Norman Mailer died yesterday. One of the New York Times‘s articles about his death ended with this passage:
“What happens is you become the hat on your own head,” he said. “You’re not having the pleasure of enjoying your own mind the way you used to when you were young, but you have the product of your mind to work with. You know, I ran into Henry Kissinger years ago, and I asked him if he enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of the work, and he said in effect: ‘I am working with the ideas that I formed at Harvard years ago. I haven’t had a real idea since I’ve been on this; I just work with the old ideas.’ I certainly know what he means now — I think there are just so many ideas you can have in your life, and once you have them, you have to develop them.
I’m not sure what to think of this, because I am still at a young enough, ambitious enough age to think that I might have more ideas. Of course, I have not written a single book, so it’s possible that I haven’t had a single idea yet. Or I could just be lazy.
Speaking of me, that same article also contained the following passage:
These willfully provocative narrators would remind readers of the author’s public shenanigans — running for mayor of New York, stabbing his wife at a party with a penknife and butting heads with or unleashing fusillades against literary rivals and critics (including this one). They also provided Mr. Mailer with a means of filtering the chaotic events of the ’60s through the prism of his own combative, Whitmanesque ego. They enabled him to mythologize himself even as he used his own personality as an index to chart how the world had changed. And they anticipated the narcissistic “advertisements for myself” that would become de rigueur, years later, in the “Me Generation” with its confessional talk shows and tell-all memoirs.
This taught me a little something. Since I grew up in the 80s and 90s, the so-called Me Generation is all I’ve known. When I write for the magazine, I’m very comfortable littering the story with personal references. I’ve noticed older writers less willing to do so, even when I ask. This always puzzled me; now I understand. In the most recent issue, I wrote a 600-word restaurant review, and the first third was about me ordering a whiskey and soda at this establishment when I was not yet 21. That’s a pretty narcissistic lede; yet somehow it felt right. It’s because I’m of this Me Generation.
The question is, do members of the Me Generation care to read about other people? If writing becomes a sort of self-exploration, what interest do we have in reading about other people’s self explorations? Is writing, then, only about the writer?
It probably shouldn’t be. Because, really, writers write for an audience. Why else would I be putting this claptrap on the Internet, instead of in some leather-bound volume tucked away on my bookcase? Because it’s written, whether I want to admit or not, for an audience.
This is worth pondering.
It also sheds some light on the maturation, for lack of ability to think of a better word, of Dave Eggers, subject of First Post on this blog. His first book was the wildly successful
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which was actual genius at best, self-indulgent at worst. Either way, it was all about Eggers. First of all, it was a memoir. Second, the stylized nature of the writing drew attention to the writer, who as in turn writing about himself. Eggers admitted as much when I heard him speak a few weeks ago. When asked about that book during the Q&A session, he apologized for it (never mind that it was a Pulitzer finalist). He said he recently read a page of it, and he was “horrified.” He explained that the book was a product of much caffeine. Later, when he signed the book for my wife, he wrote “With Apologies Unlimited, Dave Eggers.” Hence, the title of this blog.
The reason he was so embarassed by that work is because his latest book, What Is the What, which I am still reading, has nothing to do with him. It’s the incredible (novelized) story of one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. The prose style is sparing; he tried to write in the actual voice of the main character, Valentino, and he wanted the actual story to shine through. In some ways, it’s the complete opposite of AHWOSG. And Eggers seems proud and humbled by the book.
Perhaps there’s a lesson in there for me. I’ll have to think about that.
In the meantime, reading about Mailer’s death has inspired me to want to read The Executioner’s Song. The Times article called it a masterpiece. The only Mailer book I’ve read is Tough Guys Don’t Dance. I held off reading it for a while because my postcollege roommate called it the worst book he’d ever read. But we don’t necessarily share the same tastes, so one day I gave it a go.
I guess it’s what one would expect from Mailer. It’s about a guy who wakes up with a hangover and a severed female head in his marijuana stash. So he sets out to determine whether or not he’s a killer. It’s a dark, violent book. I also skimmed this recent New York Magazine article (talk about timely) in which Mailer describes his version of God, who is, unsurprisingly, an artist. In other words, he’s a lot like Mailer. “For He made us in His image.” Isn’t that how the quote goes?