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The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing

3.61 of 5 stars 3.61  ·  rating details  ·  368 ratings  ·  43 reviews
“Writing is spooky. There is no routine of an office to keep you going, only the blank page each morning, and you never know where your words are coming from, those divine words.”

In The Spooky Art, Norman Mailer discusses with signature candor the rewards and trials of the writing life, and recommends the tools to navigate it. Addressing the reader in a conversational tone
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published January 21st 2003 by Random House (first published 2003)
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Charles Matthews
My review ran in the San Jose Mercury News on February 2, 2003:

As a student, I once found myself part of a group trying to make conversation with a writer-in-residence, Bernard Malamud.
The talk reached several dead ends before Malamud mentioned that he had been asked to submit nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Were there any American writers we thought worthy?
''Well,'' I said hesitantly, ''what about Norman Mailer?''
There were some groans and hisses from other students, but also
too much about himself. not enough about writing.
I enjoyed this quite a bit -- much more than I've enjoyed most of Mailer's fiction, honestly.

Mr. Mailer's career arc is fairly unique in that he became a nationally famous author at a young age -- and for a book that, by his own admission, was amateurish in parts. Still, The Naked and the Dead was a novel that the country needed at the time, and Mailer was lucky/talented enough to take advantage.

Of course, delivering a follow-up without the benefit of sure-to-interest material was another animal

This had interesting bits but a lot of it was really boring (chapters on the unconscious, film, television, and the occult, for example) and I skimmed about one third of the book. Just like with his fiction, his thoughts on writing, on himself, on other authors, can be fascinating, or not so much. Some of the material here had been published elsewhere, and some material is new. It's presented not chronologically but thematically, so a particular chapter will bring in snippets decades old as well
I'm normally not a fan of greatest-hits aphorisms patched together to provide a new revenue stream for its author. But it's a pretty good quilt! The first part will be more near and dear for everyone -- basically Mailer's thoughts on writing arranged according to theme. Argue with it, sure, but you won't be bored. Less adroitly stitched together is the second half, in which Mailer is allowed to grab the mic to pontificate on less intriguing corollary topics (Film, The Occult, Television) in more ...more
John Cooper
Reading Mailer's letters—and none of his other books as yet—was enough to convince me that he was a writer of rare talent, so the idea of reading his thoughts on writing was attractive. But "The Spooky Art" is a meandering tome that collects Mailer's conversationally presented thoughts not just on writing, which only represent about a third of the book, but on any number of subjects topical and universal. Most are essays that were published elsewhere, abridged and revised with prefaces and after ...more
Richard Jespers
Okay. The man has some great “thoughts” in places. Not so good in others. The chapter on film is not enjoyable.

Some nuggets:

“Consciously or unconsciously, writers must fashion a new peace with the past every day they attempt to write. They must rise above despising themselves” (71).

“Plot comes last. I want a conception of my characters that’s deep enough so they will get me to the places where I as the author have to live by my wits. That means my characters must keep developing. So long as th
Mark Johnson
It is not surprising that Norman Mailer's collection of essays presents clearly stated positions on various matters which are, for the most part, of interest to practicing writers, but most likely not to the general reading public, with the exception of Mr. Mailer's fans. Mr. Mailer sustains his positions with his considerable arsenal of rhetorical devices, but in 2014 most of the contentious issues, such as D.H. Lawrence's attitude toward women, which were at white heat when the essays were ori ...more
Part One was strong and moved along quickly, even held my attention long past the time of night when I should have given up trying to read coherently. Part Two, unfortunately, did not, dragging interminably. I found myself skimming through quite a bit of the second half, until I got the section regarding influential writers, which redeemed Part Two somewhat and allowed Mailer to end on a higher note.
Cannon Roberts

This is not a book on writing. It's a collection of random, mostly tedious and arrogant, thoughts Mailer had for like three years then duped someone into publishing. I could talk to a drunk MFA student for an hour and get the same insights.
Michael Berish
What can I say? It's Mailer. Very erudite,but he has a tendency to ramble off the subject of "thoughts on writing" to famous people he has met and his experiences in life.
All right if you can stand the humility.
Kristofer Carlson
I've never read any of Norman Mailer's fiction; my basic knowledge of Mailer has been as a literary presence. A fan of Mailer's writing might have an entirely different take on this book, since (in part) he discusses various difficulties he encountered while writing his various books. Dince I write non-fiction, I wasn't exactly sure what Norman Mailer had to teach me. But I discovered that although writing fiction and non-fiction seem to be entirely different processes, yet as both are creative ...more
Pretty good. Mostly enjoyable. I've not yet read any of Mailer's novels (and how odd that I would finish this mere days after his passing!), but I figured a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author would probably have a lot to say about writing. He did, as well as having a few really sharp insights into Life.

Less enjoyable were times went he went off on other tangents, like the chapters on journalism (not very interesting, and rather dated) and film (his thoughts on which are somewhat INSANE). His
Asim Khan
So full of insights of the quality that can only flow from the mind of a genius like Mailer. My notes on this book comprise almost an entire cahier.
Generous, empathetic guidance from The General. The prolific Mailer notoriously hits and misses in equal measure. Here it fearlessly happens paragraph to paragraph, but he still speaks with authority. He can, because he has it. You can talk about the shameless self-mythologizing or the shameful wife-stabbing, but no one can say that Norman Mailer cannot write. The insights are shocking and the hard truths are embedded throughout the pages. Where Can Wisdom Be Found? Right here. Puts "A Moveable ...more
Mailer’s insight to the spookiness of the “work” of writing is, at times, meandering and kooky, but ultimately hits home on some major points. Avoiding his digressions on films and other topics, this book was extremely helpful in making me feel comfortable about taking risks with my writing in order to tell the best story possible. The book seems to offer more insight than advice, but it definitely touched upon many of the aspects of writing that are difficult to explain to those outside of the ...more
Not super impressed. Most of the book revolved around his reflections on casual sex. Most memorable (not in a good way) was his considered opinion that the best cinematic moment ever recorded was the sound of a woman's panties being ripped off. He was serious. Unless you enjoy a great deal of casual sex, subscribe to Mailer's beliefs about the truth and beauty in such encounters, and want to make those encounters the frontispiece of your writing, this book will be of little practical inspiration ...more
Πολύ καλό για επίδοξους συγγραφείς, περιέχει πολλές συμβουλές. Μέχρι ένα σημείο όμως.

Kάποια στιγμή ξεκινάει τις παρατηρήσεις για διάφορα, μεταξύ των οποίων και το επάγγελμα του δημοσιογράφου, ο οποίος όσο πιο πετυχημένος είναι τόσο πιο πολλά ψέμματα γράφει. Οπότε: A nation which forms detailed opinions on the basis of detailed fact which is askew from the subtle reality becomes a nation of citizens whose psyches are skewed, away from any reality

Gail Oare
Some really valuable insights about writing, writing behavior, publishing and some biting and rambling critiques of other stuff on his mind. He's much more humble when talking about himself than I expected but his ego jumps off the page when talking about others.
Franklin Colorado
I read part of this when it came out. It looked interesting, but isn't really a book. Writers like him aren't around so much. Reminds you of how arrogant the WW2 guys were. So they were sent to war and that makes them all tough? Some of it, like how he viewed sex is funny. It's a nice contrast to the lack of manliness in younger writers. I suppose he took up all the masculinity for awhile.
Ellen Keim
I would have LOVED this book if he had stuck to the topic. His insights and anecdotes about being a writer are extremely interesting. But there were too many parts that had little or nothing to do with writing and they weren't what I signed on for. I suppose a writer of his stature could put whatever he wanted in his book, but I wish someone had reined him in a little.
May 05, 2012 Stephanie marked it as to-read
I saw a quote from Mailer on the movie Shrink, which I highly recommend. It turned out to be from a magazine interview, but it piqued my interest in the author. This book appealed to me more than his available fiction, so I ordered it for one penny plus shipping...

and it turns out this is an autographed copy, so I think I've really made out well in the bargain.
Christian McKay
Mailer warns in his introduction that this is an uneven work. I really started to feel it as I slogged through the last half.

That being said, I learned that the best books bring up more questions than they answer. And The Spooky Art certainly did that for me. Now I just need to read his novels so I can know what he was talking about half the time.
Shanna Williams
Mailer's genius lies in the fact that he didn't see himself as a genius. He was just a guy who wrote novels and had more than a small amount of success. And his advice to aspiring or new novelists is more than just practical. It's entertaining and unapologetic, and gets to the core of so many the problems writers face, namely fear.
Chris Campion
Slow start. Didn't really get going until about 60 pages. But it pretty much covered everything in terms of being a writer and the highs and lows of the whole undertaking. A very intelligent read and certainly articulate. Has a lot of little gems to underline with a pencil.
Toby Elliott
rest in peace, norman mailer.

this book shows mailer at his most pedantic, but also most illuminating. he is a no-holds-barred type of writer. if you write, you should read this book. he's a total prick, but he's right. and some of his prose is succinctly gorgeous.
Sort of interesting at first, but then all the navel-gazing and memoir-izing got tedious. Then there was the chapter entitled "Gender, Narcissism, Masturbation". Maybe if I were a writer, I'd get more out of it. Maybe not.
You are not alone.

Though I'm not sure I can wholly subscribe to Mailer's opinions about masturbation, there are parts of this book that strike so succinctly to the core of the writer's experience, that it's worth all of it.
Some good advice in here, as well as some cattiness and pontification: it's by Norman Mailer. But I always find writers' processes interesting. I was disappointed he said so little about James Baldwin.
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Norman Kingsley Mailer was an American novelist, journalist, essayist, poet, playwright, screenwriter, and film director.

Along with Truman Capote, Joan Didion, and Tom Wolfe, Mailer is considered an innovator of creative nonfiction, a genre sometimes called New Journalism, but which covers the essay to the nonfiction novel. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize twice and the National Book Award once.
More about Norman Mailer...
The Naked and the Dead The Executioner's Song An American Dream The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History The Fight

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“Just as a fighter has to feel that he possesses the right to do physical damage to another man, so a writer has to be ready to take chances with his readers’ lives.” 1 likes
“Characters in novels sometimes radiate more energy, therefore, when we don’t enter their mind. It is one of the techniques a novelist acquires instinctively—don’t go into your protagonist’s thoughts until you have something to say about his or her inner life that is more interesting than the reader’s suppositions.” 1 likes
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