Mr. Mailer, when you dip your balls in ink, what color ink is it?

No one—not Gore Vidal, not William Styron, not anyone—ever took down Norman Mailer the way Cynthia Ozick did at Town Hall in 1971. The setting: a debate on “women’s liberation,” as it was then called. The players: Mailer v. Germaine Greer, Diana Trilling, Jill Johnston, and Jacqueline Ceballos. (The event was later memorialized as a documentary.)

Everyone focused on the exotic beauty and wit of Greer, the antics of Johnston (which prompted Mailer to say, “Come on, Jill, be a lady”), and the demure, sly presence of Susan Sontag in the audience, but to my mind it was Ozick who stole the show. When she asked, in her neurotic and nervous way, the following question:

This question, I have been fantasizing it for many many years, since Advertisements for Myself. Only I always thought it would take place at the Y, now it’s here. This is the truth, this is a fantasy, this is my moment to live out a fantasy. Mr. Mailer, in Advertisements for Myself, you said, “A good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls.” For years and years I’ve been wondering, Mr. Mailer, when you dip your balls in ink, what color ink is it?

If you want to get to the good stuff, start at 1:18. But I recommend watching all of it.


  1. Jason Trask March 30, 2013 at 3:56 pm | #

    I can’t believe that you would have us believe that Cynthia Ozick took Mailer down with that comment. Maybe if Mailer had become apoplectic with rage and had become tongue-tied, it might have been considered a take down. But the fact is, he laughed along with everyone else at her comment and answered her with self-deprecating humor. He definitely tai chi-ed his way clear of her reach. Her comment, by the way, didn’t even make sense. He hadn’t said that he wrote with his balls. He said that a writer could do without everything except some remnant of his balls. What kills me most is the way that Ozick seems to think that she’s got something against Mailer, but at the same time, you can see that she is completely charmed by and attracted to him. Normally I have respect for her, but this was not her best moment.

    • Jacob March 30, 2013 at 9:53 pm | #

      When his embarrassing, early, tough-guy writing is brought to the fore, you see him at ease and in good-humor, but when she’s invoking the Bible to damn his masculine paganism, you see him nervously scratching his chin. She left him off the hook with the joke question. All he had to do then was respond to that, and not the reduction of himself as a bad intellectual.

    • Donald Fitzgerald March 31, 2013 at 1:08 am | #

      Isn’t it obvious that if all a novelist has left is his (her?) balls, then the balls must be used to do the writing? Ergo, used with ink. Why she’s curious about the color of the ink escapes me.

      • Arkerless March 31, 2013 at 4:15 am | #

        I believe you both are simply reading the man too literally. He isnt talking about literal balls (except, perhaps, as an undercurrent) and he didnt intend “everything” to be interpreted in a hyperliteral sort of way either. After all, if he has nothing left but a remnant of his balls, how do you suppose he should lift them up to dip them? Everything would include his hands too, right? All he meant was that the critical quality a writer must retain is some modicum of courage.

        • Jakub April 19, 2022 at 5:12 am | #

          Ozick was making fun of the silly sexist metaphor of balls for courage or boldness. And since Mailer was such a (pseudo) macho writer, what else would he be writing with but his balls when everything else was gone, including the pencil. She’s taking it to its absurd, graphically grotesque conclusion of Mailer living up to his dominant male standard and actually using his balls to write; in so doing, she ridicules his ethos of a writer and his type of writing, including the metaphors that reflect it.

        • Duncan October 21, 2023 at 3:17 pm | #

          “some modicum of courage.” So women, who don’t have balls, don’t have courage?

      • jonnybutter March 31, 2013 at 1:47 pm | #

        All he meant was that the critical quality a writer must retain is some modicum of courage.

        Yes, he meant courage, and I assume the upshot of CO’s question is the idea that you don’t have to (literally) have balls to have courage.

        Good on Mailer though for admitting that it was an idiotic thing to have written.

    • Chris April 21, 2013 at 1:16 pm | #

      She did take him down. All he could do was respond gracefully, by playing along and laughing at himself.

      And I don’t see how you could interpret her expressions or manner as attraction towards Mailer.

  2. casino implosion March 31, 2013 at 11:11 am | #

    Odd that corey mentions Mailer out of the blue. Just yesterday I was reading his introduction to Jack Henry Abott’s “Belly of the Beast” and thinking what a pompous blowhard he was.

  3. Chris April 21, 2013 at 9:45 am | #

    Oh yeah, Norman Mailer, that’s who’s responsible for sexism… You’re really fighting for women’s rights there Miss Ozick…

    • Chris April 21, 2013 at 1:09 pm | #

      No-one’s responsible for sexism, in the way that I assume you means a figurehead of some sexist society. But when you see evidence of it, you point it out. One at the time…

      • Tania October 9, 2014 at 5:21 am | #

        Mailer had a lot of mouths to feed, a lot of, alimony to pay so he created controversy to sell books. The guy was a uniquely gifted writer.

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