Norman Mailer’s A Fire on the Moon: a giant leap for reportage

Geoff Dyer in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_658 May. 28 20.35Mailer starts with the news of Hemingway's death; I'll start with Ezra Pound's claim, in The ABC of Reading, that literature “is news that STAYS news”. The appeal of having one of America's best-known writers cover the biggest news story of the decade – probably of the century, conceivably of all time – was obvious, and Mailer was a natural fit. Back then a lot of people were quoting the opinion that he was the best journalist in America. One of those people was Mailer himself who took umbrage at the praise as it tacitly downgraded his achievements as a novelist. Imagine Laurence Sterne with a huge subject, a big advance and a looming deadline, and you have some sense of the conflicting pressures at work on Of a Fire on the Moon (the original American title).

The deadline needs emphasising. Other writers had plenty to say about the moon landing – everyone had something to say about it – but few would have had the chops to bang out 115,000 words for publication in three issues of Life magazine, the first tranche of which, Mailer groans, was due less than three weeks after the astronauts splashed down in the Pacific. That, to put it mildly, is a lot of words in a very short time: not quite as challenging a task as the one set out by John F Kennedy in 1961 – to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth by the end of the decade – but a serious job of work all the same. So the question today, for anyone under the age of 45 who was unable to experience the event, let alone read about it as news, is the extent to which the result is compromised or enhanced by the circumstances of its occasion and composition. Now that the subject matter is the stuff of history – when the word astronaut might be used in the context of historical as opposed to science fiction – does Mailer's book pass Pound's testing definition? And where does it stand within two quite different contexts: that of other books about the moon landings, and within the large scope and wildly mixed quality of Mailer's work as a whole?

More here.