Last year, it took two whole months for the year’s first overhyped publishing cancel culture story to break, when the estate of Dr. Seuss decided to cease the publication of several controversial but little-read books and a multiweek meltdown among culture-war watchers ensued. In 2022, it took only three days for the first such story to plop into the media chum bucket.
On Monday, writing in The Ankler, Michael Wolff broke the news that Penguin Random House had decided not to move forward with plans to publish a collection of Norman Mailer’s nonfiction in 2023, citing an unidentified “junior staffer’s” objections to the title of Mailer’s controversial 1957 essay “The White Negro.” Here was, it would seem, another instance of publishing’s gatekeepers sacrificing the American canon to the whims of a mob of woke twentysomethings. First they came for Milo Yiannapolous. Then they came for Woody Allen. Now they were coming for … wait, Norman Mailer?
One of the most important and influential writers of the twentieth century, Mailer’s misogyny and other problematic attributes—and the fact that he stabbed his then-wife in 1960—have rarely gone unremarked in discussions of his work. But there are still reasons to doubt that he’s being canceled—even if Penguin Random House isn’t going ahead with this new nonfiction collection. Instead, the publishing conglomerate’s decision to back away from Mailer points to a different set of financial imperatives, as well as a growing impulse among publishing executives to blame business decisions on junior staff—the industry’s version of inventing someone to be mad at.
The reasons for the book being pulled are, per Wolff’s own account—and like all Wolff accounts—rather cloudy.
The back-door apologies at Random House include as the proximate cause—you hardly have to look hard in Mailer’s work to find offenses against contemporary doctrine and respectability—a junior staffer’s objection to the title of Mailer’s 1957 essay, “The White Negro”, a psycho-sexual-druggie precursor and model for much of the psycho-sexual-druggie literature that became popular in the 1960s. A Random House source also cites the objections of feminist and cultural gadfly Roxane Gay. Her name however may have been employed as merely a generic type of objector (as in, she or someone equally cause-minded who might object). Indeed, she protested in an email that she never voiced a view, that she knows “next to nothing about Norman Mailer,” and that—already eliminating him from the modern canon—she has “never read” among the most consequential figures of that most consequential (yes, mostly white and male) post-war American literary generation.
Even by the recent standards of books being canceled or pulled, the protestations of a junior staffer and the speculative complaints of other authors make for some extraordinarily thin pretexts. Indeed, the junior staffers I’ve spoken to at Penguin Random House laughed off the insinuation that any of them had the power to kill a book. “The idea that any objection to the essay by a junior staffer could be taken so seriously that they’d pull the book is absurd,” one told me. The junior staffer also noted that there had been no discussion of the book among her colleagues prior to Wolff’s piece but that they had been sharing memes and jokes about the insinuation that they had the power he ascribed to them. (A rep from Penguin Random House did not respond to a request for comment.)
There is little precedent for what Wolff described. The invocation of Gay may be a reference to the fact that she pulled a book from Simon & Schuster’s TED Books imprint after another of its imprints, Threshold Editions, inked a quickly canceled deal with right-wing troll Milo Yiannopoulos. In that instance, however, it was widespread public condemnation of the book deal itself, not Gay’s actions, that led to it being canceled. On Twitter, Gay called out Penguin Random House for “trying to put this on me” and wrote of the Mailer imbroglio: “I could not care less about this. And I don’t have that kind of power.” She’s right—though Gay may have considerable influence, it’s been collective action and not individual objections that have led to deals being scuppered.
Hachette canceled a book deal with Woody Allen after Ronan Farrow broke ties with the publisher and dozens of staffers walked off the job in protest. W.W. Norton announced it was halting shipments of Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth after several allegations of grooming and sexual assault were leveled against Bailey. (Despite this, the book is still available on Amazon and can still be found on the shelves of some bookstores.) Simon & Schuster canceled a book deal with Senator Josh Hawley, citing the Missouri senator’s efforts to overturn a legitimate election—but stood firm amid criticism from its staff over deals for books from former Vice President Mike Pence and former Trump administration senior adviser Kellyanne Conway. All three canceled books eventually found a home at other publishers—Bailey’s and Allen’s were both picked up by Skyhorse, which has come to specialize in such reclamation projects. Both sold just north of 20,000 copies, per NPD BookScan data. (On Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that Skyhorse—who else?—would be publishing the Mailer anthology that Penguin Random House killed.)
And then there’s the case of American Dirt.
Two years ago, Macmillan’s Flatiron Books published Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt amid a firestorm of criticism. Written by an author who had, until 2015, identified as white—her grandmother is Puerto Rican—the book, which follows a Mexican mother and son fleeing gun violence, was torn apart for being “appropriative” and “stereotypical.” Photographs of a publicity event featuring barbed-wire centerpieces quickly went viral. An Oprah’s Book Club segment was hastily reconstructed to acknowledge the controversy. Macmillan, meanwhile, canceled an extensive book tour under a dubious pretense, met with critics, and promised to increase Latino representation among its authors and staff. Cummins herself seemed to regret having written the book altogether, writing in an author’s note that “I wished someone slightly browner than me would write [the book.]”
American Dirt was the year’s most controversial book. It was also a runaway hit. Per NPD BookScan data, it has sold nearly 650,000 copies in the ensuing two years. Its paperback edition—which followed its original editor, Amy Einhorn, to Macmillan’s Henry Holt imprint—comes out next month. It is, despite the criticism, one of the most popular books of the last two years.
Looking at Mailer’s own sales record suggests another reason not to move forward with the planned nonfiction collection. The Naked and the Dead, Mailer’s first and most famous novel, has sold a respectable 57,669 copies in its trade paperback version since its fiftieth anniversary edition was published in October 2000, per NPD Bookscan data. The Executioner’s Song—Mailer’s doorstop account of Gary Gilmore’s execution and a work increasingly relevant in our true crime boom—has sold just north of 40,000 since 1998. The Armies of the Night, his “nonfiction novel” account of the October 1967 march on the Pentagon, has sold 18,000 since 1995. As Jeet Heer noted on his Substack, Mailer’s place in the American canon was diminishing long before this pseudoscandal began. This is, moreover, a common occurrence—just ask bestselling writers of the 1960s like Bernard Malamud, James Michener, and Herman Wouk. (It should be underlined, despite the suggestions of many, Mailer is hardly being erased and the decision not to publish a currently nonexistent collection of nonfiction is very different from, say, ceasing publication of one or several of the many editions of his popular writings that are currently in circulation.)
These are Mailer’s most renowned and important works—and these are respectable sales numbers. But no one at the globe’s largest publishing house will bat an eye at them. (As a comparison, Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye has sold more than 141,000 copies since 2014. Penguin Random House, meanwhile, is presently courting coverage of Jack Kerouac’s centenary.) A gigantic company that is on the verge of getting a lot bigger—it is attempting to acquire Simon & Schuster right now, a deal that is currently being held up by the Department of Justice—Penguin Random House is in the business of selling lots of books. Cutting bait on an essay collection likely to sell in the four figures is not an especially surprising move.
It may very well be that one reason for the publishers’ decision is that the possibility of controversy—however slight—simply wasn’t worth risking. Some Penguin Random House staffers I spoke to have noted that there might be internal discomfort with publishing Mailer, but an essay collection by a writer who has been dead for more than a decade is not likely to spark walkouts or mass turbulence the way that, say, publishing a book by the vice president of an administration that separated families at the border and undermined American democracy is.
The Mailer melodrama also contorts and diminishes the actual objections of those staffers, which are complex and typically revolve around the industry’s horrific pay scale for junior employees and its overwhelming whiteness rather than on questions of literary prudishness. (I have had conversations with senior publishing employees who have scoffed at junior ones voicing concerns about being able to afford health care after turning 26, for instance.) Though often dismissed by executives and older writers as censorious, even totalitarian, these objections are, at their core, about the industry’s values: its failure to publish, employ, and promote people of color; and a pay scale that makes it nearly impossible for employees who aren’t independently wealthy to last long enough to earn a living wage. If publishers really think that their employees would revolt over a single word in the title of an essay from 1957, they’re listening to them even less than evidence suggests—which is not at all. Offensive dreck, meanwhile, gets and stays published for as long as it’s commercially viable. Although publishers have said a great deal about their values in recent years, it’s difficult to find much consistency in these decisions beyond that.
The available evidence suggests that cancel culture is a fig leaf being used to cover up baser concerns: namely the fact that the essay collection wouldn’t sell enough to justify the slight possibility of widespread criticism. The possibility of woke outrage, in this instance, is being utilized as a justification for not making a risky commercial decision. That’s particularly frustrating because Mailer’s essays are worth making risky commercial decisions for: Mailer’s account of the 1960 Democratic National Convention, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” is as relevant as ever, for instance. A collection of Mailer’s nonfiction that both reckons with his sizable flaws and makes the case for his influence and continued relevance is exactly the type of difficult work that publishers theoretically exist to do. Unfortunately, as is too often the case, they make quick commercial decisions—and then blame their junior staff when they don’t work out.