Mailer’s Last Stand

The new issue of PEN America includes a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the 1986 PEN Congress, which was organized by Norman Mailer and brought in dozens of top-shelf writers: Czeslaw Milosz, Margaret Atwood, John Updike, Susan Sontag, E.L. Doctorow, Mario Vargas Llosa, and so on. On the evidence of a pair of excerpts available online, squabbling was the order of the day during the conference: Saul Bellow and Günter Grass got into a brief slapfight about poverty in America, while during the closing session Mailer labored to explain why so only 16 of the 117 participants in the congress were women. Many notable female invitees turned him down, he explained, then climbed upon a high horse:

But you are all middle-class women, as I am a middle-class man, and in the middle class—if I may finish—the center of activity is obligatory excellence. There’s no excuse for the middle class if they don’t become progressively more excellent. I will take full responsibility for the list we ended up with. And I’ll take it without bitterness but with the whimsy, in my own heart, that there were six months for everyone to complain, and you did choose the week of the congress to come down. [SHOUTS FROM THE FLOOR.]

In New York magazine, Rhonda Koenig shed a little more light on how petty the discussions could get (including some parrying between Mailer and Koenig herself). Much of it seems to have been reflective of the Cold War politics of the time—when Updike praised the sweet corner mailbox provided for him by the U.S. Postal Service, Doctorow worried about the missile silo nearby, and just about everybody was unhappy that secretary of state George Shultz was invited to speak. And Koenig captures the congress’ raucous collapse:

As some women began leaving, shouting as they went, Mailer called after them “You can leave with the surrogate literary pope’s blessing, and “Thank you for your courtesy.” Norman Mailer had blown it yet again. Though all his remarks were correct, they weren’t the right ones to hurl at an audience of frazzled, indignant women, especially not by someone with Mailer’s history of sexual swagger and woman-baiting. Well, as Vargas Llosa rather sweetly put it, “Perhaps one good thing that comes from these conferences is that we see great writers are human, too.”

3 thoughts on “Mailer’s Last Stand

  1. Norman Mailer AND Kurt Vonnegut were the program chairs. They appeared together on “Firing Line,” and Buckley made a point of filleting Vonnegut’s faux liberalism.

    Hi, Ed.

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