The first “cancel culture” episode of 2022 began just three days into the new year, when the journalist Michael Wolff reported that Random House would not be going ahead with a planned collection of political writings by the late Norman Mailer. According to Wolff, the publishing house cited “a junior staffer’s objection to the title of Mailer’s 1957 essay, ‘The White Negro,’” as “the proximate cause” for the book’s being pulled. Wolff, while acknowledging that Mailer was always a controversial figure—among other things, in 1960 he stabbed his wife with a penknife—made clear in the piece that he regarded Random House’s decision as a representative and regrettable development in a publishing industry that lives in constant fear of running afoul of a younger generation of easily offended staffers and readers.
On Twitter, the usual voices decrying this trend were quick to promote Wolff’s narrative. “A junior staffer can get a book cancelled over a controversial, 60-year-old essay that sparked a brilliant, nuanced and thoughtful response from James Baldwin when it was published,” tweeted the writer Thomas Chatterton Williams, who went on to acknowledge that while he was not a fan of Mailer’s “White Negro” essay, he thinks it should “absolutely be republished.” “Publishing continues its cowardly woke descent,” proclaimed Jordan Peterson. “The censor, er, staffer, should identify his/her/themselves and explain their reasoning,” sneered James Kirchick. The essay paints an unflattering portrait of the archetypal beatnik hanging out in Greenwich Village cafés in the 1950s, who, per Mailer, “had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro.” Today it reads as a bit of a mess, but there’s certainly a valid case that, as a part of existing American cultural history, the essay deserves to be studied and situated in its context rather than censored for its antiquated racial language.
Censorship, however, is not precisely what happened here. As Alex Shephard reported in The New Republic the day after Wolff’s scoop, much of the story appears to be dubious. Shephard spoke to a number of junior staffers at Random House, who “laughed off the insinuation that any of them had the power to kill a book” and denied that anything of the sort had occurred. Additional reporting by The New York Times established that Random House remains on good terms with Mailer’s son, John Buffalo Mailer, who does not believe that the book was “canceled” or that Mailer ever could be. As Shephard noted, the reason why the anthology wasn’t picked up was probably the far simpler matter of dollars and cents: Mailer’s most significant books have faced declining sales since the late 1990s, and in all likelihood, Random House made a business decision not to pursue a collection that might have generated limited interest.
That Random House and other corporate publishing houses decide what gets printed and what doesn’t based on the profit motive is certainly concerning, although not exactly a new problem. But was Mailer—or even “The White Negro,” which is freely available on the website of Dissent—canceled? The planned Mailer collection is now being published by Skyhorse, a publishing house (distributed by Simon & Schuster, one of the industry giants) that has developed a niche in picking up allegedly canceled authors like Woody Allen. If anything, the whole affair has generated more interest in Mailer than the publishing world has seen since his death in 2007.
I’ll leave it to others to litigate Mailer’s specific literary merits, cultural legacy, and politics. But what’s most striking about this contretemps is how it embodies so many aspects of the current discourse around free speech in elite circles—how a fundamentally fake controversy nonetheless dominated a certain set’s attention for a few days, before it moved on to the next controversy. Wolff called the pulling of the Mailer collection “predictable,” an adjective that can also be applied to every aspect of what followed.
In a tribute to Joan Didion, who died in December, Gawker’s John Ganz bemoaned the rising trend of “phantom cancellations,” such as Ross Douthat’s recent column daring the left to try to cancel Didion for her heterodoxies, which no actual leftists seem inclined to do. There was no widespread call for Mailer’s cancellation either. If anything, interest in both Mailer and Didion has surged in the past month—both writers, despite innumerable differences, are now held up as totems of an era when writing, and writers, seemed to matter (and when they got paid well, too). It’s understandable that both their fans and their detractors today are desperate, on some level, to re-create that world and see the current discursive sphere as comparatively stagnant and low-stakes.
But what is also striking about the Mailer affair is that it comes in the midst of many very real present-day threats to free speech, about which the loudest voices against “cancel culture” are typically silent. For instance, Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis has just introduced a bill that would prohibit public schools and private businesses from making white people feel uncomfortable in the context of diversity trainings, and Virginia’s new Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin kicked off his first day in office by banning the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 public school classrooms by executive order. Meanwhile, more than 30 states have laws preventing their governments from doing business with companies that boycott the state of Israel, and Palestinian academics and their allies are constantly censored or driven out of the academy for their views. Writers like Wolff usually have nothing to say about these affronts to civil liberties, which carry behind them the weight of the legal system and are backed by exorbitant lobbying efforts; instead, they maintain a fixation on the disorganized efforts of comparatively powerless junior magazine and publishing staffers (real or imagined), undergraduates, and Twitter mobs to shame and criticize their established peers.
Which brings us back to Mailer: To the extent that postwar intellectuals like him were successful, it was because they captured something urgent about their time, challenged an older generation’s conventional wisdom, and cultivated a younger readership hungry for something vital and relevant. They were willing to criticize and openly flout the stagnant norms of their elders and did so in an era in which the real threats to speech came from right-wing censorship and McCarthyism, with the passive or active collaboration of many liberals. The best way to honor that legacy today would be to turn our attention to the meaningful threats facing those who actually challenge the political status quo.