The Joy of Writing: A guide for writers disguised as a literary memoir

by Pierre Berton
317 pages,
ISBN: 0385659970

The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing

by Norman Mailer
330 pages,
ISBN: 0394536487

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Mailer and Berton on Writing
by Joel Yanofsky

It always comes as something of a surprise to me that there are so many people who want to write and, failing that, want to read about what it takes to be a writer. This may have something to do with two complimentary misconceptions about the literary life¨one that everyone has a book in them. The other that there is a secret lurking out there somewhere that will make it possible for them to get that obstinate¨ and, no doubt, best-selling¨manuscript finished.
Somerset Maugham summed up the bad news for aspiring writers a long time ago. There are three rules for writing a novel, he said, unfortunately no one knows what they are. The good news, of a sort, is that Norman Mailer, who turned 80 earlier this year, never met a rule he felt obliged to obey. So while he may not have any sure-fire advice about how to be a writer in his new book The Spooky Art¨his subtitle, "Some Thoughts on Writing", is uncharacteristically modest¨he's not short on theories. Some of which are positively harebrained. Here he is, for instance, with the notion¨an admittedly self-serving one for a writer with his reputation for getting into trouble¨about why nice guys deserve to finish last:
"It's the guys who pen wonderfully sweet books... who are the real monsters. You know¨they kick the wife, cuff the kids, and have the dog shrinking in horror. Then their books come out: 'X once again delights the readers with his sense of joy.'"

Coincidentally, at the same time I was reading The Spooky Art, I was also reading another book about the craft of writing, Pierre Berton's The Joy of Writing. Aside from being octogenarians and having long and prolific careers, Mailer and Berton could hardly have less in common. In fact, anyone reading these two books in tandem could be forgiven for wondering if their authors are even part of the same profession.
Mailer, with his six wives and his reputation for public brawling, is as American as apple pie and Manifest Destiny. In his book, he covers identity, envy, morality, masturbation, narcissism and more. Berton, whose flamboyance is restricted to the bowties he wears on TV panel shows, is as industrious as a beaver. A typical chapter title from Berton's book: "The Joys of Organizing".
We get, it seems, the elder statesmen we deserve. Berton, who escaped the fate of working 70-hour weeks in a Yukon mining camp, set out to make a small success for himself in this country and wildly exceeded his modest dreams. Meanwhile, Mailer, an overachieving Jewish kid fresh out of Harvard, set out to be great and on that matter, as he admits himself, the jury remains out.
In the chapter "Living in the World", Mailer says that if a writer is ambitious, "he must be ready to engage the congealed hostility of the world. If a writer is really good enough and bold enough he will, by the logic of society, write himself out onto the end of a limb that the world will saw off."
What both Mailer and Berton do understand in their own way is that it's no picnic being a famous author. (They should try being obscure.) For Berton, this has meant enduring requests from wannabe writers for advice, which Berton puts to good if somewhat cruel use, starting his book with a sampling of letters he's compiled over the years. Here's an excerpt from one fan's grandiose and ungrammatical correspondence: "What I have decided to put on paper it's my true experience and I'll tell you that's between Grapes of Wrath and Peyton Place."
Of course, Berton's not really being sadistic¨or not just sadistic¨by including letters like this. He has an important point to make: being a writer is not about the story you have to tell, it's about how you tell that story.
For Mailer, however, writing has been nothing less than a test of soul and sinew. "A man lays his character on the line when he writes a novel," he says. "Anything in him which is lazy or meretricious, or unthoughtful, complacent, fearful, overambitious, or terrified by the ultimate logic of his exploration will be revealed in his book."
Perhaps the most important job requirement for being a writer, particularly in the second half of the 20th century and the early days of the 21st, is perseverance. You will require the blind faith of a Jehovah's Witness, the belief that people want to hear what you have to say even when they keep on making it clear that they don't.
In The Joy of Writing, Berton generously includes anecdotes about his early failures as well as samples of the scathing and lengthy letters he has received over the years from disappointed editors. The message to aspiring authors is unmistakable: you better learn to deal with rejection.
The Joy of Writing is a useful manual, though Berton's book has more to say about efficiency than inspiration. To that end, his list of "30 rules for up-and-coming writers" are scattered throughout the book like way stations¨reminders to "Start small." (No. 9) Or, my favourite, "Suck up to your editor." (No. 26.)
Berton, who's written 49 books at last count, has a journeyman's instincts. He's respectful of editors, colleagues and gives credits to his researchers. He does get worked up once, though, repeating a run-in he had with historian J.L. Granatstein. Criticized by Granatstein for consciously being too interesting, Berton responds: "Well, professor, I sure as hell don't consciously make (my books) dull."
But even here he reveals an ulterior motive. "Rule No. 29: Use a bad review to sell your book." For the most, though, Berton takes bad reviews in stride, holding to the sensible opinion that there's no such thing as bad publicity. I mean, what are you going to do? Beat up your critics?
Well, maybe. In The Spooky Art, Mailer recalls how he once showed up at a party and plunked himself down next to Philip Rahv, an influential critic at the time. He carried on a friendly 30-minute conversation with Rahv, never mentioning a recent nasty review. All the time, though, Mailer was leaning into the poor man.
"I was perfectly pleasant..." Mailer writes, "and everything seemed all right, except we were both tilted alarmingly... He was in an absolute panic, waiting for me to strike.... He was a heavy man, and the two of us probably looked like two doughnuts crushed together at one end of the box."
Mailer was blessed and cursed with early success. He was 25 when his first novel, the World War II story The Naked and the Dead, became "a prodigious bestseller." After more than 30 books, it would be his only one. His third novel, The Deer Park, nearly killed him. He tells how in a chapter in The Spooky Art and it's one of the best accounts of a writer cracking up since F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Crack-Up.
The constant in Mailer's career has been his willingness to go for broke. His triumphs¨like The Executioner's Song and Harlot's Ghost¨have been big and idiosyncratic; his flops¨like The Gospel According to the Son, a novel from Jesus's point of view¨have been bigger and more offbeat. Still, all of this has earned him the right to pontificate on his life in literature. His comments on the failings of his contemporaries, for example, make for a fascinating combination of acumen and gossip.
Truman Capote sacrificed his talent to be "a major social figure." Thomas Wolfe was "the greatest fifteen- year-old alive"; Tom Wolfe, "a Johnny-One-Note"; Saul Bellow "too timid to become a great writer." About up-and-comer Jonathan Franzen, Mailer says, "He may well have the highest IQ of any American novelist writing today, but unhappily he rewards us with work more than exhilaration."
The Spooky Art is cobbled together¨made up, in large part, of old interviews Mailer did and then expanded on and updated, with sections on craft, psychology and philosophy¨but the seams are knit together by an almost religious passion for what he does. Mailer doesn't have rules after all; he has commandments: "If I could give one maxim to a young writer, I'd say live with your cowardice. Live with it every day. Hate it or defend it, but don't try to slough it off."
But then books about writing can't help but be pulpits, the bullier the better. Which is at least one thing these two very different veteran authors have in common. Neither Berton, who's spent his career celebrating his country, nor Mailer, who's celebrated himself, are done preaching yet. ˛

Joel Yanofsky's book about writers, the writing life and Mordecai Richler, Mordecai & Me: An Appreciation of a Kind is due out in fall 2003 from Red Deer Press.

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