February 5, 2004

Norman Mailer has a lot to say about the relationship between literature and the media. Although coverage of his domestic dramas and literary feuds has often overshadowed his prize-winning writing, Mailer has continued throughout more than a half-century to produce ground-breaking work as a novelist, essayist and, at times, a journalist.

He burst on the literary scene in 1948 with the explosive World War II novel “The Naked and the Dead,” followed by “Armies in the Night,” which won him the Pulitzer Prize in General Non-fiction. In 1979, he published The Executioner’s Song,” a masterpiece of creative non-fiction, which also won him a Pulitzer. His latest books are “The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing,” published last year on his 80th birthday; “Why Are We At War?”, a polemic against George W. Bush and the war in Iraq, published in April, and the very modest “Modest Gifts,” a whimsical paperback of his poems and drawings, published in November.

“The Spooky Art,” a pastiche of advice gleaned from over 50 years of the author’s interviews and writings on writing, is brutally harsh toward book critics (“It probably takes 20 years to appreciate book reviewing for what it is … a primitive rite”) and deliciously Maileresque (“I’d never dream, however, of not reading reviews. It would be like not looking at a naked woman if she happens to be standing in front of her open window. Whether ugly or lovely, she is undeniably interesting under the circumstances.”). It manages to describe brilliantly the simultaneous terror and exhilaration of writing.

In a recent telephone call, however, he admitted he was worried about the future of fiction writing. “Novels are in trouble today. Some people think they’re through — like the five-act play. I’m doing it, so I have to hope my pessimism is ill-founded,” he said, but also warned, “No great country can survive without a great literary art. Writers are tremendously important not just for the culture but for a country’s sense of itself.”  

Here’s an excerpt of our conversation. A different version was published previously in the St. Petersburg Times and can be found here.

Hammond: In “The Spooky Art” you refer to the need for young writers to pick themselves clean of the bad prose in bad books and in newspapers, and, of course, there are scads of examples of both.
But what about the novelists who worked as journalists when they were young — Gabriel Garcia 
Marquez and Ernest Hemingway, for example.  Was there anything about their journalism training
that helped them write better novels?

Mailer: Every piece of literary advice ends up to be a generalization. Hemingway got something wonderful out of journalism and it shows in his novels. Yes, one of the greatest American novelists of all time was, indeed, a journalist. But generally speaking journalism is sloppy writing, and unless you have a real talent, it can injure you to write too quickly, come to too many conclusions. It’s frantic and hysterical. By the way, newsrooms these days all sound like you’re in a monastery. All the computers are so silent. I miss the old days. Lots of journalism writing is bad because the pressure of being a good writer is not the first talent you need to be a good journalist. The first talent you need is the emotional readiness to introduce yourself to strangers and pick their brains.

But is there anything about journalism that helps the novelist?

The thing about journalists is that they learn about a lot of people in a hurry. Less good is that the experience is very rarely existential. By existential I mean that you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. If you’re doing it on spec, then it’s very existential. But if you’re working for a newspaper and you know it’ll be printed no matter what, then you learn a lot, but it doesn’t bite deep. Experiences you can’t control teach you a lot — the others just skim the top.

Do you feel you have been unfairly stereotyped by the press?

Yes, but everyone who has something to do with the press feels that way, not just me. It’s a hell of a demand made on a writer to be a reporter. I was a spoiled darling when I did pieces. I had one or two weeks to get my piece in. What’s built in the system of journalism is stereotyping and inaccuracy. You look for something asinine the person said and make that the theme of your piece. Look at what happened to Howard Dean. They shaved all sorts of electoral points off him. I wasn’t surprised when he popped. I was surprised he held it in so long. One small advantage of ending up with an ugly legend is that you are so different from the legend. So when people meet you, you are relatively calm, and they are at odds. It’s an insult to their acumen that they have you so wrong.

Is this like the situation with Henry Miller who, as you point out in “The Spooky Art,” will always remain the guy who wrote the dirty books?

I became the guy who’s against women, which is nonsense. I spent my life enjoying the company of women more than men. It’s a canard. I think the reason I became the pinup devil of the women’s movement was because I was there and I was available. They were not going down to Texas to meet up with the real macho guys, so they were killing us off in New York.

In the ’50s, in a magazine called “Dissent,” you offered a socialist criticism of David Reisman’s “The Lonely Crowd,” calling him a liberal. How do you describe yourself politically today?

I describe myself as a left conservative. It’s always hard to explain. I’m to the left of the Democratic Party but not to the right of the Republicans. The conservative element is that I hate political correctness. My gut feeling is that at any given moment you have to explore what the nitty-gritty is, what the sense of the occasion is. I’m opposed to ideology. Socialism can’t work without a religious idea fortifying it. I call myself a left conservative because liberal is all used up. It doesn’t have any meaning any more. I wrote about all this in a piece a few months ago in Playboy. It starts out beautifully, but it then continued on page such and such and no one read the second half because to get to it, they had to go past 20 pages of the most gorgeous women. Just call me a man of the Left with occasional surprisingly conservative views.

Republicans are very good at redirecting and rearticulating words to advance their cause. The term compassionate conservative comes to mind. Would you advise the Left to fire back a la Al Franken or, as a wordsmith, are you afraid to heat up the language battle?

Use of language is dangerous when there is no respect for it. What characterizes the Bush administration is their prodigious disrespect for the English language. As I once had a character say in a novel, you can’t stop a man who’s never been embarrassed by himself. And that’s George W. Bush. He looks upon the language as a tool. It’s a good mallet and chisel to cut into the sentimental needs of the American public who come around like hound dogs to certain words like patriotism, America, flag and security. I always say that America is the real religion of this country.

But didn’t you say that socialism would need to combine with religious beliefs to be effective?

But not a fundamentalism God. Not a God who gave us a book one day and we have to follow it. That’s a logical absurdity. The universe is a creation, not a fundament. The universe keeps changing. We all have to discover that universe for ourselves. We have to find out the nature of that universe for ourselves. I am prodigiously anti-fundamental.

In “The Spooky Art,” you said a communication of human experience, of the deepest and most unrecoverable kind, must yet take place if we are to survive. Do you still have hopes that the Great American Novel can be written?

The Great American Novel is no longer writable. We can’t do what John Dos Passos did. His trilogy on America came as close to the Great American Novel as anyone. You can’t cover all of America now. It’s too detailed. You couldn’t just stick someone in Tampa without knowing about Tampa. You couldn’t get away with it. People didn’t get upset if you were a little scanty on the details in the past. Now all the details get in the way of an expanse of a novel.

What is the legacy of the post-World War II generation? Is it the launching of a tradition of blending fiction and nonfiction?

Tom Wolfe claimed he was the discoverer of New Journalism … Actually, we were both doing it quite separately. But I’m much older than he is … by eight or 10 years. So I’m the only one of the post-World War II generation to practice it. Sorry if I shoot down your theory.

So let’s give you the title of founder of creative nonfiction. You certainly perfected its use in “The Executioner’s Song.” Do you think the form is replacing the novel?

You can take a much broader canvas with nonfiction … and Americans want large canvases because America is getting so confusing. People want more information than you can get from most novels. You can read a novel about a small subject like the breakup of a marriage, but that’s not a wide enough approach for some. It takes something like “The Sopranos,” which can loop into a good many aspects of American culture. As I said, I don’t think the Great American Novel can be written anymore. There will be great novels … forever, I hope … But the notion of a wide canvas may be moving to television with its possibilities of endless hours.

How does age affect the way a writer views his success?

Two things go on at once when you have success as a writer. It gets to be kind of … let me get an image for it … you get caught in a riptide. Two waves are coming in from different directions. You get more attention in one place and less in other. The ego is on a jumping jack … Young and middle-age writers depend so much on self-confidence. The public reception of your work is so important. When you get older, the thing that keeps the back and forth from getting too big is that you get cooler, more objective. You realize that whether you get famous after your life or not is out of your hands. It depends on history … It’s complicated. Long after you’re gone, you can become famous because you went against the tides or the tide picks you up. For me it’s about getting my work out … not about where I am in the literary firmament.

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Book Editor of the St. Petersburg Times and one of the Book Babes, a blog dedicated to an on-line conversation about books, co-authored by Ellen…
Margo Hammond

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