Mailer’s Novel(ist)

From Gerald R. Lucas

In and Beyond the Late Age of Print[a]


In her 1997 book Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray theorizes what she calls the “cyberbard”: a figure that, for her, will finally bring aesthetic and critical weight to the amateur cacophony of the networked world. In other words, she posits that a new artist is needed for the digital age to create a form that is both unique to it and expresses its spirit in a way no other medium can, like Shakespeare did when he wrote his first soliloquy. The cyberbard, she states, must “capture in cyberdrama something as true to the human condition, and as beautifully expressed, as the life that Shakespeare captured on the Elizabethan stage.”[1] Her book-length exploration into this idea has set the stage—if you will—for the discussion of the weighty and the true in cyberculture ever since.

Murray is often categorized (and criticized) as an advocate of cyberdrama or narrativism—a theoretical approach that applies the trappings of literary theory to new media. Her background, like many of us here, is in the Humanities generally and literature specifically. An problematic part of her theory of the cyberbard is the figure of the author: the artistic authority that deliberately shapes the representation of his or her particular view of the life, the universe, and everything. Murray’s vision from digital media is the holodeck from Star Trek, a computerized room users can literally enter and participate in a story created through the computer. Murray uses the Star Trek: Voyager’s version of this participatory story called the “holonovel.”

When we consider the history of art, and more specifically literature, the figure of the author—the bard, the rhapsode, the poet, the novelist—has always been a necessary element. This figure—perhaps within the twentieth century—has achieved a mythic identity. The author’s name functions, Foucault argues, as a signifier of status—a certain weighty authority—within a society and culture, influencing how we therefore experience the text. While we might argue about the validity of this “author function,” Foucault does seem to have a point about how a specific ordering presence must precede the art in question and any consideration of the weighty and the true of a work. The novelist, then, is inseparable from his or her novel and how that novel is received and respected. You cannot have The Sun Also Rises without having the Hemingway.

This seems to be a characteristic of the novel, maybe since its inception. “Norman Mailer” seems to be no exception: it’s very difficult to divorce The Naked and the Dead from the author “Norman Mailer.” In fact, it might be because of the esteem we have for Norman Mailer that the novel itself attains the status of art. I might even suggest that because Mailer was so much more than a novelist that his works maintain their status in our eyes. More on this in a moment.

So, “authority” remains for Murray a necessary component of what may come from the cyberbard via some electronic, networked medium.

The other side of this discussion of new media aesthetics comes from the ludologists. These theorists take their name from the Latin ludic: to play in an aimless way. Both aspects of this definition are important to distinguish the ludologists from the narrativists. They seek to remove the authority from the from the aesthetic experience, so a cybertext would be one of exploration and play like a game, rather than the focused and determined direction of a narrative. This is not to say that the ludologists seek to remove the unifying presence of the cyberbard, but to decentralize his or her presence in the work and instead emphasizing the user’s experience within a constructed container.

Culturally and politically we already see this shift. The supremacy of professional culture is waning: no longer is it just the professionals broadcasting to amateurs, but amateurs broadcasting to amateurs, and even amateurs directly influencing the work of the professionals—e.g., see Henry Jenkins’ discussion of Survivor in Convergence Culture or shows like Tosh.0 that not only rely on amateur content, but promote audience participation on Twitter and YouTube.[2] I might also point to the economics of delivery and consumption: from “crowdfunding”—like Kickstarter—to the avoidance of traditional broadcasting models through the use of both the industry sanctioned iTunes and Hulu to the illegal use of BitTorrent and USENET. One of the first lessons of new media is clear: the audience is no longer passive, ready to receive whatever message the centralized gatekeepers of culture care to or are paid to send.

New media therefore challenges the traditional modes of broadcasting and consumption by giving the crowds access to the means of digital production. This access to the digital tools allows a more democratic participation in not only political processes, but also the cultural conversation—what Baudrillard would call the ability to respond: i.e., the conversation is no longer what he calls “forced socialization,” one-way and fixed by the centralized disseminators of culture. Broadcasters and authors may intend their message to be received in a certain way and at a certain time, but the crowd’s access to their own digital means of production breaks up the original message, transforms it, and replays it in unpredictable ways. It could also render it silent.

The point here is that new media has changed the relationship between the controllers of culture, the creators of culture, and the consumers of culture. These clear articulations have become muddied and therefore no longer essential. These modes of culture are still in play, but more interesting collaborations between historically divided roles are now being seen.

For example, see Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir: the most recent one brought together over 3500 voices to perform his composition “Water Night.” Or see the over 40,000 people that came together in Norway to reclaim their song “Children of the Rainbow” from Anders Behring Breivik, killer of 77 people last summer, who suggested the song was brainwashing young Norwegians.[3] These last examples of “crowdsourcing” walk the line between culture and politics. Those involved are neither authors nor are they simply the audience, but something in between; perhaps they are best labeled participants. Indeed, there is still an organizing hierarchy here—Whitacre is the composer and the director—but the final work of art relies on those who respond to the call and choose to participate in the creation of something new.

Even in these late days of the modern culture industry, even those art forms that seem most antithetical to new media—like that of novel publication—novelists are increasingly more public and more accessible to their audience because of social media. I think you might be hard pressed to find a young novelist working today who does not have a presence on Twitter or Facebook. How can this digital reality not have an affect on their work? More on this in a minute, if time allows.

Norman Mailer’s politics and political activism could have benefited from today’s social media. Mailer saw his responsibility as a novelist as two-fold and perhaps contradictory: he must posit an authoritative vision of structure in form and content, yet always be aware that, as he states in The Big Empty, “no authorities exist that have certain knowledge.”[4] This places the novelist in an ethical and existential position of great responsibility. One of Mailer’s chief concerns seems to be with the notion of individual truth and how that truth can lead to creativity, order, and action. The novelist is both the creator and authority, but also one who is always in a state of developing—imperfect and struggling against other narratives of authority.

Mailer’s novelist figuration might best be observed in The Armies of the Night. Armies is less a true “novel” and more of a journalistic-novel hybrid; J. Michael Lennon, in “Norman Mailer: Novelist, Journalist, or Historian?” observes that Armies was written during the period of Mailer’s career where he seemed to push the novel beyond its traditional limits—as if to be true to his own growth, the novel could no longer contain the truth that Mailer sought.[5] Armies, published in 1968, shortly after the 1967 events which it chronicles, marks the beginning of Mailer’s history-as-novel-novel-as-history decade: it would be followed by Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1969), Of a Fire on the Moon (1970), The Prisoner of Sex (1971), and The Executioner’s Song (1979). These works begin with historical events not created by Mailer himself, in which Mailer finds himself a participant who will chronicle the truth of them filtered through his novelist’s sensibilities.

Mailer seems to suggest that the narrative order of the novel and the waves of history are connected extricably and dynamically—that even “facts” become like fictions. Historical facts charged by the authoritative narrative of the novelist become, perhaps, closer to the truth than reality—as if a journalistic approach were inadequate to communicate the truth of the situation. In the hands of the novelist the account avoids the “technologese” that strips language of its morals and meaning.[6] There is a give and take: life is never as orderly as fiction, though everyday we attempt to impose our fictions upon it. Mailer states:

Similarly, Mailer says elsewhere that when the great historian writes, she is also a writer of great fiction.[8] Lennon concludes that Mailer elevated the novel and the novelist as the true creative spirits, ones that pose difficult questions in order to provoke, to incite, and to contend. Whereas the historian and journalist work with pre-digested facts, intended to answer, to clarify, and to end debate.[9] Mailer is not writing in an easily understandable prose for the masses; he is challenging readers to rise up to his level. This is not journalism, television, or technologese—it is literature. In other words, Mailer invites—even demands—participation from those who engage his work.

Yet, while the novelist is not limited by the facts of history, perhaps the novel itself is in Mailer’s view—or at least the realities of identifiable historicity that remain the touchstones for communication and meaning. Mailer seems to be calling out the fictional nature of all narrative, whether based on fact or imagination, and as Lennon avers, Mailer uses whatever form he needs to “carry the tale forward to the century’s end.”[10] In a way, as Laura Adams suggests, it’s as if Mailer suspects that the novel is no longer capable of influencing people’s consciousness as it did before World War II.[11] Authority of the narrative seems to be linked to history, culture, and the artist’s place in it: the narrative grows with the author/creator. The best novel, then, remains true to the novelist’s vision at the moment of creation. This seems to be a moral imperative with Mailer—an imperative that forced him to push the boundaries of genre.

This is what Murray’s still-unrealized cyberbard can learn from Mailer, who is perhaps unknowingly the proto-cyberbard. I know that Mailer himself would take issue with my argument here, since he has many times pointed out the dulling effect that he sees technology having on people’s minds. He is, of course, correct—new media, like that of much of the twentieth century’s media can make us unwitting accomplices of what Mailer calls the “governmental military-industrial complex of super-technology land.”[12] Perhaps the novelist—the authority in Mailer that laments the ostensible waning of the novel’s influence, might be right to lament its passing. Yet, the dissident and political activist that challenged what he saw as the totalizing elements in contemporary America would have to smile as like-minded individuals the world over use super-technology land’s own tools against it to claim their liberty.

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The novel is perhaps one of the last prose forms to really inspire serious thought. The novel demands that the reader delve deeply—spend serious time plumbing its depths and focus on the task at hand. This is perhaps the aspect of cyberculture that Mailer so despised: that it, too, demands our attention, but instead of focusing it, divides it to multitask bits of decentered digital detritus. The novel makes us focus; the digital fragments that focus. Recently, novelist Robin Sloan discussed his new novel on NPR’s Morning Edition.[13] His novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore accesses the importance of books in a digital age; he states: “It’s the great agony and the ecstasy of the Internet today. I think we have more great stuff to read than we ever have before, but of course the downside of that is we have more great stuff to read than we’ve ever had before.” Sloan’s point (and mine) seems to be: just because we embrace the Internet does not mean that we sacrifice the tradition of the novel. We must have a medium that allows us to make a deliberate decision to sit down and spend some quality attention. It’s this quality attention that we give to novels, but rarely if ever to digital media.

In order to refocus our attention, cyberculture must produce an art form that can do for us what the novel does. We seem to be a long way off from realizing Murray’s cyberdrama on a holodeck. However, the ludologists might be on to something: maybe it begins with games. This is a topic for another time.


  1. This paper was presented at the 2012 conference of the Norman Mailer Society, October 12, 2012, in Provincetown, MA.


  1. Murray 1997, p. 274.
  2. Jenkins 2006, See chapter 1.
  3. Memmott 2012.
  4. Mailer & Mailer 2006, p. 218.
  5. Lennon 2006, p. 94.
  6. Mailer 1968, p. 315.
  7. Lennon 2006, pp. 95-96.
  8. Lennon 2006, p. 96.
  9. Lennon 2006, p. 97.
  10. Lennon 2006, p. 101.
  11. Adams 1976, pp. 100-101.
  12. Mailer 1968, p. 111.
  13. "'Mr. Penumbra' Bridges The Digital Divide". NPR. Morning Edition. October 9, 2012. Retrieved 2020-02-24.

Works Cited