Too much journalism gets written for pure consumption -- on the toilet, or seat-belted on a plane, or in the waiting room -- and then flushed down or thrown away. Yet journalism, if only because of medical and dental waiting rooms, has a half-life far beyond the misleading date on the magazine cover.
So on the eighth of April 2014 I read The New Yorker of October 21, 2013 and I see that the biography of Norman Mailer is the challenge facing the house critic. This is an enjoyable assignment if only because of the chance to blend narrative with cosmic opinion, as when the critic, in this case Louis Menand, gets to tell the story of how Mailer stabbed his wife at a party in 1960. This magical moment in Mailer's career speaks for itself and the critic need not sweat or smoke his way through a paragraph of analysis.
But then comes the watershed moment, at least in Menand's mind, the crisis that led to the downfall: Mailer versus the women, Germaine Greer et al, at a Town Hall Meeting in 1971. Menand quotes Mailer at his most hyperbolically mystical: "The whole question of women's liberation is the deepest question that faces us, and we're gonna go right into the very elements of existence and eternity before we're through with it."
Mailer was wrong, Menand maintains, although he does not summarize Mailer's opinion except by misleading implication when he says "The point of the women's movement was not to create a society in which exceptional women can produce great work. It was to create a society in which the life chances of a mediocre woman are no different from the life chances of a mediocre man."
Leave aside what Mailer said on the subject in his book The Prisoner of Sex, which I do not defend except to the extent that it is stated compellingly and in a way designed to provoke a strong reaction. What Menand articulates is a policy wonk's idea of the women's movement -- in intention and certainly in consequence. To reduce the movement to a rally of "mediocre" women, as if it had everything to do with pink collars and Friday paydays, is objectionable, and I wonder that no one has called Menand on it. The many remarkable women associated with feminism may be proof enough that he is wrong. The practice of reading the newspaper on a daily basis should persuade even a cultural critic in Cambridge that the CEOs of Pepsi, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard are not mediocre, and neither are the women who, for example, cover male sports on TV, or run the Fed, or publish poems in the pages of The New Yorker, or demand a place in the power room behind the scenes of the Master's golf tournament in Augusta, Georgia.
The social changes wrought by the women's movement go so far beyond the base economic that I almost laughed off my chair when Menand says that Mailer is wrong about the significance of the women's movement "unless you are the kind of person who thinks that the Beatles pose an urgent eschatalological problem." It is "eschatalogical" that is the caricaturing word in that sentence. I have no doubt that the writer will have no problem producing three-thousand words of high-minded bullshit to mark the fiftieth anniversary of some Beatles' album or other.