In his 1991 Review of American Psycho included in Mind of an Outlaw: Selected Essays, Norman Mailer writes that Bret Easton Ellis is “a writer whose sense of style is built on the literary conviction (self-serving for many a limited talent) that there must not be one false note. In consequence, there are often not enough notes.” Even when Mailer is ostensibly writing about Ellis’s maxed-out minimalism, he is – still, always, constantly – writing about himself, his own work, and his own rep.
Mind of an Outlaw is the first book of Mailer’s work to be released posthumously (he died in 2007); Random House will publish his letters next October. The 50 selections – inclusive of critical and personal essays; book and film reviews; transcripts; a Comment on the Passing of George Plimpton that is more a soft, sad diary of Mailer’s grief than an obituary; short, last-quarter-moon opinions that remain, somehow, discursive; and a speech largely about George W. Bush – were written between 1948 and 2006.
Mailer still exists in the collective consciousness: he appeared on the twee-teen show Gilmore Girls, and has been referenced by The Simpsons, Jay Z, Talib Kweli and multiple times on Gossip Girl; his existing influence and his many contributions to New Journalism (wherein novelistic methods and a subjective point of view are used in non-fiction, as practiced by Mailer’s contemporaries Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and Hunter S. Thompson) are apparent. Some of the way-later, 2000s stuff in Mind of an Outlaw is a bit awkwardly manqué, but fades in the context of this mass of work. Novelists write articles for the exposure and the money (maybe not for the money, any more), and it was probably The Naked and the Dead and/or The Executioner’s Song (which won the Pulitzer; Mailer is the only writer to win for both fiction and non-) that were supposed to last. Instead, as is the case with Susan Sontag and will probably be with Joan Didion, it’s books of non-fiction and individual essays, in some cases just thin slips of thought, indelibly written, that remain the most compelling.
Still, non-fiction can be dangerous for a writer’s legacy. While Mailer’s ego would be well-suited to the social-media age (he’d be amazing at click-bait), some of his opinions are so firmly outdated as to be parodical now. His famous aversion to women writers is made unequivocal in a piece from 1959: “Indeed I doubt if there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale.” While Mailer likes some of the work of Mary McCarthy, Jean Stafford and Carson McCullers – this admission comes in a footnote – he also writes that “the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny” and so on.
The writers, musicians, filmmakers and other artists who endure as pop-cult heroes are implicitly supposed to be wild and cruel and surrendered to their darker urges – Mailer once stabbed his wife – as alcohol, drugs, violence and general human disregard are understood as the forgivable habit of messy genius. Still, the popular sense of Mailer focuses too much on his thing for talk-show squabbles (Google “Dick Cavett + Vidal + Mailer”), alleged head-butting and plain provocations. What Mind of an Outlaw adds to Mailer’s legacy is so much more, and so much realer, than all of that. Alongside well-known pieces like The White Negro and Superman Comes to the Supermarket is a glut of evidence that Mailer was an inconsistent writer who was consistently himself – and distinctly, beautifully unafraid of false notes or a fight.
Kate Carraway is a writer based in Toronto. Follow her @KateCarraway