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Criminalization and the literary canon

<h5>Firestone Library.</h5>
<h6>Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Firestone Library.
Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian

At a party in the early morning of Nov. 20, 1960, a man stabbed his wife with a penknife: once in the stomach and once in the back, nearly killing her. When another partygoer attempted to revive her as she lay bleeding on the floor, he reportedly said, “Get away from her. Let the bitch die.” The man was Norman Mailer, American novelist and essayist. His wife was the artist Adele Morales Mailer.  

Following unsubstantiated allegations that Random House had canceled the post-mortem publication of a book of Mailer’s essays, the literary corner of Twitter erupted with condemnations of the publishing house for engaging in so-called cancel culture. Notably, Random House stated that the book was never under contract. Representatives of the Mailer Estate confirmed and said that the alleged essay compilation is under contract with Skyhorse.

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Despite the evident mendacity of the initial allegations, controversy continued to churn. Among the distressed was Princeton Professor Emerita of Creative Writing Joyce Carol Oates. On Twitter, Oates criticized what she perceived as a lack of room for debate that “hurts some individuals’ feelings.” She also denied that Mailer was a “bad husband.”

I am not interested in unpacking every single aspect of Oates’s thread, but rather in exploring what her defense of Mailer’s canonization reflects about mainstream culture.  

In response to critics who pointed to Mailer’s history of homophobia, sexism, and violence, Oates tweeted, “‘bad husband’ to whom? like many oft-married men Norman Mailer wound up finally with a much younger, adoring, & altogether quite wonderful wife (Norris Church) whom everyone liked. womanizers all eventually wear out, it just takes time & if you’re lucky, you are the last wife.”



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In my opinion, Oates’s tweet recasts all six of Mailer’s marriages in a certain light. Oates explicitly invokes the trope of the wily womanizer who just needs to find the “right woman”; the playboy genius who one “lucky” woman will catch at the perfect point of maturation.

What’s more striking than what Oates says is what she erases: there is no recognition of his assault of Adele Morales Mailer. Furthermore, there is no mention of his obsession with masculine virility and violence, his public homophobia, the seeming fantasies of sexual violence in his novels, or his racist depictions of people of African and Asian descent. (To preempt any cries that Mailer was simply a “man of his time,” James Baldwin was also active during this time period, and objected to Mailer’s work in an Esquire article.)

Ultimately, Oates’s tweets reflect mainstream attitudes about who should be penalized as “criminals.” Society’s conception of justice is wholly warped by racialized and sexualized distinctions about whose lives matter and whose do not. These distinctions mean that while some are harshly punished by the criminal justice system and reviled in the court of public opinion, others’ actions are dismissed as human flaws, moments of passion, or the fault of the victim, especially if the perpetrator is a distinguished white man and the victim is a woman.

Imagine this: you are watching the news one evening, and you see that a man who assaulted his wife in your neighborhood has been apprehended by the police. The news flashes you his mugshot, maybe cuts to a police officer talking about how they caught him, and then transitions into another story. This news segment is meant to bring you relief.

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We are taught to gain satisfaction from the severity of the American carceral system: from the endless deluge of cop TV shows to political narratives, we are taught to understand that keeping ourselves safe means locking up, or executing “criminals,” and we should accordingly feel happy and reassured when we see those dangerous people getting “what they deserve.”

However, this notion of justice is not justice: it begins and ends with vengeance. The state makes no effort to rehabilitate the victim, does not even begin to consider rehabilitating the perpetrator, and ultimately squanders life by never addressing root problems. Criminalization serves to strip humanity: the actor becomes a threat, a monster, an enemy who “deserves” to suffer — anything but a human being.  

Blackness is also wholly conflated with criminality, which helps explain the extreme rates of surveillance and incarceration that Black people face and the mainstream willingness to explain away these circumstances in the racist terms of lapsed morality within Black communities as opposed to structural racism.  

The criminalization of Blackness also contextualizes the lack of state interest in the femicide and disappearance of Black women. As UCLA historian Robin D.G. Kelley argues, the violence that the state enacts and media promotes against Black people (regardless of whether or not they have committed a crime) contrasts with the forgiveness, willingness to forget, and even veneration toward the harms that white people commit. As many have asserted, in the case of Black women, law enforcement apparatuses are meant to surveil and harass — not protect. 

One of the most dire examples of the glorification of white crime is Hollywood’s obsession with Ted Bundy, the American serial killer who kidnapped, raped, and murdered numerous young women and girls. Fascination with Bundy remains strong to this day, even in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement and widespread condemnation of the commonality of sexual violence against women. 

Bundy is glamorized over and over again: in 2019, Zac Efron played him (one trailer suggested Bundy was something of a rock star with its choice of background music), and in 2021, Chad Michael Murray did. These films aim for entertainment: Bundy is presented as alluring and intoxicating. The women he killed are largely forgotten: they are the vehicle through which his cunningness is showcased. Their disposability — the meager value that society placed on their lives in the first place — is strikingly obvious.

Ultimately, our society is comfortable with literally extracting people from their communities and sequestering them in cramped, unsafe, and maddening conditions — especially if they are Black, Brown, and poor.  It is often comfortable with dismissing and ignoring violence against women, especially if these women are Black, Brown, and trans; it canonizes violent figures across cultural contexts, from pop culture to history to literature.  

I am not advocating for the universalization of carceral, retributive attitudes; rather, that we put in practice ways to think about harm, “crime,” and accountability in ways that do not hinge on race and the ascribed disposability of large segments of the population. Revisiting the Norman Mailer quandary can help illuminate what this practice might look like.

“Should we cancel Norman Mailer?” is a myopic question. It also ignores the fact that cancellation rarely happens in reality, given that those who decry violent behavior lack the power to de-platform members of the elite and that even those who suffer some blow to their platform often already have ludicrous amounts of wealth.

It is possible to engage with and deconstruct the bias present within a work that defined the thinking of a canonical figure, as in Myriam Gurba’s essay on Joan Didion’s racial grammar. Acknowledging and grappling with the violence that canonical figures enacted while reading their works can help us understand the contexts for the violence we see in our current moment.  

And finally, when it comes to maintaining an openness for “debates,” some debates simply do not need to happen anymore. Constantly reviewing racist, sexist, and generally hateful texts to debate their “merits” is a waste of time: it is a thinly-veiled, noxious demand that marginalized people prove their humanity over and over again and ignores the vast amount of scholarship on the systemic nature of inequality.

Readers can and should engage with the full context of the individual who wrote a canonical piece. If the author inflicted harm on others, those harms must be grappled with and the humanity of the author’s victims recognized. Biases within a text should not be dismissed either. No person’s talent absolves them from following basic tenets of morality.

Furthermore, the canon should not be regarded as static. Arguing that an author should still be read just because they were influential at some point in time does not make sense. It is often an excuse to normalize engagement with violent, discriminatory texts and thus desensitize students to violence and discrimination.  

Additionally, the canon is currently incomplete: it elevates the perspectives of Western white men with a sprinkling of “diverse” authors from marginalized communities. Maintaining that the figures in the canon are sacred and untouchable shuts out other, more crucial voices.

In the end, I cannot tell you whether or not you should read Mailer. Maybe in the future, I’ll be in a context where it makes sense for me to engage with Mailer’s work with a critical lens. To preempt claims that I am “insulating myself from alternative viewpoints,” I have been exposed to the belief system that normalizes white supremacist heteropatriarchal social structures in educational settings since I was a small child. I’m much more compelled to focus on works by authors the canon excludes.

Brittani Telfair is a senior from Richmond, Va. concentrating in SPIA and pursuing a certificate in African American Studies. She can be reached at btelfair@princeton.edu or @brittanit10 on Twitter.

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