Nonexistent Norman Mailer Book Prompts the Usual “Cancel Culture” Outcry

Can you be "canceled" if your works are still in print?

Author Norman Mailer pictured in a black and white photograph at a discussion in the Mayfair Theater in London
Norman Mailer at a discussion in the Mayfair Theater in London.
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty

Can a book be said to be “canceled” if it never existed in the first place? That might sound like a matter for the philosophers in the room, but as of early January, it’s become all too real a debate. In a new article for The Ankler, Fire & Fury author Michael Wolff outlined an intriguing scenario involving a departed literary lion whose reputation has taken something of a hit in recent years.

The writer in question is Norman Mailer. As Wolff reported, Random House nixed plans to release a collection of Mailer’s writings on politics, originally slated to be published next year, the hundredth anniversary of Mailer’s birth. According to Wolff, “a final contract had not been signed, therefore the book was not technically canceled, it was instead, not acquired.” The Ankler’s Editor in Chief Janice Min tweeted a few excerpts, including the item that “a junior staffer” had raised objections to the title of Mailer’s 1957 essay “The White Negro.”

Predictably, this led to some online vitriol directed at this unnamed “junior staffer” and general frustrations with younger generations in general.

Other observers of the situation noted that the idea that someone in a modest position at a publishing house would be able to derail this deal seems unrealistic, and that Mailer’s use of an outdated term back in 1957 may not have been what was objectionable about him compared with certain other things he did — such as coming very close to murdering his wife.

Perhaps it’s untrue to say that Mailer’s reputation has suffered with age; after all, Mailer’s positions on gender were heavily critiqued when he was in his prime as well. Mailer is, to put it bluntly, a writer with a lot of baggage. Most infamously, he stabbed his wife Adele Morales at a 1960 party, for which he was subsequently arrested.

The first season of the podcast Penknife does an excellent job of chronicling this and other deeply unpleasant things Mailer did over the course of his life, including writing a novel (1965’s An American Dream) that drew from his own experiences of carrying out domestic violence.

It’s worth mentioning here that the aforementioned Mailer novel is one of many that remains in print today via Penguin Random House. That’s not the case for many of Mailer’s peers, and it’s hard to take seriously the argument that an author whose backlist remains in print (in relatively new editions, even) has been canceled. A publisher not moving forward on assembling a book doesn’t really fit the bill of “canceled,” even if some are touting the idea that it does.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.