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Thoughts on Writing by Norman K. Mailer ’43—a hodgepodge of literary interviews, prefaces, essays, anecdotes and aphorisms—would seem little more than the outpourings of a mind wrapped up in itself.
Written by Mailer, who after a half-century at the heart of American culture is perhaps more myth than man, the book is a timely spiritual autobiography and a fitting companion-piece to his recent retrospective The Time of Our Time.
“It probably takes 20 years to appreciate book reviewing for what it is—a primitive rite,” writes Mailer to novelists facing poor reviews, preempting any criticism of his own book.
And The Spooky Art is more a book about Mailer than a systematic survey of literature as an industry, a practice, or a canon—though it treats all of these themes.
The collection represents the accumulated wisdom of Mailer’s life in writing, a handbook of his controversial philosophy and a personal vision for America. In divisions from “Lit Biz” to “Craft” to “Philosophy” to “Giants,” each section of the book, however unrelated to the others it may be, is a reflection of the same personality, often saying more about its author than its subject.
Diverse maxims appear within its pages, many of which Mailer sutured together into an article in a late December issue of The New Yorker: “the most powerful leverage in fiction comes from point of view” (found in an analysis of the last draft of his third novel, The Deer Park); “film is best when ambiguous” (found in an essay on writing for the silver screen); “your material only becomes valuable when it is existential, by which I mean an experience you do not control” (found in an account of Mailer’s apprenticeship to his craft at Harvard); and the wrenching formulation, “those who want experience, learn to live; those who don’t, write.”
Yet such pithy reflections don’t exactly send a chill down one’s spine, despite the book’s title, which is meant to imply something unfamiliar.
Describing the experience of writing his second novel, Barbary Shore, he writes, “I always felt as if I were not writing the book myself but rather as if I were serving as a subject for some intelligence which had decided to use me to write the book. If I hadn’t heard about the unconscious, I would have had to postulate one to explain this phenomenon.”
Mailer elsewhere acknowledges that “there are just so many new thoughts you can have,” an argument that any writer is condemned to repeat his central themes.
In such repetition, The Spooky Art is vintage Mailer.
Accounting for the origin of the third-person narrative of Norman Mailer in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Armies of the Night, Mailer recalls the unconscious memory of a chapter of The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams. Its imitation in Mailer’s own work was, in some sense, “spooky.”
Further on, he documents a similar literary spook: subconsciously or not, he claims, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and others lifted their style in certain passages from Mark Twain.
The “spookiness” recalls Mailer’s earlier works for other reasons as well: the perpetual escape from a haunting repetition of stale ideas threads through his entire life.
Few writers have so tirelessly searched for experiences to infuse novels with new ideas or so single-mindedly set about placing themselves at ground zero of American public life.
At the close of World War II, Mailer was in the Pacific; during the 1950s, he was part of Greenwich Village counterculture; when Vietnam arrived, he was protesting it; in the 1980s, he ran unsuccessfully for Mayor of New York City. Beyond penning the novels for which he is chiefly known, he founded and named The Village Voice, directed several films, and became one of the original exponents of New Journalism—a style that blurs the line between journalism and narrative fiction. “Repetition kills the soul,” Mailer writes in one of the book’s many aphorisms by which he has lived.
And Mailer’s experiences perhaps justify the apparent carelessness that frames The Spooky Art’s tone.
Toni Morrison perhaps cannot write for black men, Mailer judges, though qualifying his remark with the warning that he has only read “one or two” of Morrison’s novels, so his perspective may be skewed. In fact the entire section in which this note occurs, “A Lagniappe for the Reader,” assumes his audience will regard any peek into Mailer’s thought processes as a privilege.
Mailer’s experiences may also justify the prophetic authority he claims at the book’s end. The dust-jacket has a red, white and blue color scheme, and after a history of literature’s decline and fall in America—culminating in the judgment that with Camp’s advent, “literature had then failed”—he writes, “Nothing less than a fresh vision of the ongoing and conceivably climactic war between God and the Devil can slake our moral thirst now that we have passed through the incomprehensibilities of the last century.”
If his target is fellow writers, one wonders if Mailer has taken it upon himself to write a book of hope for the regeneration of our national literature after Sept. 11, which he mentions.
In any case, despite his disillusionment with the state of the novel, the book ends, literally, with exaltation.
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