Norman Mailer Muses on Cynicism, Writing, TV

By Gloria Goodale Arts and culture correspondent ofThe Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 29, 2000 | Go to article overview

Norman Mailer Muses on Cynicism, Writing, TV


Gloria Goodale Arts and culture correspondent ofThe Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


For a man whose long, literary life has been built on a keen critical stance toward American culture, Norman Mailer is at pains to point out that this attitude is quite different from what he sees as the easy cynicism of today.

"Cynicism has a limited value," says the cultural icon, who is featured in PBS's "American Masters" series (Wednesday, Oct. 4, 10- 11 p.m.) during its 15th anniversary season.

"It's good for quick results," adds the Pulitzer Prize winner who has helped to define a century of American culture through his prodigious novelistic output.

PBS launched this pioneer biography series in 1986. Since then, the on-air profile format has been copied but never duplicated. Mailer appears in the second show of this season in sharp form, full of careful observations about the state of American culture.

"Good, available writing almost always is funny and sharp and biting and cynicism is perfect for that. But cynicism is really a roadblock to becoming a bit of a philosopher." That mental attitude is the key to truly good writing, he adds. "It's impossible to become that really good novelist without, in a sense, developing a philosophical search in the course of your life."

Never one to lack an opinion, Mailer suggests this willingness to search is the key to mental clarity. Once a writer has stepped back sufficiently to cultivate that philosophical attitude, "you have more and more and more to say, one way or another, usually better, not directly, but in one way or another about what you think is the nature of the universe, the nature of life, the nature of human effort." Cynicism corrodes that ability, he says.

"It can poison your highest faculties," says the novelist, who adds that he is not above appreciating a sharply observed satire.

"I'll delight in cynicism that's sharp and good and to the point, but it's not what I really am interested ultimately in writing about. It's funny, it's too easy, and gets in the way of doing more."

In a Monitor interview earlier this summer, he said that Americans have always been wary of their nation's intellectuals. This particularly weighs on his thoughts in an election year when he says the country ought to be engaged in a national debate about vital issues. …

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