It has been many years since I have read Norman Mailer. He made a sensational literary debut with the publication of his World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead in 1948. Since then he has been among the most celebrated writers, and by his own estimation one of America's greatest novelists, although I believe he still realizes that he has yet to fulfill his life-long ambition to write the so-called Great American Novel. (Actually I think Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mark Twain preceded his efforts here with respectively, The Scarlet Letter and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.) This is not the first time Mailer has written on the art of writing. During a period beginning after the publication of his third novel, The Deer Park in 1954 until he returned to the form in 1965 with An American Dream, Mailer wrote nonfiction almost exclusively, and in my opinion became a literary star because of the transition. I recall his first book-length nonfiction venture, Advertisements for Myself (1959), in which in addition to shamelessly tooting his own horn, Mailer also gave advice on how to write effectively, and of course on how to be a literary lion. I thought at the time it was his best work. In a sense he is like others of his time--Gore Vidal comes to mind--literary men who made the transition from novelists (a dying male breed because of a dying male readership) to interpreters and critics of the mass culture even while remaining true to their first love. Mailer followed up his successes with dozens of books, including more novels along with the various nonfiction works about people (Marilyn Monroe, Picasso, Lee Harvey Oswald, etc.), things and events (Of a Fire on the Moon; The Executioner's Song), especially political events, Miami and the Siege of Chicago; The Armies of the Night, etc.Read more ›
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Of all the books I've read on writing this is one of only 3 I'd recommend, and this more highly than the others. If you write in Flow, even if only partially, then there's parts of this book you'll love. There's also great advice on redrafting - one of the most important processes that any book goes through. If you're serious about writing and realise it's a craft that you learn along the way, then this book is a must.
I bought the book in hardback when it came out. I had recently become an avid reader of all things Norman Mailer. I was by then a committed blogger, have been since 1999. I was disappointed by the quality of the binding, some of the pages of the book hadn't been cut properly. It had the feel of something printed in the 1930s. As I do, I took notes, and blogged my views. A comment popped up some months later, by all accounts from Norman Mailer as he reflected on why he had said what he'd put in this book. As inspiration to write? No. Nor a 'how to book', there are better, such as Steven Pressfield's 'The War of Art'. The only answer to a wannabe writer's problems is to write. I never do. I review. I procrastinate. I land on an author like Norman Mailer and don't stop until I've read everything he has written. Anything to put off that desire to published myself.
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
The Mike Tyson of Literature Gives Tips on Training23 Feb. 2003
- Published on Amazon.com
Mailer does not discuss technique or craft in detail. He offers insights of an inspirational, philosophic nature on writing. He's interesting even when he rambles, and the book is full of aphorisms that are encouraging and incisive. The book is worthwhile. It's the thinking and advice of one of the Twentieth Century's literary masters about his field of expertise. There's also plenty of advice about fields beyond his expertise, but Mailer eventually makes it all relevant to writing and, more important, to living the kind of life he feels necessary to produce great or very good writing. Mailer is like a great coach in this book, inciting the reader to be braver, to work harder, to want more, to cultivate appetite and a certain recklessness that is an antidote to what he calls the "paranoid perfection" imbued by writing programs. I think Anne Lamott's Bird By Bird is a kinder, gentler counterbalance to Stormin' Norman's inspiring hectoring to step up to the plate--in life and in writing--and is also an excellent book on writing. Where Lamott is compassionate, gentle, a chamomile tea-offering, hand-holding tutor, Mailer is a grizzled veteran exhorting us to throw ourselves into the mix, to take chances, to aspire to more than we may ever achieve. Good advice from someone who's lived it, and produced some of the most influential writing of the last century.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
The horse's mouth3 Jan. 2005
- Published on Amazon.com
It has been many years since I have read Norman Mailer. He made a sensational literary debut with the publication of his World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead in 1948. Since then he has been among the most celebrated writers, and by his own estimation one of America's greatest novelists, although I believe he still realizes that he has yet to fulfill his life-long ambition to write the so-called Great American Novel. (Actually I think Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mark Twain preceded his efforts here with respectively, The Scarlet Letter and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.)
This is not the first time Mailer has written on the art of writing. During a period beginning after the publication of his third novel, The Deer Park in 1954 until he returned to the form in 1965 with An American Dream, Mailer wrote nonfiction almost exclusively, and in my opinion became a literary star because of the transition. I recall his first book-length nonfiction venture, Advertisements for Myself (1959), in which in addition to shamelessly tooting his own horn, Mailer also gave advice on how to write effectively, and of course on how to be a literary lion. I thought at the time it was his best work. In a sense he is like others of his time--Gore Vidal comes to mind--literary men who made the transition from novelists (a dying male breed because of a dying male readership) to interpreters and critics of the mass culture even while remaining true to their first love.
Mailer followed up his successes with dozens of books, including more novels along with the various nonfiction works about people (Marilyn Monroe, Picasso, Lee Harvey Oswald, etc.), things and events (Of a Fire on the Moon; The Executioner's Song), especially political events, Miami and the Siege of Chicago; The Armies of the Night, etc. As always his work is characterized by a terrific energy and an obsessive devotion to Words on Paper. I seem to recall reading somewhere that he only felt really comfortable with himself as a writer when he had written 10,000 words that day. I can tell you from personal experience it is very difficult to write ten thousand words in one day; but the really hard part is to do it on consecutive days or indeed to keep up with anything close to that production for any length of time. Yet, for the real writer who cannot help but write--and Mailer was and is such a writer--the meditative euphoria that comes with being lost in one's work so completely is wonderful and quite addictive.
Here Mailer writes about writing of course, concerning himself with things like writer's block, and how to build character and whether to use the first person or the third, or how to use real people in your fiction. He gives tips to young writers, as a writer in his eighties might, and certainly he is a writer to be listened to. He advises on how to use your subconscious in writing. He notes that if you declare that you are going to be at your desk the next morning to write, your subconscious will take note and help you out by preparing in advance. If however you should "wake up in the morning with a hangover and cannot get to literary work, your unconscious, after a few such failures to appear, will withdraw." (p. 142)
The two-fisted machismo for which the short of stature Mailer became famous (or infamous) comes out in places in this work (e.g., he likes to compare writing with being an athlete and on page 104 he even talks of keeping in shape). Thoughts on his lifelong preoccupation with sex, narcissism, masturbation and such also appear. There is a chapter on film, one of Mailer's many intense interests.
But there is sound advice on The Literary Career and what he calls the "Lit Biz." (Of course some of this is passé, since the literary world has changed quite a bit since he had to worry about such things.) There is his reaction to sudden fame after the publication of The Naked and the Dead, which he reminds us was "number one on the best-seller list for several months." (p. 115) In fact, this is such a terrific book on the writer's life and craft (he doesn't especially like the word "craft") that I sorely wish it had been available when I was a young man. Make no mistake about it. What Norman Mailer doesn't know about writing and making a success of writing is probably not much. But of course his success came mainly through hard work and an almost maniacal belief in himself over many decades and through many trials and tribulations, some of them of his own making.
This book is also about life in the twentieth century by a man who lived it full speed ahead, and about other writers and other celebrities he has known or read. In the final analysis, this is a personal book by a man given to writing personal books, a book by a man who is among our finest writers, and a book--like almost all of his work--to inform, to entertain, and to admire.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
A writer's writer7 Feb. 2007
- Published on Amazon.com
Mailer has truly accomplished something valuable in the first half of The Spooky Art. He provides examples of the real world lessons and passions of a successful author. The book is essentially a collection of previous published articles that are edited and jointed together with contemporary transitions. Many passages take the reader into the writing process as Mailer describes the creation of several of his famous works.
He makes palpable the level of persistence (what he calls stamina) that is needed to finish a book. Every author I know has come to the point in writing a book where the mountain seems too high to climb. Mailer's description of this agonizing moment (or day or week...) can help you understand and work through this period. While most writers feel that the work comes easier to others, Mailer makes it clear that this is not so.
I think the chapter on journalism is a must-read for fiction and non-fiction writers alike. He does an excellent job of describing how a novelist's eye can present a more accurate account of an event than a journalist. His way of seeing things can very helpful if you're writing non-fiction. Just as interesting are Mailer's views on critics and criticism -- they are surprisingly sanguine. He clearly thinks that you have to read reviews despite the pain they may inflict to understand how you might improve.
Despite how good the beginning of the book may be, the last third (especially his discussion of television and film) is long winded, dated, and seems like filler. Some of the later chapters (particularly "The Argument Reinvigorated") are dense but not especially enlightening.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
A Sharing and a Grand Scale18 Mar. 2003
- Published on Amazon.com
- Mailer's latest is, as some reviews have charged, a bit scattershot, but that's part of the attraction: you can open it anywhere and enjoy, based on length, based on interest at the moment, or, using the well considered index (a very nice touch to an anthology of essays), based on the question around which you may be currently dabbling. I do not find Mailer at all arrogant, forward yes, but not arrogant; and the forward personality, aside from having been so often prophetic, seems just that, a character aspect - defect or quality - a function of the overwound compulsion, naked, chin forward, almost looking for a roundhouse on his own choppers: it is honest. A rare commodity these days, either in politics or literature. Mailer has survived the postmodernist internecine cannibalism, actually says decent things about the competition (eg Vidal, Bellow), and wrings true on his regrets about today's literature failing to set the milieu in the larger sense as did the great novelists in the past. He does not ascribe the shortcoming to the distractions and seduction of electronic media alone, but looks instead at the most likely candidates for having achieved that larger representation, critically, but respectfully. And when one begins to survey the variety and grandness of Mailer's own various projects over the years, and set that against his sharing of self doubts and confessions of both modest beginnings and premature celebrity, a deeper respect for the larger sense of the whole to which the man has, in retrospect, evolved becomes, cumulatively, unavoidable in the fair-minded eye. If nothing else, you feel the sense of world-concerned angst, acceptance of a "writer's responsibility," and inevitable sleeve-worn values and self-exposing vulnerability. You feel the paradoxical solitariness of a steaming writer holed away to write while vividly invested in the world around him. He makes you feel in his own temperature the danger and excitement and doubts and frustrations of his brand of wrestling with his metier. Elsewhere as he talks about the writer-reader relationship, you discover for your first time that this headlong writer, this runaway pace of his voice, actually rides often better for the reader at slower, more deliberate speeds: that his stylistic and logical structures wring then more considerately taken, wear more deeply and thicker woven. No, Mailer won't go away. Despite the hopeful assessments of many. For one thing, his driven tone, its urgency, is too contemporary. He wields an unexpected quasi confirmation as he indulges historic referents in consideration of the American literary past, almost refreshingly earnestly childlike in its respect in this day of now. But more, the sheer volumetric range of his esthetic, cultural, and political scans is too large, and the socially grounded roots of his positions too perceptively and morally deep-set. In the closing pages of "Spooky Art" Mailer muses further whether one can think of this or that age without that or this writer and offers his defensible candidates from the past, a Stendahl here, a Tolstoy there. But he fears it is doubtful that any such "necessary" ligature of time and place and author could be confidently asserted for some single figure in ours. Still, thinking over the possible list of publicly known candidates, perhaps one could find no better argument for these last 50-plus USA years than in Mailer's nomination, however futile the gesture in itself may or may not be.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
A credible swansong4 Nov. 2004
- Published on Amazon.com
Mailer surveys his own career and aims to give advice about writing to young writers. Many of the concerns he has are unique to his own project in writing. His concern with presenting a vast social panorama and being the first cultural influence on society as a whole is in one sense ambitious and admirable, and in another idiotically grandiose. Mailer is always a strange mixture, a mixture of brilliance and absurdity , of great writing with self- indulgent stupidity. Here too there is much mix - up but there is less of the senseless profanity and vulgarity that sometimes made his showmanship, and advertising for himself objectionable. Mailer is a serious craftsman, a hard- worker who has much to say about the technique of writing, especially novel - writing. He seems obsessively concerned with his own place on the literary pantheon, and like Hemingway before him seems to be measuring himself against the competition. Harold Bloom would be happy with this kind of 'Beat old Turgenev but was whipped by Old Tolstoy today stuff' Summing it all up is difficult for him and difficult for his long- time readers also . The great early promise of ' Naked and the Dead' the series of disappointments which followed, the dramatic comeback with the novel as journalism 'Armies of the Night' and the ongoing obsessions with the Great Novel, American Social Justice, the meaning of Manhood, the nature of Criminality and Extreme Behavior, end in some way where it begun in the craftsman considering the craft of writing. Mailer in my poor judgment could have done a little better had he thought more about the meaning of human goodness and kindness even in writing. But he is what he is one of the giants of twentieth century American literature and this book contains enough brilliant paragraphs and passages to prove it.