The 95 Percent Principle

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I have what I call a 95% principle, and it goes like this: a person can act like an anti-social jerk 95% of the time, and like a normally-adjusted human being 5% of the time, and people will say, "See, he isn’t so bad. Under that rough exterior, he’s really a decent person." Conversely, act like mature person 95% of the time, and lose one’s composure 5% of the time, and people will say, "Oh, watch out for him. He’s got a dark side. Keep your distance." Norman Mailer is a perfect example of the first case.

I’m not a fan of Norman Mailer, as I’ve indicated in the past. In the future his influence as a novelist, it’s safe to say, will be nil. He repeated until the end that literature was a high calling, and yet his own literary career probably wouldn’t have survived Barbary Shore and The Deer Park if he hadn’t turned to journalism mixed with self-aggrandizement, a combination, his only truly original creation, that can be described as literature as performance art. He claimed he was venturing into unknown territory, but he never ventured very far from the East Coast establishment, which retained him as proof that New York could foster wild men artists as well as California could.

A couple of week ago The New York Times, one of his major enablers, wagged its finger at the exhibitionism of people walking around in their underwear in a Richard Meier building. Penelope Green lamented "a culture that continues to find new ways to display ever more intimate, and mundane, details of domestic life."

Then on Saturday the Times rolled out a hagiographic (well, mostly) obituary of Mailer and his monstrous exhibitionism. The Times characterized Mailer as a

a prodigious drinker and drug taker, a womanizer, a devoted family man, a would-be politician who ran for mayor of New York, a hipster existentialist, an antiwar protester, an opponent of women’s liberation and an all-purpose feuder and short-fused brawler, who with the slightest provocation would happily engage in head-butting, arm-wrestling and random punch-throwing.

In other words, Mailer was an asshole–and he made sure everyone knew it. In many ways, being an asshole was his life’s work; the Times obituary reminds us that it was a deliberate construct of Mailer’s. Even his novels–especially the late, bloated ones–placed the author’s own audacity in front of the story he had to tell. When Mailer managed patches of subdued, observant writing, the contrast was striking, making the novel seem deeper and more objective than it really was–the 95% principle, again, only in prose fiction. The lesson, I guess, is if you’re going to be an exhibitionist, be a spectacularly obnoxious one, and make sure a bored reporter is nearby.

I would have thought that The
Nation would have seen through Mailer’s stunt politics. Written by John Nichols, The Nation‘s obituary is brief, ignoring his career as a novelist and domestic abuser. Nichols wants us to admire Mailer because he "did not rest on the laurels–and they were legion–earned for exposing the dark undersides of the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon." Nichols summarizes Mailer’s "brilliant" attacks on George Bush, which repeated everything that was written about the president’s follies in the Nation, Slate, Salon, the New York Times–any number of other publications, not to mention hundreds of blogs. Mailer’s political writings about Bush administration weren’t even the best offered by an American novelist. Far better, and more literary, was Philip Roth’s pithy denunciation, uttered early in Bush’s presidency, "he isn’t fit to run a newsstand." While we could use a lot more political engagement from our novelists, Mailer’s buffoonery is not the model they should emulate for a politically committed writer.

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