My friends love to bait me.
Jenn burst into my room last weekend and said, “Have you read anything by Norman Mailer?”
When I admitted I hadn’t, Jenn broke out Mailer’s “Thoughts on Writing” collection The Spooky Art, and proceeded to read aloud key passages she’d bookmarked just for me.
She then photocopied and highlighted these passages.
Oh, yea. It’s that good.
Let me share:
“When your prime character is a man, the key choice is not how bright he is, because however smart, he can’t be more intelligent than you are. That’s easy. You dumb him down to taste or bring him up to your level.
This way, all of your characters can be male and God-like, like you.
“The real question is, How tough is he?”
Truly, one of life’s great questions.
“Do you have the inner sanction to create a man who’s braver and tougher than yourself? The answer is yes. Contra Hemingway – yes! You can do that by exercising your critical imagination. It must not be about wish fulfillment! You are entitled to guess how you might act if you were that much more of a hero.”
Only write about characters just like you. Only, tougher. Tougher! You in a trenchcoat! You being the writer, of course. A MAN.
No, no, we’re not talking about women – look:
“I don’t know how to pose the question for an author who’s female. Can she, for example, write about a woman who is more sensitive than herself?”
Cause fuck knows she can’t write about a woman tougher than she is! Why the hell would she want to do that! But wait, it gets better —
Probably not! Women have no imagination!
“She could write about a woman who uses her sensitivity and sensibility more than herself, because she can then key on all the frustrated times in her existence when the sensitivity and sensibility she possessed were not appropriate to a harsh occasion.”
Did he just contradict himself? I don’t know. I was busy being sensitive. That is, using my sensitivity to make myself more sensible, or a character more sensible, a female one, or something like that.
“Following question: Can a woman write about another woman more passionate than herself? Probably.”
Women=sex. Women=understanding of passion. Good, good, Norman. Look, he’ll throw us a bone! After all, he must have talked to thousands upon thousands of women writers to come up with this hypothesis! I bet he’s not just talking out his ass. After all, he’s a Famous Writer!
“Or a woman who’s colder than herself? Without doubt.”
All women are cold, evil bitches at heart, so they can write about cold characters. But she can’t write about anybody more sensitive than she is. And she’ll never want to write about anybody tougher than she is, because that would be too much like what men are allowed to write.
“If you believe in fiction, if you believe in the power of the novelist, then all subjects are possible. Of course, certain choices present more obstructions than others. It would be harder, as an example, for a male novelist to learn about the small irritations of a woman’s day than to imagine what her sex would be like. A novelistic element in sex, after all, is the feeling of nearness to the Other. It’s one of the most compelling reasons for sex precisely because such sentiments live almost entirely outside formal sacraments and private codes. It may be indeed why pious people so often feel driven to break their own deepest sexual prohibitions. It’s because the experience of meeting the Other is incomparable.”
What if you’re a lesbian?
Oh, I forgot. Lesbians don’t have sex. But you know, honestly, if I wanted to have sex with “the Other” I’d fuck a outside the species. C’mon, can we move past the “women are amazing, lithe, crystalline figurines who don’t shit” and acknowledge that one of the great things about sex is coming together with somebody else? You know, a person. Not a plastic doll?
“Which is why I say it’s easier – if you are going to write about the opposite gender – to limn them sexually than attempt to get into the nitty gritty of their daily life.”
It appears that Norman subscribes to the Heinleinian school of female character creation.
“Another word on gender.”
Oh, please, go on.
“Women certainly have every right to create men at war, but I think it might be recognized that it’s likely to be less comfortable for them. War, after all, is essentially a male invention.”
Women have never had to fight for anything. They never encouraged men to fight. They didn’t pass out white feathers to civilian men in WWI, attempting to shame them into going to war. Women have never supported wars. Have never seen the necessity for war. Women don’t have anything to do with war at all. Women are all naturally pacifists and don’t get caught up patriotic fevor at all.
“How often have women show the same inventiveness and hellishness that men have in war?”
“How can they approach that near-psychotic mix of proportion and disproportion which is at the heart of mortal combat?”
Maybe when they were giving birth, you know, during those days when 1 in 4 women died giving birth to a kid. You know, the life/death battle. Women have never seen none of that shit.
“On the other hand, if we ask whether men and women can write equally about bravery, I would say yes.”
Oh, thank god. But wait!!
“How are we to define bravery, after all? Take a woman who is awfully timid – let’s say she was terrorized through her childhood. She has an all-too-acute awareness of how bad things can come upon you suddenly. When she’s an old lady and every bone in her body is aching, it may be an act of courage for her to cross a busy street all by herself. She doesn’t know if she can make it across before the lights change, yet she has to do it. For her own honor, if you will. And she does it. That may be more brave, given the relative situation, than the bold act of a soldier who’s been trained to be courageous, who is bonded to the soldiers he is with, who lives with the idea that there’s no disgrace in life worse than not being up to the military occasion.”
I would say something along the lines of, “I don’t think this man has ever spoken to a woman in his life,” but he was apparently married for years and years. Maybe they didn’t talk. Something tells me that if he asked twenty women what the bravest thing they’d ever done was (and talked to lower-class women), it wouldn’t be, “Crossing the street.”
“So a woman can certainly write about brave soldiers, even though she’s not the least bit brave, not at that level. Of course, she has to have an immense talent.”
Of course. Women aren’t naturally good writers. There are those select few that get put up on pedestals as model examples of just how rare it is that women are actually talented.
“I’ve often thought that Joyce Carol Oates, who is a very talented woman, will often, on the basis of a small bit of experience, write a six-hundred page novel. I think she’s an arch example of someone who does almost all of it through talent.”
The rest is dumb luck.
“She’s willing to dare terrible humiliation. The irony is that she is rarely attacked.”
She is, after all, a woman, and Famous Writers Like Me enjoy patting her on the head. She is no threat to us.
“I expect she arouses a fundamental if somewhat bemused respect in many a mean spirit.”
Bemused respect. Bemused. Joyce, you’re so damn funny when you write six hundred pages of text that has periods and everything!
And here are some of his thoughts on the writing of DH Lawrence:
“Indeed, which case-hardened guerrilla of Women’s Liberation might not shed a private tear at the following passage (of DH Lawrence’s):
`And if you’re in Scotland and I’m in the Midlands, and I can’t put my arms around you, and wrap my legs round you, yet I’ve got something of you. My soul softly flap in the little pentecost flame with you, like the peace of fucking. We fucked a flame into being. Even the flowers are fucked into being between the sun and the earth. But it’s a delicate thing, and takes patience and the long pause.
So I love chastity now, because it is the peace the comes of fucking. I love being chaste now. I love it as snowdrops love the snow. I love this chastity, which is the pause of peace of our fucking, between us now like a snowdrop of forked white fire. And when the real spring comes, when the drawing together comes, then we can fuck the little flame brilliant and yellow…’
Yes, which stout partisan of the Liberation would read such words and not go soft for the memory of some bitter bridge of love she had burned behind. Lawrence was dangerous.”
Dude, if I was getting laid like that, I wouldn’t have burned the bridge. But you know, I long for the days when women like me were called, “case-hardened guerrilla(s) of Women’s Liberation.” I want to be a case-hardened guerilla of women’s liberation! Bring it on, Lawrence, you dangerous bastard! Think of all the guerilla fucking we would do. Beautiful.
And now, the really weird part. What, you thought it didn’t get weirder. Oh, my chiklits! Now Norman talks about his favorite vice: Masturbation!
PK: Do you think you’re something of a puritan when it comes to masturbation?
Norman: I think masturbation is bad.
That about sums it up. Next question?
PK: In relation to heterosexual fulfillment?
Norman: In relation to everything – orgasm, heterosexuality, to style, to stance, to being able to fight the good fight. I think masturbation turns people askew. It sets up a bad and often enduring tension. Anybody who spends his adolescence masturbating generally enter his young manhood with no sense of being a man.
PK: Is it possible you have a totalitarian attitude toward masturbation?
Norman: I’m saying it’s a miserable activity.
…for me. I get really confused. All those parts, all the same. It’s like being gay. And I’m not gay.
PK: Well, were’ getting right back to absolutes. You know – to some, masturbation can be a think of beauty.
Norman: To what end? Who is going to benefit from it? Masturbation is bombing oneself.
Like a blitzkrieg of the self. Like invading Poland. If you’re Polish.
PK: I think there’s a basic flaw in your argument. Why are you assuming that masturbation is violence unto oneself? Why is it not pleasure unto oneself? And I’m not defending masturbation – well, I’m defending masturbation, yes, as a substitute if and when –
Norman: All right, look. When you make love, whatever is good in you or bad in your goes out into someone else.
Women absorb it, like sponges. They’re great like that.
“I mean this literally.”
“I’m not interested in the biochemistry of it nor in how the psychic waves are passed back and forth.”
As psychic waves are wont to do.
“All I know is that when one makes love, one changes a woman slightly and a woman changes you slightly – “
Unless it’s gay sex, which doesn’t count. I’m not gay. Have I mentioned that yet in this interview? Not gay.
PK: Certain circumstances can change one for the worse.
Norman: But at least you have gone through a process which is part of life.
Unless it’s gay.
“One can be better for the experience, or worse. But one has experience to absorb, to think about, one has literally to digest the new spirit that has entered the flesh.”
Just make sure she swallows.
“The body has been galvanized for an experience of flesh, a declaration of the flesh. If one has the courage to think about every aspect of the act – I don’t mean think mechanically about it – “
Cause then you might learn something.
“but if one is able to brood over the act, to dwell on it, then one is changed by the act.”
There’s nothing hotter than a guy pausing midthrust, staring out over your head, brow furrowed, while he contemplates Norman Mailer. Norman thinks it’s pretty hot, too.
“Because in the act of restoring one’s harmony, one has to encounter all of the reasons one was jangled. So finally, one has to experience which was nourishing. Nourishing because one is able to feel one’s way into more difficult or more precious insights as a result of it. One’s able to live a tougher, more heroic life if one can digest and absorb the experience.”
He’s back on the “tough, heroic” thing again. Sex is incredibly heroic, for men, but only if they think a lot about it. Otherwise, it’s like masturbation.
No, I don’t understand it either.
“But if one masturbates -“
Yep, we’re back on this one again.
“all that happens is, everything that’s beautiful and good in one goes up the hand, goes into the air, is lost.”
Lost, like the survivors of a plane crash, fighting polar bears, learning how to walk, forming budding romances and hiding Terrible Secrets while learning French… oh, I’m sorry, wrong rant.
“Now, what the hell is there to absorb?”
Your own semen? Isn’t that gay?
“One hasn’t tested oneself.”
Sex with women is a battle. That sounds healthy.
“You see, in a way, the heterosexual act lay questions to rest and makes one able to build upon a few answers. Whereas if one masturbates, the ability to contemplate one’s experience is disturbed. Fantasies of power take over and disturb all sleep. If one has, for example, the image of a beautiful, sexy babe in masturbation, one still doesn’t know whether one can make lover to her in the flesh. All you know is that you can have her in your brain. Well, a lot of good that is.”
Women exist to be made love to. You must prove your manliness by conquering hot babes and fucking them while pausing, on occasion, to contemplate the act of absorption and the brilliance of Norman Mailer. You can’t just settle for fantasizing about that hot babe who thinks you’re a freak and wouldn’t touch you with a ten foot pole, you’ve got to go out there and go after her – with a pitchfork, if need be – to prove that your manly organ can go in its rightful place.
“But if one has fought the good fight -“
More fighting, again. Sex is war, after all. Not that women would know anything about war.
“or the evil fight and ended with the beautiful, sexy dame, then whether the experience is good or bad, your life is changed by it.”
Hers probably will be, too. She might get herpes from you. Or get pregnant and kicked out of school. But we’re really not interested in her. It’s about the battle. I mean, you fought the good fight, you’re a man. Just think, you could have stayed home masturbating and not forced yourself and your attentions on anyone at all! What kind of a man would you have been, then? Huh? Huh?
“The ultimate direction of masturbation always has to be insanity –“
Ah. The 50s.
“the ultimate direction, mind you, not the immediate likelihood.”
Well, that’s good to know. Masturbation today – insanity tomorrow.
“I was asked whether these remarks apply to women –“
Oh, sweet Jesus.
“and realized that I did not know the answer.”
Having never spoken to a woman in my life.
“It strikes me that masturbation, for a variety of reasons, does not affect the female psyche directly.”
Only indirectly? Like second-hand smoke?
“A male friend of mine remarked, “Since you’ve been married all your adult life, you don’t know the true extent of the problem.”
I feel so incredibly sorry for this man’s wives. He doesn’t know the difference between sex and masturbation. So every time he wants to get off, it’s “Roll over, honey.”
The difference between sex and masturbation is that with sex, you’re with another person, it’s about coming together with another person. Masturbation is, yes, about you, about pleasure, about getting off and going to bed.
And yes, there’s a difference. And there are all sorts of men who’ve been banged on the head with the “if you want to get off, it’s better to have sex than masturbate.” Well, yea, it’s good to have sex if what you’re looking for is being with that person, cause you know, there’s two of you involved. Way too many men approach sex like masturbation, and believe they’re the only ones there.
It’s no surprise that he’s been married six times.
This guy needs to fucking relax….
And there’s your introduction to Norman Mailer!!
Yet another Old White Male Writer who should really be included more in the Canon, as he speaks so well for all men – and especially their women! – with a deep, penetrating understanding of the core humanity in each of us.