There’s a funny part about a later essay in which Norman Mailer self-deprecatingly (or maybe closer to self-loathingly) talks about not knowing nearly as much about boxing as his reputation would have you believe. I am sure it’s more in the middle. Here, we ostensibly are getting an essay about boxing, but more so about boxing writing. Something about sports writing often elevates the sports to places that otherwise watching an event just can’t match. So having Mailer write more about the act of writing than about the actual boxing (though there’s plenty of boxing here too) turns the backroom rivalries among writers into boxing matches on their own. Mailer is one of the last “great” boxing writers, and a later essay will take on his own idea that he was the only “great” writer of his day. He meant by that in that essay, that he decided to call himself the greatest as a challenge to others to knock him off. For me, for this essay, he mentions the brief eclipse of AJ Liebling in passing, and that seems to mark that same passing. This situates this essay mainly around the match between Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson in 1962, which was more or less seen at the time as a changing of eras. I think it would be seen about ten years later as the last of the pre-Ali days. The essay is scrambled in mostly good ways, and if you see Mailer not as someone to emulate but as someone who exists (ie as a character in his own nonfiction, something I don’t think he would hate) this becomes a rewarding and frustrating read.
A longer essay told in the third person, specifically dealing with Norman Mailer’s attempt to reconcile himself with the television self that he can watch. I thought this essay was especially good at given that Mailer is mostly looking at the ways in which television (especially for a writer) allows for and demands a secondary version of a figure when they appear on tv, and that new version is distinct from and different from the personal version and the writerly version. He discusses several of his famous (infamous) television appearances. Sadly, this was written in the late 1970s, so he wasn’t able to comment on his strange and terrible (wonderful?) appearance on Gilmore Girls, where he’s mostly known for drinking iced tea.
Here though he’s looking back especially at his tv appearance with Gore Vidal, where Gore Vidal keeps bringing up Mailer’s infamous assault on his wife (with a knife!) and Mailer’s inability to move past the moment in the show. The other famous moment comes from the panel show he did with Dorothy Parker and Truman Capote in the late 1960s. I think the occasion of this writing though instead comes from his watching the Frost/Nixon interviews where Mailer feel Nixon not only dominated the interviews (despite the readings and films after) and became, to parphrase Mailer, the greatest actor in history. Previously he discusses how Nixon was like television, in that he had a deadening effect on the American public, stamping out nuance and intelligence, and basically give us what we deserve. It’s an interesting idea, but like the other Mailer essays I’ve been reading is muddle and scrambled up with the ideas of identity and persona in other parts of the essay.
Mailer seems at part struggling with how to be “authentic” on television, and how to account for the ways in which television seems to flatten people and remove personality for them, while also creating new versions of them.