Norman Mailer feuds with John Simon -- Behind the scenes of the literary slugfest of the year

Has there always been bad blood between author Norman Mailer and critic John Simon? If there wasn’t before, there sure is now. Simon’s damning review of Mailer’s new novel, Harlot’s Ghost, in the Sept. 29 New York Times Book Review has triggered what is easily the literary slugfest of the year — the kind of dustup the book world hasn’t seen since, well, since Mailer brawled with Gore Vidal.

This time around, Mailer claims that Simon, New York magazine’s notoriously acerbic theater critic, slammed his book because of a long-standing feud between them. But Simon denies any historic hard feelings and says the pugnacious Mailer is desperately trying to divert attention from a critical panning. In one of the longest reviews ever to appear in NYTBR, Simon called Mailer’s 1,300-page novel about the CIA an ”arbitrary, lopsided, lumpy novel that outstays its welcome….What (Mailer) lacks is his editor.” Even though it is highly unusual for a critic to review the same book twice, Simon repeated those sentiments in a review that appeared in last week’s London Evening Standard.

Simon is ”a man whose brain is being demented by the bile rising from his bowels,” says Mailer. ”I don’t want to be reviewed by Dracula.”

”I think he’s reaching for any straw he can,” say Simon. ”I’ve always found Mailer kind of amusing.”

The issues involved are threefold, claims Mailer. He says Simon holds a grudge because (1) Mailer once insulted him in print, (2) Mailer was friends with Claus von Bülow, whose erstwhile girlfriend, actress Alexandra Isles, used to date Simon, and (3) Mailer threatened him after Simon attacked the author’s daughter Kate Mailer by calling her acting ”rotten” in a 1988 theater review. Point/counterpoint:

The Insult
Mailer: ”(I once called him) the best Balkan headwaiter in hell.” (The actual quote was: ”as predictable in his critical reactions as a headwaiter.”)
Simon: ”Big deal. To suggest that my review was biased by my resentment of that statement is ridiculous.”

Von Bülow
Mailer: ”I don’t think he liked me for seeing Von Bülow when he hated him. The friend of my enemy is my enemy.”
Simon: ”I don’t care if he was in bed with Von Bülow. This man is further gone than I would have thought possible. The next thing he’ll say is I wrote the review because he once spat on the sidewalk and I stepped on that spittle an hour later.”

Kate Mailer
Mailer: ”He injured her seriously.”
Simon: ”I did give his daughter a bad review, now that I think of it. So what? Therefore I have to give the father a bad review? It’s amazing to what lengths people will go to explain why someone didn’t like a book they wrote.”

Mailer has also criticized NYTBR editor Rebecca Sinkler for allowing Simon to write the review in the first place. In her defense, Sinkler says she asked Simon if he and Mailer had a stormy past; Simon assured her they did not. ”I haven’t seen any proof to the contrary,” says Sinkler. ”If you can’t hold up one of our most famous and respected American writers to the toughest of critics, then I think the whole critical process is in trouble.”