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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. I have 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?