Random House Says No to New Norman Mailer Book

From a New York Times story by Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A. Harris headlined “Norman Mailer Book to Be Released by Skyhorse”:

Last year, in the wake of growing partisan division in America and the Jan. 6 riots, friends and strangers kept asking John Buffalo Mailer what his father, who died in 2007, would make of this moment.

He realized there was already an answer in some of the essays and other writing by his father, Norman Mailer, including stark warnings about the fragility of democracy and the threat of political violence. He spoke to J. Michael Lennon, who wrote a biography of Norman Mailer, and together they began planning a collection of Mailer’s work on the subject.

That collection, which includes previously unpublished writing from Mailer’s archives and excerpts from letters, manuscripts and interviews, has been acquired by Skyhorse, after Mailer’s longtime publisher, Random House, declined to make an offer on the submission.

“He had a fantastic relationship with Penguin Random House,” John Buffalo Mailer said. “We would have liked to have done this book with them.”

Publishers that have longstanding relationships with authors often get a first look at their book proposals and manuscripts and are given the opportunity to make a pre-emptive bid, though it isn’t unusual for authors and agents to take their work elsewhere if the offer doesn’t materialize or meet their expectations.

The fate of Mailer’s collection, however, generated a heated debate on social media this week, after the journalist Michael Wolff reported in the newsletter The Ankler that Random House had canceled its planned publication of the title because it determined that Mailer — who was famously brash, physically violent, misogynistic and pugnacious in attacking those who disagreed with him — had become too controversial. Citing a Random House source, Mr. Wolff wrote that the publisher was also swayed by “a junior staffer’s objection to the title of Mailer’s 1957 essay, ‘The White Negro.’”

The Mailer estate was surprised by Mr. Wolff’s claims. “The reasons that were in that piece were news to me,” John Buffalo Mailer said.

Though he was disappointed by Random House’s decision, Mr. Mailer said he doesn’t blame the company for passing on a single title and noted that it continues to publish the bulk of his father’s work.

“Why did Random House pass on this book? I think it was because this is the first commercial book of Norman’s that’s going to come out in the era we’re living in, and there’s going to be a lot of questions,” he said. “They didn’t feel they were the right house to do this book right now.”

Mr. Mailer added: “I don’t think they have any interest in trying to cancel Norman Mailer. You can’t cancel Norman Mailer.”

A spokeswoman for Random House said in a statement that it is “factually incorrect that Random House canceled an upcoming book of essays by Norman Mailer,” adding that the book was never under contract and that Random House continues to publish much of Mailer’s backlist.

The literary agent Andrew Wylie, who represents the Mailer estate, wrote that there hadn’t been any falling out between the Mailer estate and his longtime publisher. “There is no issue here. Random House is proud to publish Norman Mailer, and intends to promote his work significantly for the centennial, in tandem with the publication by Skyhorse of the anthology,” he said. “The Mailer family and Random House are united in support of Norman’s work.”

Still, the company’s decision unleashed yet another debate over “cancel culture” and censorship. Some argued that publishers have become too fearful of provoking controversy or becoming targets of critical social-media campaigns, and have pulled back from publishing provocative or polarizing authors.

Skyhorse, an independent press, has become something of a last refuge for authors. In recent years, it has scooped up titles that were abandoned by other houses, including a memoir by Woody Allen, which Hachette dropped after its own workers protested, and a biography of Philip Roth, which W.W. Norton pulled from circulation after its author, Blake Bailey, was accused of sexual assault and misconduct.

Skyhorse’s president and publisher, Tony Lyons, called Mailer “one of the most dramatic, controversial and enduring writers of his generation” and said the as-yet untitled book is scheduled for release next year.

A prolific and combative writer who published around 40 books and was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Norman Mailer was married six times and was also famous for his extraordinary ego. In 1960, at the end of a party announcing his plan to run for mayor of New York City, he stabbed his second wife, Adele Mailer, in the stomach and back with a penknife, seriously wounding her.

While collections of Mailer’s writings have been released posthumously before, the Mailer estate felt a new anthology about the need to protect democratic norms would be especially timely, and it aimed to release the book in time for Mailer’s centennial next year.

Mr. Lennon, the author of Mailer’s 2013 biography, said that Mailer’s work addressing the tenuous state of democracy was particularly relevant now, in the aftermath of former President Donald J. Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election and the violence that ensued.

“Right now, as the country is in the middle of a self examination over the events that occurred a year ago in Washington, D.C., it is an extremely appropriate time for Norman Mailer’s voice to be heard,” he said. “It was exactly the kind of thing that he feared.”

The collection is one of several projects that the estate has planned. John Buffalo Mailer is also working on a television series adapted from Mr. Lennon’s biography….

“It is this unique and fascinating opportunity to examine an incredible amount of prescient literary work,” he said. “He’d be the first to say he’s not a perfect human being, but for those of us who are fans of his work, it’s worth working through the challenging parts of his life to reap the benefits of his work.”

Alexandra Alter writes about publishing and the literary world. Before joining The Times in 2014, she covered books and culture for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she reported on religion, and the occasional hurricane, for The Miami Herald.

Elizabeth A. Harris writes about books and publishing for The New York Times. 

 

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