Norman Mailer

(image c. Library of Congress)

Norman Mailer died today of renal failure. He was 84 years old. Here’s a good write-up on his life and work from MSNBC, and here’s the NYTimes obit. He was an incredibly prolific author and won several Pulitzers. He is quoted as having despaired that today’s young writers aren’t even trying to write serious novels anymore; they’re not inspired by the great writing of, for example, Hemingway, the way he was and instead all just want to write screenplays, supposedly because writing movies pays well. I think the problem is not with the writers; it’s more that it’s near impossible to get a literary novel published these days. Agents and editors only want something that has the potential to sell very well. I wonder if that was so to the same extent in his younger days.


  1. Well, I would say that the contention that young writers aren’t trying to write serious novels is false to start with. I think there are a lot of serious novelists out there and what’s more, quite a few serious novels being published. The number of books being published today is massive compared to the number that was being published in Mailer’s youth. So is there a lot more dreck? Sure, but it’s coming from a far larger pool of novels.

    I would also say that there’s a pretty large number of serious literary novels coming out every year; it might not be as large a proportion as it once was but the actual number is still pretty high. Agents and editors are in a business that is supported by sales, so yes, of course they want things that sell well. And the profit margin for a publishing company isn’t large compared to many other industries so of course they need to try and get those sorts of books. But at the same time, I’ve seen both editors and agents get incredibly excited upon receiving work that is truly excellent–something which is all too rare (I read for an agent for a couple years and the vast majority of the stuff I saw was absolutely painful to read).

    Mailer was a great writer and a great figure in the literary world. But in saying that young writers today aren’t inspired by the great writers of the past I think he was way off base.

  2. Agh! All the people are dying this week. First George Osmond, now Norman Mailer! What has the world come to?

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