Some critics say that you'll be better remembered for your nonfiction like The Armies of the Night than your novels. Why does that upset you?
I think the novel's a higher form, that's all. How to put it? An earl does not want to be called a count. A marquis does not want to be called a baron. It's much tougher to write a novel. I don't agree with you that I'll be best remembered as a journalist, although I think there'll be many who will say that. I will certainly be remembered as a journalist. In fact, I think the irony may be that I've had much more influence as a journalist than as a novelist. Because my novels are all different. It isn't like when you read one Hemingway novel you know a lot about the other Hemingway novels, whether you read them or not. My novels are all over the place.
Do you wish you spent more time on novels?
No, no. I made a reasonably good living out of journalism over the years, because I could do it so quickly compared to writing novels, which is more of a losing proposition. Novels are a little bit like falling in love: You can't say I'm going to fall in love next week. You can go years without being given a novel, which is why I tend to think of those gods up there who say, ''Oh, look at poor Mailer down there, worried all the time, hasn't had a novel in years! Give the poor wretch a book. Let's see if he mucks it up the way he did the last one.''
Does it bother you that, except for your first book The Naked and the Dead the receptions for your novels have all been mixed?
Does it bother me? I think the word would be irk. It annoys me a little, sure. But not tremendously. For one thing, the days when novels were universally applauded are over.
What do you think about Philip Roth? He seems like the one guy everyone loves.
Roth is very respected today, but that's for a reason. He's very talented, don't get me wrong. But he satisfies something right now in the group of people I call the acumenarians. These are people who do not believe in God or the devil. They are children of the enlightenment, and they pride themselves on their acumen. They like to be right on things. They distrust the fanciful, the mystical, and the unanchored. Roth's not messy. And he writes wonderful books. So they love him and they adore him. Now whether he's a major novelist or not, I can't begin to tell you, because as I told you, I just don't read the good ones anymore.
How do you think you compare to Updike, Roth, and Saul Bellow? You four are duking it out at the top of the post-war, male-novelist mountain.
Well, Bellow's gone. So it's just the three of us. Look, each one of the three of us thinks we're the best novelist in America. How could it be otherwise?
I read you regretted going after Updike and Roth early on, giving them harsh reviews. True?
I regret it to a degree, because it was cruel, and it was probably excessive. On the other hand, it didn't seem to do them too much harm. [Laughs] Look, I always felt that I turned out stronger because I took such an undeserved beating for [his second novel, 1951's] Barbary Shore, and then even from other books, that I got very tough within. And I think [Updike and Roth] are pretty tough. And I wasn't doing it to make them better writers, but maybe that was the net result, that they're a little bit better because of that cruelty of mine.
Could you make the argument that you're the greatest writer just because you were the only one who really engaged with the public, and you were a public figure?
No. When you're a serious writer, there is a natural tendency to think that maybe you are the best. However, you have to be slightly amused by yourself, because you know others are thinking the same thing. And it's not just the three of us there must be 10 writers in America who think they're the best. I can name some of them: De Lillo, Vonnegut, John Irving, Doctorow. Maybe there are 20 such people. And who knows? History will tell us who's best. And history can be wrong too.
But you're the one who wrote the most about our historical moment presidents, wars, movie stars, sports.
I had certain advantages. I was shut out of the canon early
Because The Naked and the Dead was a bestseller?
Yes. And I didn't have to worry about making a living for many years. So I spent my life being a writer, and every time I tried to do something else, I failed at it. I failed at being a politician, I failed at being a movie director, and in a much smaller way, I even failed at being a mediocre athlete. So the one thing I could go back to that was dependable was novel-writing.
Is this the worst time to be alive?
No, no, it's not. There's one good thing about old age that people don't recognize. Which is that if you have a reasonable old age, as I do, in that you're not in pain, and you're not in terrible trouble emotionally with your children, or your mate, then what happens is you cool. And you finally are cool in a way that you never were before. And you realize that you won and you lost, and that's just what happens to everyone else. They win and they lose also. And what you didn't succeed in doing, you didn't succeed in doing, so f--- it.
So you're cool.
In other words, I'm at peace with myself in a way that I wasn't for many, many years. I feel more sane than I've ever felt in my life.
Well, you be the judge.