The Wolff who cried Mailer
Welcome to the 130th edition of SHuSH, the weekly newsletter of Sutherland House Books. If you’re new here, hit the button—it’s free:
You have to feel for Norman Mailer, the late author of some forty books and a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. There he lay, resting in well-deserved peace in the winter quiet of Provincetown Cemetery after a lifetime of fighting mankind’s greatest causes—civil rights, an end to war, the Great American Novel, his urgent libido—when out of nowhere comes a report that he has been canceled by his long-time publisher, Random House.
“With slow-mo hammer-dropping predictability,” wrote Michael Wolff in the newsletter, The Ankler, “Norman Mailer’s long-time publisher has recently informed the Mailer family that it has canceled plans to publish a collection of his political writings to mark the centennial of his birth in 2023, confirms the film producer Michael Mailer, the author’s oldest son.”
The reasons for the cancelation, according to Wolff, are “a junior staffer’s objection to the title of Mailer’s 1957 essay, ‘The White Negro,’ a psycho-sexual-druggie precursor and model for much of the psycho-sexual-druggie literature that became popular in the 1960s. A Random House source also cites the objections of feminist and cultural gadfly Roxane Gay.”
Wolff’s scoop was promptly picked up and carried at face value all over North America, throughout Italy by La Repubblica, England by the Daily Mail, Chile by El Periodisto, and so on. It was the biggest cultural story going for several days, never mind that questions as to its veracity were raised almost the minute it broke.
Well, before it broke, in fact. Wolff himself scarcely seems convinced of his story. Yes, his headline is unequivocal: “Michael Wolff on Random House’s Cancelation of Norman Mailer.” But he admits in the newsletter that he couldn’t get anyone at Random House to confirm the news. Also that the Mailer estate didn’t actually have a contract for a book of political non-fiction with Random House for the publisher to cancel.
Wolff further allows that his one source at Random House steered him into a ditch, claiming that in addition to the anonymous junior staffer, Roxane Gay was involved. Wolff followed up with Gay, who told him she knew nothing of the controversy and had never read Mailer.
That might have given another writer pause, but Wolff forged ahead with 1,300 words on how cancel culture has run amuck, bringing down such giants as Philip Roth (true), Saul Bellow (not really), Vladimir Nabokov (hardly), John Updike and John Cheever (not at all). The mere “prospect of controversy,” he howls, is all it takes to scare off a cowardly corporate behemoth like Random House.
When he gets on a roll, Wolff is liable to pull from anywhere to back even a half-hearted argument, as he does here, bolstering his case that we live in an “intellectual nanny state” by bringing into evidence a random (and unnamed) television executive who apparently told a TV agent that his company avoids contemporary politics and journalism. Wolff sees this as evidence that the media world is controversy adverse. He seems not to watch TV, where the top network and cable dramas (Law & Order, CSI, The Good Fight, Madame Secretary, Homeland, Scandal, The Newsroom, House of Cards) race to weave controversial news stories into their serial narratives in search of ratings (which may explain why the executive in question feels a need to differentiate his company).
Wolff goes on to theorize that Random House is trying to “disappear” Mailer because it will somehow help the firm maneuver its purchase of Simon & Schuster past the Department of Justice. Just how this might help is unexplained (and inexplicable), but he clearly hates the deal. He advises the DOJ that “a lack of competition among gatekeepers leads to less choice and more limits and a narrowing of risk, taste, and sensibility, and, when the winds are harsh, greater shelter for the cowardly.”
Clearly, we’re at hell’s porch. Although, as Wolff admits, Mailer isn’t really “disappeared,” much of his backlist is still being published by Random House, and the proposed political book had never been accepted as a Random House project in the first place. So maybe we’re fine.
As of this writing, Random House has said that it is “factually incorrect” that the publisher has canceled an upcoming book of essays by Norman Mailer. Mailer’s son, John Buffalo Mailer, has denied the story: I don’t think [Random House] has any interest in trying to cancel Norman Mailer. You can’t cancel Norman Mailer.” And the agent Andrew Wylie, who represents the Mailer estate, Wolff, and yours truly, said unequivocally: “There is no issue here. Random House is proud to publish Norman Mailer, and intends to promote his work significantly for the centennial… The Mailer family and Random House are united in support of Norman’s work.” Wolff is tweeting that Wylie denied these comments to him. No source has confirmed his tweet. At this point, I doubt anyone is trying.
Who knows what happened with the Mailer non-fiction project. It seems clear that there were discussions, a proposal was made by someone in Mailer’s orbit, and it went nowhere. Why? Most likely, it wasn’t saleable.
So let old Norman go back to sleep, and allow me a few kind words for Michael Wolff. I know, it’s probably not the time, his corpse still smoking, but I have a soft spot for him. There’s a reason he’s been a prominent journalist since the 1970s, writing for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Vanity Fair, and others, winning two National Magazine Awards and publishing several bestselling books. He’s like a great hunting dog who on any given afternoon will retrieve twice as many ducks as the other dogs, plus a hubcap and four turds. He doesn’t know the difference, and he doesn’t care. He just keeps running.
Wolff’s number-one bestseller Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, was a fascinating jumble of exclusive interviews and disputed facts and quotes. It was as indispensable as it was unreliable. He got people to speak who would talk to no one else, even though they had to know he was going to bite their hands because he’s Michael Wolff. He has a long history of courting and savaging the famous and the powerful. His subjects come away spurting blood, screaming they’ve been misrepresented, misquoted, and flimflammed, but there’s always a line at Wolff’s door. It’s a New York Times-certified phenomenon: “What Oprah Winfrey is to tearful celebrities and earnest royals, Mr. Wolff is to louche power players,” writes Ben Smith. “The litany is astounding: Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch, Harvey Weinstein, Boris Johnson, Mr. Bannon, Mr. Trump.” What Smith fails to note is that Wolff’s achievement is the greater: Oprah has no teeth.
And he knows the media business. His Burn Rate: How I survived the Gold Rush Years on the Internet is one of the best books on the 2000 tech bubble. His Television is the New Television: The Unexpected Triumph of Old Media in the Digital Age is a shrewd look at how the analog likes of Disney, HBO, and Fox outperformed such new media darlings as Buzzfeed and Huffington Post. He’s a smart guy, fascinating to talk to, and a lively writer. You just have to watch for the turds.
A design tangent
We don’t often write about industrial design at SHuSH. In fact, this will probably be the first and only time. I just happened to notice this week a Wall Street Journal story about John Deere introducing a fully-autonomous tractor at the annual CES show in Las Vegas. That’s it, above.
You’ll notice there’s no driver, although there’s still a seat for a driver, and a steering wheel. That’s what caught my eye.
My father worked for forty years at International Harvester, John Deere’s major competitor. Growing up, we learned to sneer at everything green and yellow, and our house was full of red-and-black International Harvester logos. We drove IH Scouts and Travelalls. We had an IH refrigerator, IH glass wear, IH coasters. IH was everywhere. I was never impressed by the logo, a painfully simplistic lower-case ‘i’ imposed on an upper-case ‘H’, but it was burned into my skull.
Fast forward several decades and I’m interviewing designers for the National Post. I don’t know how the subject came up, but I mentioned International Harvester. A designer across the table lit up. “International Harvester,” he said. “That logo. It’s a Raymond Loewy. The little farmer on the tractor. It’s what made me want to be a designer.”
And he drew it right there, pointing out the two black tractor wheels and the red farmer, his head bobbing at the top. I admitted I’d looked at the logo a million times and never seen the farmer, or the tractor wheels. Just two letters. I asked my father and others in my family. They’d never seen the farmer or the wheels, either.
Raymond Loewy was one of the twentieth-century’s design greats. He did the logos of Shell, Studebaker TWA, BP, Nabisco, Hoover. He made the cover of Time magazine in 1949, and the IH logo, which was part of his revamping of their entire line, including the legendary Farmall tractor (above, from my personal collection), is arguably his most celebrated piece of work. I must have asked a hundred people over the years what they could see in the logo, and no one has identified more than the ‘i’ and the ‘H’. Maybe that just shows that we’re all far removed from the farm.
Anyway, they’re now doing away with the driver.
I’ve decided to leave this map here as a reminder to readers to support independent booksellers. Click this link to make the above map come alive.
Better yet, click here for the Sutherland House website and order one of these:
Our Newsletter Roll (suggestions welcome)
Art Kavanagh’s Talk about books: Book discussion and criticism.
Gayla Gray’s SoNovelicious: Books, reading, writing, and bookstores.
Esoterica Magazine: Literature and popular culture.
Benjamin Errett’s Get Wit Quick, literature and other fun stuff
Jeet Heer’s The Time of Monsters: political culture and cultural politics
Lydia Perovic’s Long Play: literature and music.
Tim Carmody’s Amazon Chronicles: an eye on the monster.
Jason Logan’s Urban Color Report: adventures in ink (sign-up at bottom of page)
Anne Trubek’s Notes from a Small Press: like SHuSH, but different
Art Canada Institute: a reliable source of Canadian arts info/opinion
Kate McKean’s Agents & Books: an interesting angle on the literary world
Rebecca Eckler’s Re:Book: unpretentious recommendations
Anna Sproul Latimer’s How to Glow in the Dark: interesting advice
John Biggs Great Reads: strong recommendations
THAT’S IT FOR THIS WEEK. THANKS FOR READING. PLEASE SIGN UP OR CONVINCE SOMEONE ELSE TO SIGN UP, OR SHARE, OR LEAVE A COMMENT: