Reader’s Corner: Box of Norman Mailer

My article on the new box set, Norman Mailer: The Sixties, is at The Millions:

At nearly 1,400 pages packed into two volumes, it’s all too much at once, like a supercut of Mailer’s TV appearances, those bright dark eyes and halo hair, his machine-gun sentences snapped out one after the other until the white flag is waved….

And just for kicks, here’s Mailer and Gore Vidal going at it on the Dick Cavett Show—the last time a talk show guest could talk about The New York Review of Books and not get laughed off the set:

Writer’s Desk: Discover Something

In February 1963, Esquire published “Ten Thousand Words a Minute” by Norman Mailer. Ostensibly a piece about the Sonny Liston–Floyd Patterson heavyweight fight in Chicago, Mailer as usual flailed all over the place, subject-wise, from the Mafia to America and back again.

Along the way, he delivered this:

Writing is of use to the psyche only if the writer discovers something he did not know he knew in the act itself of writing. That is why a few men will go through hell in order to keep writing—Joyce and Proust, for example. Being a writer can save one from insanity or cancer; being a bad writer can drive one smack into the center of the plague.

Mailer’s medical advice does not seem entirely sound. However, his declaration that writing is only worthwhile to the writer if it results in them learning something new is absolutely correct.

Why else bother?

Writer’s Desk: Stay Strong

We lost the great Jimmy Breslin this past week. A shoe-leather New York scrivener who banged out columns and books and snazzy oratory since the 1940s, Breslin made the ink-stained wretches in The Front Page look like hacks. He was the writer you thought of when you heard somebody say, “They don’t make ’em like that anymore.” This was the guy who could explain the soul of the city in a tear-inducing newspaper column and then go run for mayor with Norman Mailer on a lark.

A lot of people in New York had Breslin stories. One of the better remembrances this week came from Mohamad Bazi, who was a co-worker of Breslin’s at Newsday in 2003. Bazi was covering the Iraq War when he got an overseas call from Breslin, who wanted to compliment him on an article he’d written:

‘But you know, your lead could have been stronger,’ he said. ‘Sometimes you gotta hit ’em over the head.’ Then he asked why I broke up some paragraphs. I grumbled something about the editors.

‘What?’ he shouted. ‘Don’t let ’em [expletive] with your copy. You’re there in Iraq, and they’re sitting behind a [expletive] desk.’

Whether you’re embedded in Iraq or blogging from Buffalo, the advice couldn’t be better. Do the work. Tell the truth. Write it snappy.

And don’t let ’em [expletive] with your copy.

Readers’ Corner: Writers Imagine How They Will Die

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Since the late and mellifluous George Plimpton knew just about everybody, when he came up with a random query, there were always plenty of good sources to chat up. So, when after hearing Norman Mailer talk about a supposed close call with lion in Zaire which he later determined was a good way to die, Plimpton tracked down some literary figures and asked them for how they imagined their final moments.

Here’s some of what he received in reply:

  • “When I go, everyone goes with me. You are all figments of my waking dreams and I suggest that each and every one of you shapes up and prays that I live long.” — Gore Vidal
  • “I enter a house where I have been invited. It’s dark. Two large, silhouetted figures emerge from hiding. Their voices are familiar, though I can’t place them accurately. One says, ‘It’s him.’ The other says, ‘I hope so.’ Suddenly one grabs me and pins my arms to my side while the other holds a small pillow across my face. At first, the pillow is not centered properly and it takes some effort for me to adjust it…. Just before I succumb I hear one of the figures say, ‘we did this because it was important, though not absolutely necessary.’” — Woody Allen
  • “I can’t decide if I’d rather go after the thirteenth or the fourteenth line of a sonnet; the thirteenth would give you something to do in the afterlife. By the same reasoning, while the ball is in the air, off the face of a perfectly swung five-iron, and yet has not hit the green where it is certain to fall.” — John Updike
  • “I really don’t care much how it will happen, and I don’t think I will care much more when it does.” — Joseph Heller

Reader’s Corner: Authorial Garbage

kenlopezFor writers who are looking for another reason why they never ever need to clean up after themselves, now they have something to work with besides: “I just need to polish this chapter.” The success of literary estate bloodhounds like Ken Lopez has proven the strange marketability of all kinds of marginalia (especially “interesting paper piles”) that nobody would ever have thought made sense to hang on to. Norman Mailer sold over a thousand boxes of his odds and ends in 2005 for $2.5 million.

Also, according to the Wall Street Journal, sometimes the buyers of this margnalia (university libraries, normally) can help function as a kind of executive assistant:

In 2006, for an undisclosed amount, Salman Rushdie sold [Emory University] 200 “falling apart, crappy cardboard boxes,” as he said at the collection’s opening in 2010. After Emory’s archivists put his “mess” in order, Mr. Rushdie capitalized on their tidiness to research his own 2012 memoir.

All authors need now to ensure that their various scribblings, laundry lists, and whatnot will fetch a pretty price in the future is to become wildly beloved by critics and preferably sell a million or so copies of their work in order to achieve a profitable literary immortality. Cake.