Monday, November 12, 2007
The death of the literary lion
Norman Mailer, who died Saturday morning, said it himself: In his younger days, "fiction was everything. The novel, the big novel, the driving force. We all wanted to be Hemingway ... I don't think the same thing can be said anymore."

His generation is almost gone now. Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, James Jones, Joseph Heller, William Styron, Kurt Vonnegut -- the young turks who came out of World War II to challenge Hemingway and Faulkner and Steinbeck -- are all dead.

Of that generation of American literary titans, those figures whose new works used to inspire intense scrutiny, only John Updike, Philip Roth and J.D. Salinger -- with Updike and Roth a half-generation younger, and the long-silent Salinger preferring the smaller stage of the short story -- remain. It's no slight against E.L. Doctorow, Joyce Carol Oates, Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, John Irving, Toni Morrison and the other great elder statesmen and -women of today to feel that the literary world is diminished nowadays -- there are so many books, yet so little attention.

And with the possible exception of Roth, with his trilogy of "American Pastoral," "I Married a Communist" and "The Human Stain," nobody's attempting the so-called Great American Novel. Few writers try anything so expansive anymore. (Among recent works, perhaps Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay" or Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections" come closest.)

Indeed, there is a bittersweet symbolism in the timing of Mailer's death. He was a member of the print generation, when the pages of newspapers and magazines were the arena for big ideas and raging arguments, and he died on a Saturday morning, assuring himself the front page of the that great novel-sized bargain, the Sunday New York Times. (He would have loved that.)

But now we're part of the Internet age. On the Web, Mailer's death was a headline for a few hours, soon to be replaced with something else. It seems only appropriate that the man didn't own a computer.
Mailer was no titan. To be a titan requires a certain level of sustained excellence. The rest of his life, he produced nothing matching the level of his breakthrough novel. The rest of his career was simply ego and tough-guy posturing.
One should never speak ill of the dead; be it that he may have lived as a titan or as a mouse, he still has earned the same respect after drawing his last breath.

[In other words, your comment was in poor taste, sir.]
My posting was a response to the initial thread. I disagreed with the writer and stated my viewpoint. And I don't believe death gives anyone instant respectability. We earn respect only in life.

[In other words, try again, sir.]
One glaring omission: Gore Vidal is still with us.
It's erroneous to assume no one is attempting the "Great American Novel", albeit times have changed, there are generations now writing with the same fervor and vehemence of Faulkner, Hemingway, Twain, ad nauseum. While perhaps the need to make profits and push formula novels that have a fairly guaranteed yield, instead of new works from unknowns, makes it harder for that new novel to reach print, truly unique voices in American Literature will emerge and new novels will come forth which time shall prove to be Great. The freedom to express is still one of our national treasures and there are writers throughout our nation who demonstrate their patriotism by expressing themselves, don't fear that the desire to write the "Great American Novel" is gone or otherwise lost, nothing could be further from the truth. If one must fear something, fear that wisdom and vision to publish such works is not lost in a never ending demand to reduce risks and increase profits.
yes. long live gore vidal!
Sometimes things only appear great in the distance. Sometimes we're close to know greatness. To say we're at the end of some kind of epoch because THESE people from THAT era died negates the great writing that's going on now. Where will Mailer's reputation be in 20 years? Where will some of the names you mentioned -- Oates, Doctorow, Morrison and the rest be in 20 years? We're simply too close to the present to know.
What of Gabriel Garcia Marquez?
Sad, but tis true, the literary giants of a bygone era lay dead or dormant. And the fictionalizations of the modern few fight for recognition. We are left with just a few aging greats (Gore Vidal) and future greats (Curt Hopfenbeck). I wish them a long life and a lasting literary journey!
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