Of Friends in Tombs, or ‘Shut Up, This Fight is Making your Party’: Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer 1988

To me, Norman Mailer was one of the finest prose stylists of the twentieth century.

This excerpt is from Of a Fire on the Moon (1970, p 354):

Armstrong and Aldrin were to do an EVA that night. EVA stood for Extra Vehicle Activity, and that was presumably a way to describe the most curious steps ever taken. It is one thing to murder the language of Shakespeare – another to be unaware how rich was the victim. Future murders stood in the shadow of the acronyms.

He was also a public intellectual, an iconoclast, and a buffoon of epic proportions.

A report of a cocktail party from 1977 (related by Lennon, p 513):

[Mailer] went immediately to the living room and as soon as he saw Vidal, Janklow [a bystander] said, “He charged.” Mailer told a Washington Post reporter that he had “been looking for Gore [Vidal] six years and last night I finally found him. When I saw Gore, I just felt like butting him in the head, so I did.” Accounts vary, but it seems that Mailer threw a gin-and-tonic in Vidal’s face and bounced the glass off his head. …The hostess walked in from the kitchen, unhappy to see a fight at her party. “God, this is awful; somebody do something,” she yelled. Clay Felker, at ringside, said, “Shut up, this fight is making your party.”

Why did Mailer physically attack Vidal? Certainly it related to unkind words penned by the latter. Certainly it combined the duellist’s need for violent satisfaction, Mailer’s idea of releasing the dogs of his masculinity, and a deeper, mystic notion that unmet challenges create a psychic revolt at the level of the cell, cancer being the result.

For Christmas, I was given Norman Mailer: A Double Life by J Michael Lennon. It’s an excellent biography that, among other things, contrasts the public Mailer and the private. This blog post is not a review, but a record of thoughts I had while reading Lennon’s book.

Money in the Bank

Mailer spent his life looking for experience. He did this, in part, because the chief difficulty for the novelist is obtaining material. Douglas Adams once wrote something along these lines: “Your whole life is research for your first novel. The research for your second novel takes about a year, and is mostly spent in bookshops.”

Mailer did not spend much time in bookshops.

Graham Greene wrote:

The great advantage of being a writer is that you can spy on people. You’re there, listening to every word, but part of you is observing. Everything is useful to a writer, you see – every scrap, even the longest and most boring of luncheon parties.

This is half of Mailer. He complemented it with a living experiment in the pursuit of experience. Too often, he agreed to capers–like travelling to Russia on the promise of access to Lee Harvey Oswald’s KGB files–for credit in the bank of material. The drugs provided as much illumination as a lit fuse. Here is the nadir of writing The Deer Park (1955), as described by Lennon (p. 193):

Without drugs, he couldn’t write; he needed more than in the past. Along with marijuana, Seconal [a barbiturate], booze, coffee, and two packs of cigarettes a day, he began taking a tranquilizer, Miltown… “Bombed and sapped and charged and stoned,” he lurched forward through May, feeling as he had when on [war-time] patrols in Luzon.

Everything You Know is Wrong

Mailer was an existentialist, a philosophical school defined more by a push away from classic orthodoxy than the pull of well-argued alternatives. The heart of existentialism, according to Walter Kaufmann (1975, p. 75), is:

The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life

Mailer valued the primacy of experience (as a truth, or something closer to it that than the truth presented by logical positivism). The richer that experience, the better. Hell-raising lives next door to this idea. Here’s Nietzsche (The Gay Science, section 283):

…Believe me, the secret of the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of existence is: to live dangerously! Build your cities under Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves!

From the perspective of the writer, there is value in this. If experience is credit, woe betide the overdrawn. But there is some danger, as most people will recognise, in throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It can lead to the somewhat bizarre statements like Mailer’s comments in this interview with William Buckley (Part 1 of 6) from 1968:

I don’t think in categories. I try to think in this way, that the world is better off if every so-called type in the world is better. In other words, it’s a better world when the cops get better and the criminals get better. It’s a poorer world when the cops are dull and the criminals are dull.

Mailer emerged at a time when a writer was seen as a transformative force. He was eager to assume the role of commentator and doer. His distance from true power frustrated him. Like Sergeant Robert Hearn in The Naked and The Dead and Menenhetet in Ancient Evenings, he wanted to be Merlin at Kennedy’s Camelot, but his overtures to Jackie Kennedy were botched. Later, his influence on the Clinton administration was negligible. Mailer’s life seems to have coincided with the decline (in America and the UK, at least) of the public intellectual. Today, our intellectuals produce BBC documentary series and tie-in books. Easy to poo-poo. But I think the younger Mailer would have seized these opportunities. He always wanted to transmit his ideas and lever change.

Technology Will Get You Nowhere

One such idea is the weakness of the artificial. There is a moment in Of A Fire on the Moon in which Mailer takes the notion of acceleration–so fundamental to rocketry–and applies it to the moon programme at large. Imagine the step from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to Tranquility Base, the Moon; this, psychically, is an acceleration sufficient to push humanity from one sphere to another. And yet the missions that follow (with the exception of Apollo 13) are both iterative and boring. The acceleration has been lost. With it, will, and with that, the moon programme itself. For Mailer, this is the treachery of technology. It appears to be freighted with possibility but this property only emphasises, once revealed, its emptiness.

The Spooky Art

There are notes in Lennon’s book about Mailer working through his manuscripts with editors, line by line, stopping at every weak sentence. While his poetry was unsuccessful in most estimations, he brought a poet’s attention to prose. Words were always read aloud. If a sentence had to be changed, this might alter its role in a paragraph or a passage, and thus change the character of the passage as a melody leads its key. The passage would be written again.

And what passages. Nothing stood between Mailer and his words. From Ancient Evenings:

My memory, which had given every promise (in the first glow of moonlight) that it would return, was still a sludge. Now the air was heavy with the odor of mud. That was the aroma of these lands, mud and barley, sweat and husbandry. By noon tomorrow, the riverbank would be an oven of moldering reeds. Domestic animals would leave their gifts on the mud of the bank–sheep and pigs, goats, assess, oxen, dogs and cats, even the foul door of the goose, a filthy bird. I thought of tombs, and of friends in tombs. Like the plucking of a heavy string came a first intimation of sorrow.

The last few pages of Norman Mailer: A Double Life, which relate to his death, are difficult to read. I was reminded of the comments that Arthur Miller made in a BBC documentary (‘Finishing the Picture,’ 2004) shortly before his death. (Miller and Mailer grew up near each other, but they never really got on, and were never going to after Mailer’s book Marilyn.) In the documentary Yentob, asks Miller what he thinks of his own death. Miller, as I recall, says:

I always think of Shakespeare and the light going out.

It takes a big tall writer like Miller to compare himself to Shakespeare. But to consider all that experience, the wick burning low before going out, is troubling. The point is to illuminate the party.

★ And In The End

What follows is a very personal post, for which I do not apologise. It is likely to be the last post I make to this blog (though perhaps not; see below). I hope that it will not be sentimental. That said, it will be honest. I will write about something that has been very important to me since I was a wee scamp.

A long time ago – when I was an undergraduate, fifteen years back – I read an interview with Stephen King in which he described the moment his novel, Carrie, was picked up by New England Library. He was living in a trailer and had so little money that the telephone was disconnected. The original news about the publication of Carrie came via telegram. King wanted to buy a gift for his wife. He went into town and found the only thing he could he imagine she wanted: a hair dryer.

Fifteen years ago, reading the interview with King, I already had two novels under my belt. They were awful. Since then, I’ve written four more. These last – Déjà Vu, Proper Job, Flashback and The Amber Rooms – are quite good. Déjà Vu has been published and the other three have been with my agent, John Jarrold, for some years. Four, I think. A long time.

Someone wrote – King again, I think – that a writer is a person who will write no matter what. In other words, if you lock them up in a cell without pen or pencil, they’ll write on the wall in their own blood. I didn’t believe that when I read it and I don’t believe it now. Even Stephen King comes to a point when the blood dries up. Writers are people. We – they – would want to play football if they were footballers, not sit on the subs bench; they would want to have a workshop, tools, and customers if they made furniture for a living; writers want to be read.

Fifteen years is a fair crack of the whip. As of now, I am no longer a writer of fiction.

For my part, I cannot write fiction these days. There are too many words unpublished behind me. To write a novel is to commit years of your life. Nobody wants to commit them in vain. They will do this, of course, in the beginning, with a certain faith that if the end product is any good, then it will be published. Right now I do believe the books I’ve written are good. I believe that sections, elements, moments of them are very good. My agent is an excellent one and he would not be wasting his time with me otherwise. The reality is that the publishing industry is small. Only so many doors are open to a writer of science fiction thrillers, and, when you’ve been round the doors once, it’s the same people opening them next time.

What is to be gained by retirement? Why not take a break? These are questions that my agent – who has been very supportive of my decision – has asked.

Since writing the first draft of The Amber Rooms, I’ve felt a deepening disillusionment with the craft of writing. This disillusionment is almost certainly superficial. Much as I hate to write this, the feeling is probably based on something akin to jealousy. It is not jealousy per se. Rather, it is the feeling expressed by the sentence ‘I could do better than that’. Not an easy thing to admit. But with each instance of shoddy, clichéd, or generally below par published writing that I read, my faith that my own long years of effort will ever count for something (that is: readers) diminishes to the point where I am barely picking up a book. The process has become painful. As a child, books were like fuel, crack cocaine, and world travelling rolled into one. My writing has taken me to the point where I am in danger of poisoning the well from which, it seems, the greater part of my mind has sprung. Given a choice between the two – literature and the stuff on my hard drive – I choose literature.

My fifteen-year crack at a writing career has had other consequences. We all know what it’s like to be served at a supermarket by a sulky teenager who might well work in Lidl but, you know: it isn’t what she *does*. Her mind is on greater things. So too has my mind been on greater things. Not all of it, not all the time, and I’ve tried not to be too rude. But many sacrifices have been made by me and the people who love me in order that I have the time and space to write. There is a cost to this; they deserve the benefit of seeing that the cost was not wasted and, as far as I can see, this is not going to happen.

This post is not meant to be a dollop of ‘poor Ian’ schmaltz. I had enough of that in one glance when I bought a copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook around the turn of the century. As I gave it to the middle-aged, friendly cashier in Exeter Waterstone’s, she sighed at the cover and said, ‘Aw, you want to be a writer,’ as though I were Grandpa announcing my wish to take tiffin with the Maharajah. The empirical evidence suggests that very few people who write fiction seriously ever ‘make it’ in the accepted sense. We only hear the stories of the successes. But in these days of Web 2.0, and blogs, the process is more public.

A colleague said something to me a couple of weeks back. We had read psychology at the same university, though his was the year below mine. This colleague is now a world-renowned researcher and someone I look up to. I remarked that I was glad he had made such a success of it. He looked at me, blinked, and said, “Well, I’m surprised it turned out like this. You were always the golden boy.”

That startled me. Then I recalled sitting in Dave Earle’s advanced statistics class and skimming over page after page of equations, barely taking them in, because I didn’t really *do* psychology. I was a writer. Meanwhile, there were hard-working friends who had not made it onto the MSc or, if they had, could not afford to take up a place. I was sitting pretty with a full-time competitive scholarship keeping me in pen and ink, not to mention another scholarship lined up to carry me through my PhD – and as the Chi-square contrasts flowed before my eyes, I was more concerned with the opening paragraph to Déjà Vu. In my defence, I did work hard on the book, and the book was good.

Several years later, however, it’s time to *do* psychology.

So now we come to the end of this post, and this blog. It is likely that I’ll continue to tinker with my extant manuscripts (not least to incorporate some notes kindly provided by writer friends). When these are complete, I’ll make them available as print-on-demand books, probably via Lulu, and then archive the site.

Stephen King made me want to be a writer. Or, rather, his book The Stand had such an effect on me that the half-formed idea of writing books for living became what I *did* for the next fifteen or so years. When asked what I wanted to do as an adult, I would, instead of shrugging in a morose teenagery way, say, ‘A writer,’ and the response would be a nod of approval; no doubt it doesn’t hurt to encourage this ambition in a young man, particularly when good English is such a transferrable skill. The model of Stephen King was the one I aspired to: he wrote a thousand words a day, rain or shine, and produced vivid, good quality, character-driven stories that I loved. At the end of each book, he would write his name, his location (usually Maine, USA), and dates between which he had written the book. I looked at those dates and thought ‘That’s what I’ll be doing’ and I relished the prospect of those years.

In 2005, I read a short, handsome review of Déjà Vu in The Guardian as my friends in the Rashleigh pub at Charlestown harbour slapped me on the back. The theme of the evening was that this review marked a milestone on the way to some great, literary city. Outwardly, I wholeheartedly agreed. But I also knew there was a good chance that I was holding the high-water mark of what would serve as a my literary career. It did; that felt OK at the time, and, in the end, it’s still OK.

Thanks, Aliya, the UKA Press, UK Authors, Ken, Neil, the Exeter Writers’ Group, Debra, Scott, and, of course, my agent John Jarrold. John has been tireless and faultless in his efforts to get my work under the right noses. A top man. And not to forget my partner, Britta: she put up with all manner of consequences while I spent time creating alternative realities. I never did get her that hair dryer.

Ian Hocking
This Writing Life
Canterbury, UK

★ Ten Rules for Writers

For this week’s Guardian Review, established authors were asked to produce ten writing ‘rules’. I agree with some of them and disagree with others. (For reasons best known to The Guardian, there is no web link at present for this feature, despite links to every other article in that section.) Update: James Viner points out that it is available here.

Here’s one of my favourites from Richard Ford:

1. Marry someone you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea.
2. Don’t have children.
3. Don’t read your reviews.
4. Don’t write reviews. (Your judgement’s always tainted.)
5. Don’t have arguments with your wife in the morning, or late at night.
6. Don’t drink and write at the same time.
7. Don’t write letters to the editor. (No one cares.)
8. Don’t wish ill on your colleagues.
9. Try to think of others’ good luck as encouragement to yourself.
10. Don’t take any shit if you can possibly help it.

All of these constitute advice of the very first water. I break these rules often; but I think they’re good ones.

So what would my ten rules be?

Ten Rules for Writers

1. Think of yourself as a writer

It doesn’t matter if you aren’t published. It doesn’t matter if you’re not sure that you’ll ever be published. By sitting in a chair (or standing up, in my case) and taking your craft seriously, you get the badge. The badge is not given to you by a publisher or an agent. Nobody takes it away unless you want them to.

2. Don’t believe people who say that whether or not you can write well is determined by forces outside your control

Someone (acknowledgement to Harlan Ellison) once wrote that you can either hear the music or you can’t. This belittles the graft that goes into learning to write fiction. Nobody is born to be a writer – unless you mean that a person can be born with the drive to be a great writer. It takes thousands of hours of effort.

3. Writing knowledge is predominantly procedural not declarative

In experimental psychology, we make a distinction between memory that is procedural – like the motor skills associated with playing the piano – and declarative – like the knowledge of music theory. Writing fiction, I would argue, is characterised by implicit (i.e. unconscious) learning through the determined attempt to write. That’s not to say that there are no rules to the construction of story. It’s just that the use of those rules should be informed by a judgement which is itself sharpened through long hours of trying to get it right. Apply structural rules retroactively, once the work is well in progress.

4. Don’t worry if you get depressed

For several reasons that draw on my psychology background, I would argue that, if you’re a writer, the probability of suffering depression at some point in your career is above average. Do whatever you need to do to get through these periods.

5. Luck is a major factor in writing success

It just is. I’ve never yet heard the success story of a writer who doesn’t start off with, ‘Well, I got lucky when…’

6. Determination is as important as skill

Established writers typically remain established because they excel at the writing process and display fierce determination in the face of long odds. To be good is not good enough if you want a career. Real Artists Ship. (‘Real’ means ‘published’ in this context; you can remain an artist without shipping.)

7. Rewrite more than you write

Get used to reheating the stuff you got sick of eating the day before.

8. Write true things

Fictional things are not false. They are usually more true than things in real life.

9. Clichés exist at many levels; kill them all

It’s not just clichéd to write ‘The man had a face liked a smacked arse’. If the man does things that men tend to do all too often in average stories – avenge the death of his wife, struggle with the mundanity of his job – then the cliché can work its way up to higher levels. The trick to killing cliché is to concentrate on the specific. Never think of a character, or a story, as a type. Everything is a one-off.

10. Get feedback

If you learn to play tennis against one of those ball-firing machines instead of a partner, you’re not really learning tennis, even if you’re wearing the McEnroe headband and getting sweaty. In writing, you need feedback. But note that while feedback on what works and what does not work should be taken seriously, comments about how these problems can be corrected should only be taken on board if the person making the comment is a writer. If the commenter is a non-writer, there’s a good chance that taking their advice will wound your story.