Recently a story about the writer (and my father) Norman Mailer getting canceled tore across the Internet. Whether he was actually canceled remains open to debate. What started the hoopla was Random House, Mailer’s longstanding publisher, suggesting his estate submit a book proposal. 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 be an honorarium for his centenary in 2023.
Random House received the proposal favorably, but then weeks later declined to publish it. The reasons are hearsay; among them, objections by junior executives to the use of the word “negro” in Mailer’s seminal essay “The White Negro,” published in 1957. The essay explored the connection between the “psychic havoc” wrought by the atom bomb and the Holocaust to the marginalization of Black Americans in the form of the “existential hipster,” the outlaw hero who defied the mind-numbing conformity of the Eisenhower era.
And then there was also hearsay about concerns from cultural critics who let my father’s checkered past — dueling with the 1970s women’s movement, stabbing his wife Adele with a penknife in 1960 — jaundice their view of future publications.
The result is that the book will be published through Skyhorse, a publisher that seems to relish controversy (they published Woody Allen’s memoir after it was dropped by Hachette following staff protests, and Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth after W.W. Norton dropped it following accusations against Bailey of sexual assault and misconduct). Random House will instead recommit itself to promoting Mailer’s back catalog, retaining the rights for the foreseeable future. A win-win.
Perhaps. Perhaps not.
This row isn’t just about my father, though. It points to a larger issue about the current state of publishing in general. The irony of promoting diversity while quashing truly diverse thought cannot be overlooked. If the publishing world is no longer a bastion of the free exchange of ideas, then where are we as a culture? Long ago, the publishing world stood up to a frenzied Senator Joseph McCarthy hunting communist witches. If the brutish forces of fascism couldn’t cancel writers then, why is it happening now?
Cancellation is an ugly word that reverberates with Orwellian prophecy. We should know better. Rather than preserving all our culture, nurturing the full gamut of voices, regardless of color, gender, orientation, age, or any other defining feature, we have activated the woke mob and sicced it on voices that don’t adhere to the party line. So long as something or someone doesn’t provoke overt violence, why cancel? Let the marketplace of ideas decide who wants to read what.
The United States has spent the last few years eating its own. It needs to stop trying to cancel great writers like Philip Roth (for misogyny and bad relations with women), John Updike (ditto), Saul Bellow (the same again), William Styron (cultural appropriation), and, yes, my father, Norman Mailer, all of whom made essential contributions for the best part of half a century to our cultural vibrancy, all of whom were patriots holding up a mirror to society, forcing us to examine ourselves and better understand the perils that stand in the way of our American experiment.
I’m all for bringing the skeletons out of the closet. And reasonable people can disagree about what to do with them. But authors committing bad acts does not invalidate their cultural legacies. Their work should be judged by what they wrote. It seems those who remember the horrors of World War II, my father among them, are nearly extinct.
Lo and behold, that fascist instinct to cancel people and literature is flourishing. The Blue Team cancels independence with howls of wokeness. The Red Team cancels independence with cries of fake news. What has happened to America? Is our utterly brilliant, deeply flawed experiment unraveling? So much for staying power. The formerly shining city on a hill is rapidly dimming.
Perhaps, though, it is the fear of controversy, rather than any actual offense, that has caused this hoopla. After all, Random House is in the process of acquiring Simon and Schuster. The merger of the two entities would create the mother of all publishing houses. In such an aggrieved and disproportionate era, controversy is inevitably a bad thing, especially when you’re a powerful publishing house seeking more power. I’m not so vicariously vainglorious to assume that Random House’s declination to publish my father’s new book is some deciding factor in a corporate merger. But the juxtaposition raises an eyebrow.
Regardless, if every work of art were evaluated based on its creator’s perceived morality, the entire Western canon would be reduced to a fractional state. Are we that far off from having our libraries expunged of Mark Twain because of his use of colloquial references that are now perceived abhorrent, or having Picassos removed from museum walls because of his monstrous behavior toward women?
Democracy is about the free exchange of ideas, not the exchange of ideas that will be deemed free so long as they are predetermined to be agreeable to those people receiving said ideas. So let these flawed human writers continue to be published. Cherish their contributions to American thought. Acknowledge their failings. But don’t tell others what can or cannot be read. We are supposed to live in a free society. Let’s keep it that way. To quote Norman Mailer, “Democracy is a state of grace that is attained only by those countries who have a host of individuals not only ready to enjoy freedom but to undergo the heavy labor of maintaining it.”
Michael Mailer is a film producer and director. A version of this column first appeared in The Spectator.