- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 2, 2003

THE SPOOKY ART: SOME THOUGHTS ON WRITING
By Norman Mailer
Random House, $24.95, 330 pages
REVIEWED BY REX ROBERTS

Published on the occasion of his 80th birthday, "The Spooky Art" collects Norman Mailer's thoughts on writing, a festschrift to himself. The two-time Pulitzer-Prize winner ("Armies of the Night" and "The Executioner's Song") refers to himself as "author and assembler," although J. Michael Lennon, who edited "Conversations with Norman Mailer" 15 years earlier, appears to have culled the material from decades of essays, interviews and symposiums. Mr. Mailer made the final cut, supplying a gloss here and a transition there, acknowledging Mr. Lennon's contribution by dedicating the book to him.
"The Spooky Art" is repackaged goods, then, Mr. Mailer's second retrospective in five years. ("The Time of Our Time," released on his 75th birthday, is his greatest-hits collection arranged as a narrative of the last half century.) Of course, Mr. Mailer long has excelled at the art of collage, his 1959 "Advertisements for Myself" a compendium of various writings reworked as autobiography. So it's curious that he barely addresses this technique in his remarks on craft. Then again, Mr. Mailer admits he is "a bit cynical" about the whole notion of craft.
"Craft protects one from facing endless expanding realities the terror, let us say, of losing your novel in the depths of philosophical insights you are not ready to live with," he tells us in a paragraph lifted from an interview conducted by Steven Marcus for the Paris Review in 1964. (A 10-page list of acknowledgements at the end of the book provides a key to when and where Mr. Mailer first made the remarks cobbled together for "The Spooky Art.") "I think this sort of terror so depresses us that we throw up evasions such as craft. Indeed, I think this adoration of craft makes a church of literature for that vast number of writers who are somewhere on the bell-shaped curve between mediocrity and talent."
Point well made and well taken, but anyone who has discussed Mr. Mailer over a whisky in one of his former New York haunts eventually finds himself arguing about the practice of New Journalism and the ethics of "true-life" novels and the contributions of researcher Lawrence Schiller to "The Executioner' Song," about murderer Gary Gilmore, and "Oswald's Tale," about assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
Mr. Schiller and Mr. Mailer share copyright on both books, yet Mr. Mailer mentions their relationship just once in "The Spooky Art," in the set-up for a self-deprecating anecdote about himself as the American Tolstoy. Wouldn't young novelists, raised in an era of sampling and pastiche, benefit from a frank discussion of the writer's relationship to his sources and his collaborators?
Mr. Mailer does comment on literary influence, noting that "The Education of Henry Adams" served as an unconscious model for "The Armies of the Night," despite that he had dismissed the book during his years at Harvard.
"I happened to pick up Moby-Dick," he continues in a paragraph gleaned from an interview in Esquire in 1991. "I hadn't thought about Melville ten times in the last thirty years, but as soon as I read the first page, I realized my later style was formed by Melville, shaped by his love of long, rolling sentences full of inversions and reverses and paradoxes and ironies and exclamation points and dashes."
He also provides guidance to writers tempted to appropriate material from their own lives that is, writers who seek out experience in order to validate their prose. "Certain events, if they are dramatic or fundamental to us, remain afterward like crystals in our psyche," he writes in a chapter titled "Living in the World." "Those experiences should be preserved rather than written down. They are too special, too intense, too concentrated to be used head-on." Rather, writers should draw upon these events as a continuing source of inspiration, much like actors do to sustain their roles.
As to the larger question of a novelist's moral character, he should not be too awfully decent or too awfully wicked. "It helps if your character is average lousy but with striking contrasts and excellent elements. Then the contradictions in your moral makeup will work for you."
The best parts of "The Spooky Art" are these apercus and, pensees, not to mention the author's inevitable fulminations, gripes and insults (to appropriate Mr. Mailer's diction). "The average good novelist reads the work of his fellow racketeers with one underlying tension find the flaw, find where the other guy cheated," he writes. Book critics get their comeuppance as well. "You cannot become a professional writer and keep active for three or four decades unless you learn to live with the most difficult condition of your existence, which is that superficial book reviewing is irresponsible and serious literary criticism can be close to merciless."
Some of the essays in this volume are tired, such as the piece on Marlon Brando's performance in "Last Tango in Paris," originally written for The New York Review of Books in 1973. (Mr. Mailer includes a number of writings on television, film and the occult, grouped under the rubric of genre.) His remarks on the practice of journalism are dated, too, but not because he talks about typewriters and phone banks. Mr. Mailer's reporters belong to the middle class.
"Their intelligence is sound but unexceptional, and they have the middle-class penchant for collecting tales, stories, legends, accounts of practical jokes, details of negotiation, bits of memoir all those capsules of fiction which serve the middle class as a substitute for ethics and/or culture." Reporters today, at least those associated with big-city papers, have grander pretensions, their upper-middle-class penchant for the good life fortified by Ivy League degrees and guest spots on cable news networks.
On the other hand, Mr. Mailer's takes on fellow novelists, from LeoTolstoy and Mark Twain to Saul Bellow and Joseph Heller, remain fresh, full of writerly intelligence. As a critic, Mr. Mailer is generous and judgmental, eccentric and imaginative. He's particularly good on Henry Miller, whose literary obsession with his lover, June, Mr. Mailer argues, became a way to liberate himself from the prison of his own self-absorption and forge his unique aesthetic. Miller went on to become one of America's greatest writers, and greatest failures "it is impossible to talk of a great artist without speaking of failure" but his narcissism has special resonance for writers in the modern world.
"Narcissism may be a true disease," writes Mr. Mailer, "a biological displacement of the natural impulse to develop oneself by the lessons of one's experience narcissism, therefore, could bear the same relations to love that onanism does to copulation or a cancer to the natural growth of tissue. Can we come a little nearer to the recognition that there may be a base beneath all disease, an ultimate disease, a psychosomatic doom, so to speak, against which all the other illnesses, colds, fevers, infections, and deteriorations are bulwarks to protect us against a worse fate?"
Psychosomatic doom how many writers can turn literary criticism into a fulmination against the human condition? "The Spooky Art" is repackaged goods, but priced under $25, it's nice to have Mr. Mailer's thoughts crypted into one volume.

Rex Roberts is a writer, editor and graphic designer based in New York.


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