, not acquired. The publisher’s fig-leaf of virtue.
You live only until an objection scares the people whose job is more and more to avoid objections — that new, primary executive function. (A recent addition to the writer-editor-reader relationship is something called a “sensitivity reader,” that is someone of diverse background who can advise on dicey cultural matters whom writers are now encouraged to consult. Needless to say, Mailer never had a sensitivity reader.) Hachette, one of Random House’s few rivals, bought Woody Allen’s autobiography for a big sum and then plotted to avoid controversy by publishing the book in secret—binding him to a strict nondisclosure agreement. But when Allen’s son and mortal antagonist, Ronan Farrow, got wind of the project and objected, Hachette immediately washed its hands of the book. In other words, it had no problem with the book itself — just with the threats of an uproar over it. (The Allen book was subsequently published by Skyhorse, an intrepid independent publisher, but with limited market reach.)
Controversy kills. Or, anyway, life is too short, the times too weird, and profit too fleeting, to suffer for it.
This has essentially become corporate policy throughout the creative industries, unspoken and unwritten. But hardly secret.
A senior-most executive at a top-most television buyer recently wrote a senior-most agent who had proposed a project the executive labeled as “too contemporary,” laying out what certainly sounds like clear policy. The network, he wrote, “remains resolutely committed to staying as far away from the politics and journalism business (in all its forms) as possible — not because we don’t believe in it, but because we believe it is not our domain. We’ve dabbled there, but continue to believe that our best role is either to support fiction or to support a kind of retrospective ‘true’ narrative that has the benefit of enough time for the heat of political and cultural conflict to have dissipated and for an audience to be open to a more nuanced, broadly contextualized perspective.” Twenty years out, the executive suggested, was the least time necessary before a controversial subject could be addressed.
If one senior-most executive at a top-most buyer in a heavily consolidated industry is saying ‘avoid all controversy’, reasonably most others, to the limited extent that there are others, are feeling the same. Who doubts that the upshot of Netflix’s tortured defense of Dave Chappelle is not going to be more Dave Chappelles but fewer.
The move by Penguin Random House, the world’s largest publishing group, to disappear Norman Mailer (or at least not call attention to the fact that it continues to publish the Mailer backlist) might, curiously, be seen — or should be seen — as part of the background of another controversy, in which the company is spending much of its corporate time. Weeks ago, the Justice Department sued Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster in an effort to prevent the two companies from completing their $2 billion merger. This is a particularly stinging development for Random House, owned by the German publishing giant Bertelsmann, because in order to win the auction for Simon & Schuster, Random House, people knowledgeable about the deal report, had to agree to a nearly unprecedented-sized break-up fee in the event the deal failed to be completed. Hence, Random House might be expected to fight the DOJ to the last appeal.
Anti-trust suits are often initiated because it is politically impossible to ignore that merely big has become ludicrously behemoth and utterly shape-shifting. But the particulars of anti-trust law mean such suits are almost exclusively fought on a nuanced economic basis rather than as a function of the dark shadow these corporate monsters cast. The government has to prove that the lack of competition means harm at the checkout counter for the consumer or that gross market dominance causes other unfair injuries in the marketplace. In an already darkly shadowed world, Random House on its part can be expected to reasonably argue…What do you mean, big? What about Silicon Valley? We’re just a much smaller fish only trying to survive.
So here then is a further argument for the benefit of DOJ lawyers who might not have read Norman Mailer (FYI: one of the great reading experiences of a lifetime): a lack of competition among gatekeepers leads to less choice and more limits and a narrowing of risk, taste, and sensibility, and, when the winds are harsh, greater shelter for the cowardly. A world without Norman Mailer — this new intellectual nanny-state —surely harms the literary consumer.
FOR MORE ANKLER Read The Ankler 100, Hollywood’s moments it wants you to forget; 2022: The Disappearance of Hollywood as We Know It; a note from Janice Min
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