On Editing, Part 2

After staring at The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer's epic about the Pacific theater of World War II, on my to-read shelf for over ten years, this summer I've finally gotten around to reading it. Interestingly, it appears to be a first-edition hardcover of the book, though it's in bad enough shape that its value as a collectible is shot (hooray!). Before reading it, I had to reinforce the spine with Scotch tape. Also, it has the name "Glass" written on the inside cover—it was my grandfather-in-law's book, and I say "grandfather-in-law" instead of "grandmother-in-law" because it's hard to imagine too many self-respecting women sitting through a book this long that tells them, over and over again, how horrible they are. I'm only half joking. Except for "The White Negro," The Naked and the Dead is the only thing I've read by Norman Mailer. And, unlike my grandfather-in-law, who—assuming he didn't wait ten or twenty years to read the book after buying it—read Mailer as a hip young writer, the Next Big Thing, I came to Mailer with the outline of his life story firmly lodged in my head. The politics. The pugilism. The woman-hating. I was given to understand that the woman-hating thing came later, in effect—that with The Naked and the Dead, Mailer was crowned one of America's best novelists; both the uneven output and the misogyny that made him an enemy of feminists came afterward. The Naked and the Dead was given a pass, as if it's too bad that a guy who turned out to be such a jerk had written such a great book, and the book's general reputation—and the fact that, as a child, I read over and over again an excerpt from it that appeared in a Time-Life photography book about the 1940s—is the reason I decided to start with The Naked and the Dead, with an eye to perhaps proceeding from there.

I'm now on the closing chapters of the novel, and it's easy to see why it has its stellar reputation. It is a great book for all the reasons that people say it is. It's got a bit of everything. There's action, extremely well-developed characters, some really amazing feats of psychological realism, and, of course, beautiful writing. For me, there's also what feels like a very accurate glimpse into the Army as an organization: the scheming, the petty infighting, the tension between officers and enlisted men, that comes as icing on the cake; Mailer may at his best in this book when he delves deep into the minds of two men who are plotting to humiliate or destroy each other. That Mailer wrote it when he was in his 20s is a bit astounding; that he pulled it off as well as he did, even more so.

What is harder to fathom is how this book got a pass on the misogyny charge that is leveled against Mailer's later work and, of course, Mailer himself. The misogyny in The Naked and the Dead is rampant. Yes, being a book about the Pacific theater of World War II, this is a book about men, and men at their most brutal, conniving, and horny. There is not a woman in sight in the main action of the book, so the long passages in which character after character longs explicitly for a good lay, or reminisces about particularly hot episodes with wives or girlfriends, don't bother me—it's high-school locker-roon talk of a sort that's easy to imagine happening in an army camp. What does bother me is the near constant refrain about "no woman is worth a damn" and the seemingly infinite variations on same, that come out of most characters' mouths; the one or two men who seem to have decent relationships with their wives or girlfriends back home are portrayed as weak, indecisive, or deficient in some way. The misogyny is so thick that it actually makes the book dumber; it feels like a huge blind spot in the author's intellect, and renders suspicious even the most intelligent things that the book says.

You may be wondering why this post is actually called "On Editing." Here's why: While the editors of The Naked and the Dead seemed to be totally okay with Mailer's hateful misogyny, they balked at the use of the word fuck, forcing Mailer to use fug instead. (In the edition I have, they also hypehanated ass-hole, which is neither here or there—just an interesting stylistic choice.) Today, the fug reads as really unnecessarily chaste, though one gets used to it. But it's interesting to me that the editors intervened severely on behalf of a four-letter word (which From Here to Eternity, by the way, got away with, so it's not just a question of falling afoul of obscenity law) but let the misogyny go, because today, those emphases would almost certainly be reversed. It's hard to imagine an editor today giving a damn about the profligacy of expletives in The Naked and the Dead—aesthetically and thematically, they're completely justified. It's also easy to imagine Mailer getting a long editorial note about the book's apparent attitude toward women, something along the lines of, "you know, we'd really like to publish this, but could you turn down the woman-hating a couple notches?" Perhaps that happened then as well, though if so, it's sad to think that's as far as it went. In any case, the final manuscript stands as a fine exhibit of how editorial standards regarding obscenity and moral values have changed in the last sixty-odd years—in response, presumably, to the perceived difference between challenging and offending their readers, a line many editors are always trying to straddle.

P.S. Yes, yes, I'm a giant hypocrite for using Mailer's biography in a discussion of his book when I just said recently that I don't see the point of same. I await your subpoena.