Saturday, August 20, 2016

What Mailer thinks of "the spooky art"

Toward the end of his life—he died in 2007 at age 85—Norman Mailer assembled a miscellany, The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing, that Random House published in 2003. He calls writing, and more specifically novel writing, a spooky art because there are unproductive hours "that feel like nothing so much as the act of trying to start an old car when the motor has gone dead on you.... But there are also odd, offbeat, happy days when something does happen as you write and your characters take surprising turns, sometimes revealing themselves to you on the page in a manner other than you expected them to be." Spooky.

The book, a collection of edited interviews, essays, reviews, comments Mailer gave, wrote, or made over fifty years. The book is organized by his thoughts on the lit biz, craft, psychology, philosophy, genere, and other writers: Tolstoy, Twain, Hemmingway, Miller, Lawrence, and some final thoughts on American Letters.

While I question much of what Mailer says and did not read every word in the book, I did find plenty to think about in the words I did read. Here's Mailer in a 1995 interview: "Writers aren't taken seriously anymore, and a large part of the blame must go to the writers of my generation, most certainly including myself. We haven't written the books that should have been written. We've spent too much time exploring ourselves. We haven't done the imaginative work that could have helped define America, and as a result, our average citizen does not grow in self-understanding." Without getting into the argument whether the writers of Mailer's generation spent too much time exploring themselves, I'm not convinced (although Mailer is) that the novelist's job is to define America, nor do I believe that the average citizen would have read the books had they been written.

Mailer has an exalted view of the novelist's task: "Ideally, you are there to bring wealth to others. Wealth of observation, of perception, the riches of a philosophical attitude that is to a degree new, insights into psychology the reader hasn't had before—all these are on the selfless side of writing." At the same time, there's the writer's ego, vanity, and the desire to advance oneself as a writer. If the tension between the writer's selfless and selfish sides grows too great, it can bollix up the writing.

I found Mailers observations about other writers interesting. He feels Saul Bellow's one major weakness is that "he creates individuals and not relations between them, at least not yet.... I would guess he is more likely to write classics than major novels, which is a way of saying that he will give intense pleasure to particular readers over the years but is not too likely to seize the temper of our time and turn it." (From a 2002 class.)

I have a sense that Norman Mailer was both incredibly lucky and terribly unlucky. As he acknowledges, lucky in that The Naked and the Dead happened to appear just at the right moment in American history and became an enormous best seller. I don't believe that it holds up well, not the way Red Badge of Courage or A Farewell to Arms or The Things They Carried have held up. Unlucky in that because his first novel hit the jackpot, the public (read the lit biz) and Mailer himself expected great things. Even better, richer, deeper—yet equally popular—novels. Instead, he wrote Barbary, The Deer Park, Advertisements for Myself, and more.

Because his non-fiction—Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, and especially The Executioner's Song—do hold up, I wonder if Mailer simply misjudged his talent. Was he a middling novelist but one of the best creative non-fiction authors we've seen? On the other hand, without the fiction, would he have been able to create the non-fiction he produced?

In any case, I recommend any serious writer who wants another perspective on the spooky art of writing to look up The Spooky Art.

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