A Connoisseur of Narrative Forms

Mailer always described himself as a novelist, but his nonfiction was equally (if not more) distinguished.

Mailer always described himself as a novelist, but his nonfiction was equally (if not more) distinguished. He was a connoisseur of narrative forms, including some he invented, and was at ease with the following: nonfiction narrative, biography, sports journalism, essays (every kind), newspaper columns, letters to the editor, literary criticism, book reviews, polemics and jeremiads, interviews (including self-interviews), novels and short stories (of course), and memoir—everything but autobiography, which he avoided, feeling it would be a tombstone. Perhaps no career in American letters has been so brilliant, varied, controversial, public, productive, lengthy and misunderstood. No writer can lay a better claim for launching New Journalism—“Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” his report on JFK’s 1960 campaign, is a foundation stone—although he didn’t like the term. Nor did he like “nonfiction novel.” But that is neither here nor there; he was a master of both and all nonfiction forms, a literary decathlete.

Mailer’s Indispensable Nonfiction:

ADVERTISEMENTS FOR MYSELF (1959): A retrospective collection of writings stretching back to short stories written at Harvard, plus his celebrated essay on Greenwich Village hipsters, “The White Negro,” and the sexually explicit—for 1959—short story, “The Time of Her Time.” Italicized “Advertisements,” written in an edgy, angry, sardonic style, provide context for each essay, story, poem, interview and dramatic fragment. Mailer later said the collection was “the first work I wrote with a style that I could call my own.”

THE ARMIES OF THE NIGHT: HISTORY AS A NOVEL, THE NOVEL AS HISTORY (1968): To capture the complexities of a nation torn apart by the Vietnam War, Mailer was obliged to break down the walls between narrative genres and employ techniques of the historian, the novelist and the journalist in this nonfiction masterpiece occasioned by the 1967 anti-war March on the Pentagon. Mailer is his own half-comic protagonist; to gain a measure of detachment, he describes himself in the third person. The book won both a Pulitzer and the National Book Award.

OF A FIRE ON THE MOON (1971): Partially serialized in Life, this analysis of the American space program and the Apollo 11 mission was lauded for its dramatic account of the moon landing and glimpses of the inner lives of the astronauts. Mailer drew on his engineering background to provide lucid expositions of everything from rocket thrust to the nature of gravity. He again wrote about himself in the third person, calling himself “Aquarius.” Nominated for the National Book Award.

THE PRISONER OF SEX (1971): Mailer’s answer to the Women’s Liberation Movement is a passionate defense of romantic love and the mystery of sexuality. He takes to task Kate Millet, the author of “Sexual Politics” (1970), for her misleading quotations from his own work and that of Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence, and comments incisively on Lawrence’s genius. Nominated for the National Book Award.

MARILYN (1973): Mailer’s interpretation of Monroe’s life and legend is highlighted by the tragicomedy of her Hollywood love affairs and her marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller. Subtitled “A Novel Biography,” it is, arguably, the finest speculation on Monroe’s inner life and her aspirations to be a great actress. Includes critiques of her major films.

THE FIGHT (1975): The definitive account of
the “Rumble in the Jungle,” the 1974 heavyweight championship boxing match in Zaire between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. It is generally considered to be the finest evocation of a boxing match written in the 20th century. The supporting cast includes George Plimpton and Hunter Thompson.


(1995): Mailer and his collaborator, Lawrence Schiller, spent months in Russia, examining secret K.G.B. reports on Lee Harvey Oswald. From this extensive documentary cache, Mailer recreates Oswald’s time in Minsk and his marriage to Marina Prusakova, and continues Oswald’s story through the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.


(1995): A comradely biography of the great artist’s early years up to the invention of Cubism in Paris in the years before World War I. Mailer’s identification with Picasso, who like Mailer worked assiduously into his 80s, is obvious and salutatory.

THE SPOOKY ART: SOME THOUGHTS ON WRITING (2003): A collection of Mailer’s many utterances on his craft and his profession, drawing on interviews, essays and unpublished presentations to writing students. Perhaps most notable is Mailer’s examination of the relationship of the working writer to his/her unconscious. Also discussed: writing courses, point of view, genre, style, reviews and publicity, and real life versus plot life.