The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writingby Norman Mailer
In The Spooky Art, Norman Mailer discusses with signature candor the rewards and trials of the writing life, and recommends the tools to navigate it. Addressing the reader in/i>
"Writing is spooky. There is no routine of an office to keep you going, only the blank page each morning, and you never know where your words are coming from, those divine words."
In The Spooky Art, Norman Mailer discusses with signature candor the rewards and trials of the writing life, and recommends the tools to navigate it. Addressing the reader in a conversational tone, he draws on the best of more than fifty years of his own criticism, advice, and detailed observations about the writer’s craft. Mailer explores, among other topics, the use of first person versus third person, the pressing need for discipline, the pitfalls of early success, and the dire matter of coping with bad reviews. While The Spooky Art offers a fascinating preview of what can lie in wait for the student and fledgling writer, the book also has a great deal to say to more advanced writers on the contrary demands of plot and character, the demon writer’s block, and the curious ins-and-outs of publishing. Throughout, Mailer ties in examples from his own career, and reflects on the works of his fellow writers, living and dead -- Twain, Melville, Faulkner, Hemingway, Updike, Didion, Bellow, Styron, Beckett, and a host of others. In The Spooky Art, Mailer captures the unique untold suffering and exhilaration of the novelist’s daily life and, while plotting a clear path for other writers to follow, maintains reverence for the underlying mystery and power of the art.
Norman Mailer in The Spooky Art
On the writer’s ambition:
People don’t become authors solely to benefit humanity. They’re in the same position as priests. Part of them wants to be good to others; the other side wants, one way or the other, to have some sort of acquaintance with power.
On crafting characters:
It is not easy to write in the first person about a man who’s stronger or braver than yourself. It’s too close to self-serving. All the same, you have to be able to do it. Because if every one of your characters is kept down to your level, you do not take on large subjects. You need people more heroic than yourself, more enterprising, less timid, sexier, more romantic, more tragic.
A very young writer sits on a park bench with his girl. He kisses her. He’s seventeen. He’s never had such a kiss before. Later that night, he tries to capture the event. He writes: I love you, he said. I love you, she said. He stops, throws down his pen, and says, "I’m a great writer!" Sometimes, you have to wait.
Over the years, I’ve found one rule. It is the only one I give on those occasions when I talk about writing. A simple rule. If you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material. You are, in effect, contracting to pick up such valuables at a given time. Count on me, you are saying to a few forces below: I will be there to write.
Norman Mailer was born in 1923 and published his first book, The Naked and the Dead, in 1948. The Armies of the Night won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1969; Mailer received another Pulitzer in 1980 for The Executioner’s Song. He lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Brooklyn, New York.
Pasting together "pieces I have written and extracts from interviews I have given," Mailer hands out a few trophies (and some jabs) to surviving contemporaries Bellow, Updike, and Roth, as well as giants such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe. He also considers the other Tom Wolfe, bops Young Turk Jonathan Franzen, and even skips about the ring with Toni Morrison. Fans following Mailer’s career since The Naked and the Dead (1948) will find many familiar pages, especially those chronicling the young contender’s liverish agonies with The Deer Park (1955), and yet the whole impresses mightily--more so than might A Treasury of Great Literary Comments by Updike, Bellow, or Roth. The mind-altering moment here for younger writers comes when Mailer finds his own voice at last in Advertisements for Myself (1959), the most infectious piece of prose to liberate American authors in the past half-century. At that point, he shifts from seeking the perfect word or nuance to the longer rhythms of double-bed sentences built for the Maileresque hurly-burly of sex, philosophy, and metaphor. He is particularly stimulating on questions of craft: style, first person versus third person, real life versus plot life, instinct and influence, stamina. He praises E.L. Doctorow’s sublime chapter in Ragtime showing J. P. Morgan trying to suck Henry Ford into an occult group of world-rulers. "The fact that it obviously never took place," Mailer observes, "made it more delicious." In a longer passage he takes apart Bellow’s Herzog, finding the protagonist anunendurably boring, leaden-footed, "unoriginal man." Nonetheless, he concludes, "the novel succeeds. There is its mystery. One reads it with compassion. With rare compassion." Indeed he does, and compassion was a quality rarely associated with the young Norman Mailer. Pub date coincides with his 80th birthday: Can it be that he’s grown up?
Mailer’s richest thoughts on writing since the shock of Advertisements for Myself.
“The Spooky Art shows Mailer’s brave willingness to take on demanding forms and daunting issues. . . . He has been a thoughtful and stylish witness to the best and worst of the American century.”—The Boston Globe
“At his best—as artists should be judged—Mailer is indispensable, an American treasure. There is enough of his best in this book for it to be welcomed with gratitude.”—The Washington Post
“[The Spooky Art] should nourish and inform—as well as entertain—almost any serious reader of the novel.”—Baltimore Sun
“The richest book ever written about the writer’s subconscious.”—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Striking . . . entrancingly frank.”—Entertainment Weekly
Praise for Norman Mailer
“[Norman Mailer] loomed over American letters longer and larger than any other writer of his generation.”—The New York Times
“A writer of the greatest and most reckless talent.”—The New Yorker
“A devastatingly alive and original creative mind.”—Life
“Mailer is fierce, courageous, and reckless and nearly everything he writes has sections of headlong brilliance.”—The New York Review of Books
“The largest mind and imagination [in modern] American literature . . . Unlike just about every American writer since Henry James, Mailer has managed to grow and become richer in wisdom with each new book.”—Chicago Tribune
“Mailer is a master of his craft. His language carries you through the story like a leaf on a stream.”—The Cincinnati Post
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Read an Excerpt
WITH THREE WARNINGS
AND ONE APOLOGY
During the seven years I worked on Harlot’s Ghost, I perceived the CIA and its agents as people of high morals and thorough deceit, loyalty and duplicity, passion and ice-cold detachment. So many writers, including myself, have a bit of that in our makeup. It is part of what has made us novelists, even as intelligence agents are drawn to their profession by the striking opposites in their natures.
Let me assert from the outset, however, that The Spooky Art is not a book about intelligence agents. A work of that sort I might call The Art of the Spooks. This book, however, as the subtitle states, is about writing, its perils, joys, vicissitudes, its loneliness, its celebrity if you are lucky and not so very lucky in just that way. Needless to add, it speaks of problems of craft and plot, character, style, third person, first person, the special psychology of the writer. (I do not think novelists–good novelists, that is–are altogether like other people.) We novelists, good and bad, are also closet philosophers, and one is ready therefore–how not?–to offer one’s own forays into the nature of such matters as being and nothingness, the near-to-unclassifiable presence of the unconscious and its demonic weapon–writer’s block. En route, one looks into the need for stamina in doing a novel, and the relation of stamina to one’s style. There are discussions of the differences and similarities between fiction and history, fiction and journalism, and, of course, I have often thought about the life of action and the life of meditation as it affects one’s work. Ihave talked and written about the pitfalls of early success and how to cope with disastrous reviews and how we each do our best to live with the competitive spirit of the novelist rather than be eaten out by it. There is talk about identity and occasional crises of identity, as well as the presence of the unconscious in relation to the novelist, taken together with such strategems as when it is wise to enter a character’s mind and when it is unwise to make characters out of real people in one’s life.
All of that is Part I of this book. Part II concerns Genre and Colleagues. Since writers are often in search of how to work in other arts and crafts, Genre has to do with film and painting and journalism, with television and graffiti, as examples of some of the ways and by-ways down which writers search and/or flee from their more direct responsibility.
Finally, there is another section at the end called Giants and Colleagues, filled with a mix of thoughtful and/or shoot-from-the-hip candor about some of my contemporaries, rivals, and literary idols, as well as a few pieces of more formal criticism. Among the authors discussed, some in reasonable depth, others in no more than passing comment, are Hemingway, Faulkner, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Updike, Cheever, Roth, Doctorow, Capote, Vidal, Bellow, Heller, Borges, James Jones, Styron, Chekhov, James T. Farrell, Henry Adams, Henry James, García Márquez, Melville, Proust, Beckett, Dreiser, Graham Greene, William Burroughs, Scott Fitzgerald, Nelson Algren, Kurt Vonnegut, Dwight Macdonald, Toni Morrison, Thomas Wolfe, Tom Wolfe, Jean Malaquais, Don DeLillo, Henry Miller, John Steinbeck, Christopher Isherwood, William Kennedy, Joan Didion, Kate Millett, Jonathan Franzen, Ralph Ellison, Joyce Carol Oates, John Dos Passos, D. H. Lawrence, Mark Twain, Freud, and Marx. Even Bill Buckley is mentioned (in relation to character versus plot). And Stephen King for style.
Taken all together, the result–one would hope–is a volume able to appeal to serious writers and to people who wish to write, to students, to critics, to men and women who love to read. But most of all, this may be a book for young novelists who wish to improve their skills and their commitment to the subtle difficulties and uncharted mysteries of serious novel-writing itself.
Now, for the warnings. A good deal of hesitation went along with the title. Spooky is virtually a child’s word and seemed too casual. Besides, it does not always apply. Not all days at one’s desk are odd or subtly frightening or, for that matter, full of scary fun. Novel-writing can be dogged. 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.
Nor is this a geriatric analogy. It is usually young men who have old cars. Moreover, there is no sense of youth that a young man can feel on a truly bad day of writing. Young novelists do get to feel like old men on such unhappy occasions, as if whatever talent they once possessed is now gone. The first intimation of old age for many a young novelist is the day when the gift does not appear, or comes through hobbled. Scenes that one expected to be rich are without presence on the page. One’s inner life–that exceptional sense of oneself as possessed of thoughts that are not like others’–is absent. The scene one is working on is as boring as one’s breath on a dull day.
That is the worst, and there is nothing mysterious about such mornings, afternoons, or nights unless it is the new and intimate sense that destiny never guarantees a happy end. You are brought up close, on such occasions, to the future rigor of an unhappy denouement for yourself.
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. You discover that you know more about life and your characters than you thought you did. Such days are glorious. And they are certainly spooky in the most agreeable fashion. You feel close to all the outer stuff!
Of course, no two days of good work are necessarily the same. One may be practical and effective on certain mornings and the skill is actually in the sobriety of the effort. For another kind of hour, one takes risks. Yet if you have gotten good enough over the years (after decades of such varied mornings), there is also the sense of a governing hand (not necessarily and altogether your own) that keeps the highs and the lows from dashing away from one another so outrageously that your novel changes from chapter to chapter. (That is as bad as a car that pops out of gear at the damnedest times.)
All right. The point of this introduction has possibly been made. In any event, I, as the author and assembler of this work, have succeeded in justifying the title to myself.
Let me add, however, a second warning. We have here a reasonably sized volume that will tell you a good deal of what I know about the problems of writing, and more than occasionally, they are advanced problems. So it is not a how-to-do-it for beginners who want basic approaches to plot, dialogue, suspense, and marketing of manuscripts all carefully laid out. This is, rather, a book for men and women who have already found some vocation to write in college or in graduate school, have perhaps taken courses on novel technique, are even advanced students who have begun to encounter the subtle perils and hazards of the writer’s life.
I have also to offer a last warning, which concerns me most. The Spooky Art, by the nature of its sources (which derive from pieces I have written and extracts from interviews I have given), is without stylistic unity. The manner shifts at times from page to page. Given the separate components, there was no way to avoid this. Off-the-cuff remarks in an interview, even when polished to a modicum of good syntax, can hardly be the equal of an essay done at the top of one’s form. Yet the scattered materials of a writer offer just such a spectrum of harsh perceptions roughly stated and insights good enough occasionally to startle even one’s best perception of oneself. I have, however, tried to soften some of the transitions between reworked interviews and more formal essays, and in most places the reader should not suffer too many jolts.
Still, some of you may refuse to treat this as a consecutive work of printed pages so much as an unexpected and possibly dubious gift of chocolates into which they can dip and move on, pleasure alternating with displeasure. I cannot pretend to say this is wrong. I have tried to put some separate elements together with as much order as is possible under these curious circumstances–close to fifty years of reflecting, meditating, musing, and declaring my thoughts on a profession I practiced and could not always feel I understood–but to those readers for whom order in style is one of the cardinal literary virtues (and I am one of them), there may be no other way to treat this volume than as a gift of occasionally exceptional sweetmeats and disappointments. (Nor will every title and subtitle deliver its promise.)
Now, for the apology. By now, at least as many women as men are novelists, but the old habit of speaking of a writer as he persists. So, I’ve employed the masculine pronoun most of the time when making general remarks about writers. I do not know if the women who read this book will be all that inclined to forgive me, but the alternative was to edit many old remarks over into a style I cannot bear–the rhetorically hygienic politically correct.
All this said, I still have a few hopes that the order imposed on these fifty years of opinions and conclusions will be read by some from the first page to the last, and that a few readers will find The Spooky Art to be an intimate handbook they can return to over the decades of their careers.
Here then is a collection of literary gleanings, aperçus, fulminations, pensées, gripes, insights, regrets and affirmations, a few excuses, several insults, and a number of essays more or less intact. May the critics feel bound to debate some of these notions in time to come.
It is interesting that my ceremonial sense intensifies as I grow older, and so I have looked to assemble this book in time for it to come out on January 31, 2003. I will be exactly eighty years old on that occasion. I would hope I am not looking for unwarranted easy treatment by this last remark. Can I possibly be speaking the truth?
Meet the Author
Born in Long Branch, NJ, in 1923, and raised in Brooklyn, Norman Mailer was one of the most influential writers of the second half of the 20th century and a leading public intellectual for nearly sixty years. He is the author of more than thirty books. The Castle in the Forest, his last novel, was his eleventh New York Times bestseller. His first novel, The Naked and the Dead, has never gone out of print. His 1968 nonfiction narrative, The Armies of the Night, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. He won a second Pulitzer for The Executioner’s Song and is the only person to have won Pulitzers in both fiction and nonfiction. Five of his books were nominated for National Book Awards, and he won a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation in 2005. Mr. Mailer died in 2007 in New York City.
- Provincetown, Massachusetts, and New York, New York
- Date of Birth:
- January 31, 1923
- Date of Death:
- November 10, 2007
- Place of Birth:
- Long Branch, New Jersey
- B.S., Harvard University, 1943; Sorbonne, Paris, 1947-48