Algis Valiunas, in Commentary, places the garbage can lid on the tomb of Norman Mailer, who was back in the day widely regarded as a great American writer.
Mailer’s career mirrored the poses and vacuities of 1950s Beat culture, 1960s radical culture, and the fretful decadence and narcissism of the establishment community of fashion over several decades. In the end, Valiunas concludes, a writer’s art has an intimate connection with what he believes and how he lives. In Mailer’s case, it cannot be entirely surprising a depraved personal life and a melange of simplistic ideas produced bad art.
His vulgarity was a more significant factor in his allure than whatever he possessed of high aspiration. The way his most serious ambition was joined to his crassest need made him singularly appealing to a literary public that fed on nonsensical political ideas and fantasies of artistic superstardom, with its fabulous perquisites of cultural ubiquity, wealth, and hot sex.
He fancied himself one of the big thinkers, and most of his ideas were not only bad but appalling; for he lived largely for the bodyâ€™s pleasures, actual and vicarious, and adopted ideas that serviced those pleasures. T.S. Eliot remarked that a great writer creates the taste by which he is appreciated; Mailer helped create the moral confusion amid which he was glorifiedâ€”not quite what Eliot had in mind.
Until he is forgotten, Mailer should be remembered not only in a foolâ€™s cap and bells but also in a scoundrelâ€™s midnight black. For in an age crawling with intellectual folly, he was one of the reigning dunces, even his best works were shot through with adolescent fatuities, while the worst of his words and deeds were stupid and vicious without bottom. One is torn between wishing that his memory would disappear immediately and wanting his remains to hang at the crossroads as a lasting reminder to others.