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.

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.