THE SPOOKY ART: SOME THOUGHTS ON WRITING

NONFICTION BY NORMAN MAILER

Random House 2003
352 pages
ISBN: 0394536487

There 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 apron, 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 thinks they can do it, and some writers support this fallacy for their own gain. If the market does not lie, the market does corrupt.
         Norman 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 the time.
         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 to 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.
         While he 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 to be 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 exceptions, he believes this is the reason why there has been no American Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky.
         Norman Mailer’s 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 wouldn’t have written this book. If he was a pessimistic opportunist, he would have written something much more corrupt.