The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing

The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing

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by Norman Mailer

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“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


“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.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

James Schiff
In his latest prose collection, touted as "a book for young novelists," Mailer weighs in on everything from masturbation ("a miserable activity") to Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, which he dismisses as overwritten and overrated. Comprised of new and previously published essays, forewords and interview excerpts, the volume focuses loosely on writing and the writing life. Subjects include literary fame, book reviews, writing courses and other authors, including Ernest Hemingway and Leo Tolstoy. It's no surprise that Mailer, whose popularity has waned in recent decades, should speak of the novel as also being in decline: "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." Though the collection is uneven and at times cursory, it's also filled with Mailer's energetic spirit and is often provocative, perceptive and entertaining.
Publishers Weekly
Although there's some original material, most of Mailer's reflections on the writer's craft have been assembled from decades of interviews, essays, lectures and other sources. As such, despite an effective integration in the earliest sections, most of the book has a scattershot feel. Mailer doesn't exactly offer advice, apart from the occasional warning: "writing as a daily physical activity is not agreeable." Instead, in the first half, he teaches by example, providing a self-portrait emphasizing the process of writing some of his earliest novels, including The Naked and the Dead and The Deer Park. Unfortunately, the closer he gets to the present, the less he has to say; later efforts like Tough Guys Don't Dance get little more than a page. Some people will find Mailer's self-assessment grandiose-he compares himself to Picasso repeatedly-but his confidence should hardly surprise anybody at this point. Not even his forceful personality can hold the second half together, though: Tantalizing bits such as a description of his relationship with Kurt Vonnegut as "friendly... but wary," or his insightful reflections on the ways writers might absorb the emotional impact of September 11 without writing about it directly, get buried under meandering ruminations. What he has to say about contemporary literature, like his observation that Jonathan Franzen "writes superbly well sentence for sentence, but yet one is not happy with the achievement," leaves the reader wanting more about books and less, much less, about Last Tango in Paris. Agent, Andrew Wylie. (On sale Jan. 21) Forecast: No doubt there'll be quite a hoo-ha as the two-time Pulitzer winner turns 80 in 2003, and this book will get some of the attention.
Library Journal
Commemorating his 80th birthday, this pastiche of remembrance, interview extracts, and instruction has much to say about the s ance-like raising of the muse that Mailer calls "The Spooky Art." The book is indulgently organized and repetitive (How many times must the author compare the novelist's lonely, disciplined work to that of the athlete?), but there is much to enjoy here by looking beyond its more bare-chested themes. This "intimate handbook" offers many worthwhile precepts: Mailer explains how metaphors reveal the breadth of the writer's mind, sides against fictionalizing friends or family members, outlines the psychic costs and literary benefits of mescaline, and discusses the importance of stamina for the novelist, as well as how to handle plot: "Sooner or later, plot presents its bill." Mailer's history of how his third novel came to be sold and unsold to Stanley Rhinehart over ten suggestive lines presents a wonderful picture of publishing before the revolution in taste. Despite some padding (Does a lusty old review of Last Tango in Paris tell us much about the writing craft?) and a bit of literary score-settling, overall this is a book of rich experience that can be read around in with much pleasure and insight. For literature collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/02.]-Nathan Ward, "Library Journal" Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
More than 50 years after he first staked his claim to the title of Great American Novelist, Mailer surveys the literary landscape--and the competition.

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.

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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?

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Born in 1923 in Long Branch, New Jersey, and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Norman Mailer was one of the most influential writers of the second half of the twentieth 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.

From the Hardcover edition.

Brief Biography

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

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The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Dr_Wilson_Trivino More than 1 year ago
Norman Mailer sky rocketed to the literary world in his classic The Naked in the Dead. However he admits in his book The Spooky Art he might not have been ready to be part of that rung yet. In a reflective work, Mailer candidly shares his struggles to have a follow up work. He also into some his inner demons. He sets up the chapters as part confessional and part imaginary question and answers. This work seems to be a therapy sessions, each one going deeper and deeper into unlocking that mystique that makes up a great writer. This book is entertaining and insightful for anyone who wants to peek inside one writer’s brain.
Darkloom More than 1 year ago
Mailer takes himself very seriously, that is if this work is any indication of who he is. Young writers might very well be scared away from the profession by the self-indulgent ramblings of such a famous writer of what some consider a few of the best novels ever written. Well, young male writers. This work is definitely of no particular use to female writers and was never meant to be. It bears no resemblance to a how-to book on writing and one can hope that those young male writers who read it don't get the idea that taking drugs, womanizing, foul language, and other macho attitudes are what it takes to succeed.

Sometimes getting into the mind of another writer does not help to endear his work to readers or writers. It can be a frightening ordeal and make one wonder how good fiction ever came out of such an ego.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This collection of writing about writing is another autobiographical work on the life and trials of the number one self proclaimed great American novelist Norman Mailer. Special consideration is given to it as the probable swan song of a character who has been a major American literary presence for close to sixty years. Like so much of Mailer there is real genius mixed up with nonsense and idiosyncracy . I think the greatest criticism I would have is the feeling given that despite all the words about so many different things, Mailer's essential subject has been ' Mailer and the Great American Novel endlessly attempted and never really written' Along with that I personally feel a deep alienation from Mailer's way of seeing the world , his value- system. I don't just mean the radical socialism but also the emphasis on machoism, and what might be called sensual triviality. But if I think not about the negative, but about Mailer's virtues I would say the following: He is a true original and his writing has a power and flow at times which can take the reader truly to a better place- and he is a thinker also whose great insights are often surrounded by incomprehensible musings. Mailer is a missile often off mark, but one capable of sailing through great distances with beauty and strength. One of his themes and one of American literature's themes is of the great promise of youth, and of the lost gift, and of the sense it could have been done so much better and been so much greater. Mailer does leave the reader with that feeling. But as he comes close to the end there is too an appreciation for certain truly wonderful passages he has written( In Armies of the Night, and certainly in ' The Naked and the Dead' and scattered throughout. ' When he was good he was very very good '