Norman Mailer had some paragraphs about this in The Spooky Art:
"Large literary success is so often a matter of fortuitous publication. The Naked and the Dead had the luckiest timing of my career. By 1946, people were no longer that interested in novels about the Second World War. But The Naked and the Dead didn't come out until 1948, and by then readers were ready. If it had appeared earlier, I don't know that it would have had equal impact."
"On the other hand, when I wrote Ancient Evenings (and that novel took eleven years), I ended up wishing I had been a bit more productive on a few of those working days and so could have come out twelve months earlier. That might have offered me a following breeze. There was large interest in the Egyptian dynasties just the year before. New York had had a massive museum exhibit at the Metropolitan that then proceeded to travel all over the country. By the time Ancient Evenings appeared, I was in the wake. The curious had, for the most part, lost interest."
"Something of the same happened with Harlot's Ghost, When it was published in 1992, the Cold War was over. Much direct attention was gone. When I'd begun seven years earlier, people were still fascinated (as I certainly was) by the CIA. My point is, don't write a book with the idea people are going to be attracted by the subject and therefore you have a good chance to do well with your sales. The situation is bound to be different by the time the work is ready to show itself. No need to calculate. It's a crapshoot."
I loved Harlot's Ghost, although I'm not sure where I'd find time to read a book that long nowadays. What I remembered from the passage quoted above was what Mailer wrote about World War Two and The Naked and The Dead, and the Cold War and Harlot's Ghost. Until I went to look this up, I'd completely forgotten about the exhibit at the Met, which doesn't seem to me like the sort of phenomenon that should impact the reception of a novel -- I guess even Ancient Egypt becomes briefly high concept at cyclical intervals.
Joseph Heller's Catch-22 didn't come out until 1961, which I find sort of encouraging.
3 thoughts on “Novels and Timing the Market”
HARLOT’S GHOST was a caricature of a Mailer novel, all 1000 plus pages. I can’t remember why I read it —though I remember reading it on the beach at Rincon Puerto Rico.
Mailer wrote some novels I could see being described as caricatures of Mailer novels, for example Why Are We in Vietnam?
And perhaps there are places in Harlot’s Ghost where Mailer was straining rather hard to be Mailer — he was a writer for whom living up to his own reputation seemed to be an enormous burden. However, I still have to count myself among that book’s admirers.
Of course a writer would prefer to believe that his first book was just well-timed rather than believe he never wrote as well again.
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