Norman Mailer Celebrates Writing and Himself in 'New' Collection

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Published on the occasion of his 80th birthday, "The Spooky Art" collects Norman Mailer's thoughts on writing, a festschrift to himself. The two-time Pulitzer-Prize winner ("Armies of the Night" and "The Executioner's Song") refers to himself as "author and assembler," although J. Michael Lennon, who edited "Conversations with Norman Mailer" 15 years earlier, appears to have culled the material from decades of essays, interviews and symposiums. Mr. Mailer made the final cut, supplying a gloss here and a transition there, acknowledging Mr. Lennon's contribution by dedicating the book to him.

"The Spooky Art" is repackaged goods, then, Mr. Mailer's second retrospective in five years. ("The Time of Our Time," released on his 75th birthday, is his greatest-hits collection arranged as a narrative of the last half century.) Of course, Mr. Mailer long has excelled at the art of collage, his 1959 "Advertisements for Myself" a compendium of various writings reworked as autobiography. So it's curious that he barely addresses this technique in his remarks on craft. Then again, Mr. Mailer admits he is "a bit cynical" about the whole notion of craft.

"Craft protects one from facing endless expanding realities - the terror, let us say, of losing your novel in the depths of philosophical insights you are not ready to live with," he tells us in a paragraph lifted from an interview conducted by Steven Marcus for the Paris Review in 1964. (A 10-page list of acknowledgements at the end of the book provides a key to when and where Mr. Mailer first made the remarks cobbled together for "The Spooky Art.") "I think this sort of terror so depresses us that we throw up evasions - such as craft. Indeed, I think this adoration of craft makes a church of literature for that vast number of writers who are somewhere on the bell-shaped curve between mediocrity and talent."

Point well made and well taken, but anyone who has discussed Mr. Mailer over a whisky in one of his former New York haunts eventually finds himself arguing about the practice of New Journalism and the ethics of "true-life" novels and the contributions of researcher Lawrence Schiller to "The Executioner' Song," about murderer Gary Gilmore, and "Oswald's Tale," about assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.

Mr. Schiller and Mr. Mailer share copyright on both books, yet Mr. Mailer mentions their relationship just once in "The Spooky Art," in the set-up for a self-deprecating anecdote about himself as the American Tolstoy. Wouldn't young novelists, raised in an era of sampling and pastiche, benefit from a frank discussion of the writer's relationship to his sources and his collaborators?

Mr. Mailer does comment on literary influence, noting that "The Education of Henry Adams" served as an unconscious model for "The Armies of the Night," despite that he had dismissed the book during his years at Harvard.

"I happened to pick up Moby-Dick," he continues in a paragraph gleaned from an interview in Esquire in 1991. "I hadn't thought about Melville ten times in the last thirty years, but as soon as I read the first page, I realized my later style was formed by Melville, shaped by his love of long, rolling sentences full of inversions and reverses and paradoxes and ironies and exclamation points and dashes."

He also provides guidance to writers tempted to appropriate material from their own lives - that is, writers who seek out experience in order to validate their prose. "Certain events, if they are dramatic or fundamental to us, remain afterward like crystals in our psyche," he writes in a chapter titled "Living in the World." "Those experiences should be preserved rather than written down. They are too special, too intense, too concentrated to be used head-on. …