At a recent symposium in Washington, D.C., Norman Mailer noted that very few of his nine children had any interest in literature. Around the Mailer dinner table, there is plenty of conversation about David Letterman, but "they wouldn't know what to do with Scott Fitzgerald." Mailer ended up bribing his youngest child to get the kid to read 10 novels. He ended up liking Hemingway the most, which pleased his father.
What doesn't please the 71-year-old writer is the future of his trade. "Serious novelists may be as rare as serious poets in another 50 years," Mailer grumbled. He blames TV, or, as he puts it, "the goat that eats everything." Mailer's only hope for improved literacy lies in some noble scientist proving conclusively that "over 30 years, people who watch television get dread diseases."And what will replace novels?
Well, now. Mailer has written one great novel ("The Naked and the Dead," of course), and two great books of nonfiction ("The Armies of the Night" and "The Executioner's Song"), as well as much tendentious, unreadable drivel, i.e., more or less everything he's written since the Gary Gilmore book. Since he's gone about as far as he can go on his past achievements, he's now sounding like a conventional cranky old man, a literary version of C. Aubrey Smith. All that's missing is a harrumphing "In my day, you young whippersnappers. . . ."
As Alison Lurie riposted, just because Mailer won't be writing novels 50 years from now doesn't mean nobody will be reading novels 50 years from now.
- But is the story any good? One of Harlan Ellison's favorite stunts is to sit in some very public place and write a complete short story. He did it again the other day at San Francisco's Booksmith. Ellison then took it a step further, offering autographed Xeroxes of the complete story to anyone who spent more than $50 in the store, and, for added star power, invited his friend Robin Williams to attend. Williams gave him a title: "The Computer Vampire, or the Byte that Bites."
- Bon Appetite . . . A La Carte: A Tour of Dining History, (PBC, distributed by Rizzoli), is a slick coffee-table paperback collection of old menus. The bills of fare go back to the mid-19th century, and prove several things:
- People ate a lot more 100 years ago, regularly gorging themselves on multicourse meals that would daze an ox. No wonder so many were afflicted by gout.
- The most stylistically attractive menus were produced by steamship lines.
- The best motto was for Al Schacht's Restaurant on East 52nd Street in New York, circa 1950: "Democratic waiters - Republican prices."