Recently a story about my father, the writer Norman Mailer, getting ‘cancelled’ tore across the internet. What started the hoopla was Random House, Mailer’s long-standing publisher, suggesting that his estate bring a proposal for a book. The book was to contain excerpts from several of his political writings and interviews in which he presciently laid out the fragility of democracy. The collection was intended to honour his centenary next year.
Random House received the proposal favourably, but then weeks later declined to publish it. The reasons are hearsay. One suggestion is that there were objections by junior executives to the use of the word ‘negro’ in Mailer’s essay ‘The White Negro’. Published in 1957, the essay explored the connection between the ‘psychic havoc’ caused by the atom bomb and the Holocaust to the marginalisation of black Americans in the form of the ‘existential hipster’, the outlaw hero who defied the mind-numbing conformity of the Eisenhower era.
Then, according to rumour, there were concerns from cultural critics who may have let my father’s past — duelling with the 1970s women’s movement, stabbing his wife Adele with a penknife in 1960 — jaundice their view of future publications.
Whatever the reason, the result is that the book will be published through Skyhorse, a publisher that seems to relish controversy. It published Woody Allen’s memoir after it was dropped by Hachette following staff protests, and Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth after it was dropped by W.W. Norton when accusations surfaced against Bailey of sexual assault. Random House will instead recommit itself to promoting Mailer’s back catalogue, retaining the rights for the foreseeable future. A win-win. Perhaps. Perhaps not.
This row isn’t just about my father. It points to a larger issue about the state of publishing today.