Deaths and Dragons

Norman Mailer's passing provokes outpourings of praise and condemnation in equal measure

Mailer Makes his Exit

The week in the Arts began with a splurge of tributes and opinion pieces marking the death of Norman Mailer. The majority of obits were respectful but seemed unsure how to deal with the controversy he engendered, both in his fiction and in his personal life. Although he was praised by some as a brilliant and influential practitioner of the New Journalism, Roger Kimball offered a hatchet job of a man he characterised as a ‘polyphiloprogenitive wife-stabber and booster of homicidal misfits’. For those on the left, Mailer could be an eloquent spokesperson (John Pilger quotes him extensively in this article, but his [brawling, feuding] and suspect views on women lost him the respect of many.

Mailer was an ambitious, ballsy and divisive figure (with even the outspoken Christopher Hitchens confessing to being in awe of his chutzpah), yet many great writers have led controversial lives - are they, like ex-Presidents, entitled to somewhat idealised memorials?. Does the best of the writing outweigh the worst of the life? Or are the two inseparable?

Related

NS Review of Mailer’s final work The Castle in the Forest

The New York Times on Mailer’s life and work

An early review of The Naked and the Dead

A provocative interview with Mailer from the NS archive

Blockbuster Politics

This week saw the release of the first big blockbuster of this festive season. Beowulf, Robert Zemeckis’s motion-captured take on the old English poem, stars a digitally enhanced Ray Winstone as the eponymous Geat and Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s yummy mummy. The original text, heavy on honour and smiting, could be said to offer an idealised portrait of conflict but early reviews have suggested that Zemeckis is more interested in portraying his hero as a flawed and fallible individual. As such, does the film have anything to tell us about Western attitudes to war, valour and honour in the political climate of 2007?

Today’s film students, and even a smattering of political commentators, are happy to write on topics like the relationship of the Star Wars series to the Vietnam War. Will the students of the future be reading War on Terror analogies into Beowulf, and this winter’s other big film, the already controversial Golden Compass? Or is Beowulf really just about a man, a monster and a whopping great dragon? You can judge for yourself - it’s in cinemas now.

Related:

A comprehensive online overview of war films

Terry Eagleton on Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf

Salman Rushdie on war and film

An upcoming talk withPhilip Pullman

NS Film Editor Ryan Gilbey on the cinema of the Iraq war

Websites for political thrillers A Mighty Heart and Lions for Lambs

Meanwhile across the pond…

November the 14th saw another glitzy literary prize ceremony take place, with the 58th National Book Awards being held in Manhattan. The NBA for fiction went to Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, a Vietnam-set novel which was acclaimed by our reviewer and Tim Weiner scooped the non-fiction gong with his damning history of the CIA Legacy of Ashes. The novelist and essayist Joan Dideon was awarded the prestigious Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

You can check out the full list of contenders and winners and decide if you think anyone was cheated here. It may be worth noting that the NBA unfortunately shares its acronym with the National Basketball Association (a bit like if the Booker Prize started referring to itself as The FA), so Google users may wish to search using the award’s full title.

Pompidou Centre
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Harry Styles: What can three blank Instagram posts tell us about music promotion?

Do the One Direction star’s latest posts tell us about the future of music promotion in the social media age - or take us back to a bygone era?

Yesterday, Harry Styles posted three identical, captionless blank images to Instagram. He offered no explanation on any other social network, and left no clue via location serves or tagged accounts as to what the pictures might mean. There was nothing about any of the individual images that suggested they might have significance beyond their surface existence.

And, predictably, they brought in over a million likes – and thousands of Styles fans decoding them with the forensic dedication of the cast of Silent Witness.

Of course, the Instagrams are deliberately provocative in their vagueness. They reminded me of Robert Rauschenberg’s three-panelled White Painting (1951), or Robert Ryman’s Untitled, three square blank canvases that hang in the Pompidou Centre. The composer John Cage claimed that the significance of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings lay in their status as receptive surfaces that respond to the world around them. The significance of Styles’s Instagrams arguably, too, only gain cultural relevance as his audience engages with them.

So what did fans make of the cryptic posts? Some posited a modelling career announcement would follow, others theorised that it was a nod to a Taylor Swift song “Blank Space”, and that the former couple would soon confirm they were back together. Still more thought this suggested an oncoming solo album launch.

You can understand why a solo album launch would be on the tip of most fans’ tongues. Instagram has become a popular platform for the cryptic musical announcement — In April, Beyoncé teased Lemonade’s world premiere with a short Instagram video – keeping her face, and the significance behind the title Lemonade, hidden.

Creating a void is often seen as the ultimate way to tease fans and whet appetites. In June last year, The 1975 temporarily deleted their Instagram, a key platform in building the band’s grungy, black and white brand, in the lead up to the announcement of their second album, which involved a shift in aesthetic to pastel pinks and bright neons.

The Weekend wiped his, too, just last week – ahead of the release of his new single “Starboy”. Blank Instagrams are popular across the network. Jaden Smith has posted hundreds of them, seemingly with no wider philosophical point behind them, though he did tweet in April last year, “Instagram Is A BlackHole Of Time And Energy.”

The motive behind Harry’s blank posts perhaps seems somewhat anticlimactic – an interview with magazine Another Man, and three covers, with three different hairstyles, to go along with it. But presumably the interview coincides with the promotion of something new – hopefully, something other than his new film Dunkirk and the latest update on his beloved tresses. In fact, those blank Instagrams could lead to a surprisingly traditional form of celebrity announcement – one that surfaces to the world via the print press.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.