Norman Mailer is dead. Long live Norman Mailer

Sans Serif” records with regret the passing away of Norman Mailer, the eternal enfant terrible of literature and one of the founding fathers of “New Journalism“, in New York on Saturday. He was 84.

Born Nachem Malek, he published more than 30 books, including novels, biographies and works of nonfiction, and twice won the Pulitzer Prize: for The Armies of the Night (1968) and The Executioner’s Song (1979).

The New York Times notes in an obituary:

“At different points in his life Mr. Mailer was a prodigious drinker and drug taker, a womanizer, a devoted family man, a would-be politician who ran for mayor of New York, a hipster existentialist, an antiwar protester, an opponent of women’s liberation and an all-purpose feuder and short-fused brawler, who with the slightest provocation would happily engage in head-butting, arm-wrestling and random punch-throwing. Boxing obsessed him and inspired some of his best writing. Any time he met a critic or a reviewer, even a friendly one, he would put up his fists and drop into a crouch.”

Three years ago, Margo Hammond, books editor of The St. Petersburg Times, spoke to Mailer on the phone:

In “The Spooky Art” you refer to the need for young writers to pick themselves clean of the bad prose in bad books and in newspapers, and, of course, there are scads of examples of both. But what about the novelists who worked as journalists when they were young — Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Ernest Hemingway, for example. Was there anything about their journalism training that helped them write better novels?

Mailer: Every piece of literary advice ends up to be a generalization. Hemingway got something wonderful out of journalism and it shows in his novels. Yes, one of the greatest American novelists of all time was, indeed, a journalist. But generally speaking journalism is sloppy writing, and unless you have a real talent, it can injure you to write too quickly, come to too many conclusions. It’s frantic and hysterical.

By the way, newsrooms these days all sound like you’re in a monastery. All the computers are so silent. I miss the old days. Lots of journalism writing is bad because the pressure of being a good writer is not the first talent you need to be a good journalist. The first talent you need is the emotional readiness to introduce yourself to strangers and pick their brains.

But is there anything about journalism that helps the novelist?

The thing about journalists is that they learn about a lot of people in a hurry. Less good is that the experience is very rarely existential. By existential I mean that you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. If you’re doing it on spec, then it’s very existential. But if you’re working for a newspaper and you know it’ll be printed no matter what, then you learn a lot, but it doesn’t bite deep. Experiences you can’t control teach you a lot — the others just skim the top.

Link via Poynter

Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, shot in 1948, courtesy Wikipedia

Also read: Michiko Kakutani on Mailer

MUST READ: The dissenting view on Mailer

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