comes a time in the life of many a writer when the creative
colon is sufficiently blocked that the only option left is either
suicide or writing a book about writing. Reading many of these
books is somewhat akin to spending an afternoon watching skin
flake off a sunburned arm. If there is a novelist under every
then we are fated for savage death by suffocation under a cascade
of listless hard-bound romance and coming-of-age-against-inner-adversity-in-the-modern-world
novels—all with happy endings. No wonder writing as an
occupation is not taken seriously in the United States. Everyone
they can do it, and some writers support this fallacy for their
gain. If the market does not lie, the market does corrupt.
Mailer doesn’t fit into the category of constipated
creativity, however. He may fit into the form of any other autofellator
for penning a book about writing, but at least he isn’t out
to pet egos outside his own. And he certainly does not fit into
the category of frustrated housewife, though he has run into a
few in his time. In The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing, Mr.
Mailer at least tells the truth according to Mailer. Writing is
a spooky bitch that’s getting bitchier and spookier all
If there is anyone that should
write a memoir on the trials and tribulations of writing, its ‘perils,
joys, vicissitudes, its loneliness, its celebrity’, it is Norman Mailer.
He was thrust into the position as the Golden Boy of the literature world
after the publication of his first novel, The Naked and the
Dead, at the age of twenty-five in 1948. This fortune and luck, as well
as instant trial, don’t come that early to many writers.
Throughout his writing life,
and through all the diversions of his life outside writing, Mr. Mailer seems
have had a constant Picasso-like
need to dive into new waters, whether it be film, journalism,
long narrative non-fiction—all writing, though all very different genres
within which to perform. Many writers would not have survived
this, though Mr. Mailer seems to have done and continues to do so while always
being able to go back to his spooky bitch, the novel.
does go overboard at times, as when he ponders the deteriorating effects masturbation
has upon male writers, Mr. Mailer often gets
to the marrow of the spooky art with his essays on craft, voice,
and plot. His essays on stamina, discipline, identity as well
as psychology—a mind/body/ego/unconscious understanding of the self—stroke
the original. Though ‘understanding’ may be too strong
a word for Norman Mailer. Perhaps more appropriate is ‘awareness’ of
the mysterious processes writers go through as beings, the occult
side of things, the moral dilemmas and philosophical musings
and how such concepts sharpen and dull the quill.
And it is this want
or didactic need to instruct, warn and pass on wisdom where his
best writing on writing flourishes. He lends
grave credence to ‘Living in the World’, in which
he explores one of the pitfalls of the writing life—the need
active in the world to experience versus the need to retreat
from the world in order to create.
He writes of the anxieties serious
minded novelists face on page 122, in the section on ‘Living
in the World’:
“A writer is recognized as great when his work is done,
but while he is writing, he rarely feels so great. He is more
likely to live with the anxiety
of ‘Can I do it? Should I let up? Will dread overwhelm me if I explore
too far? Or depression deaden me if I do not push on? Can I even do it?’ As
he writes, a man is reshaping his character. He is a better man, and he
is worse, once he has finished a book.”
For the finale
of this book, Mr. Mailer rails on the train of American Literature—that
it is somehow off track,
that it has somehow always been off track. The train
of American progress is moving too rapidly for any photographic eye of
a novelist to glimpse it other than as a blur. With some notable
this is the reason why there has been no American Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky.
prophecies are a condition of old age gloom, inevitable when he is considered
as a witness to the complexities and challenges of life as one
of America’s foremost authors. If he was truly a pessimistic, he
have written this book. If he was a pessimistic opportunist, he would have
written something much more corrupt.