10 quotes on writing from the seismic Norman Mailer

One of the greatest 20th-century authors was born on Jan. 31. Here’s what he had to say about his life’s work (as well as love making).


Several iconic people were born on Jan. 31: baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson, Chicago Cubs great Ernie Banks, novelist John O’Hara, ballerina Anna Pavlova, and writer Norman Mailer.

Mailer, who died in 2007, was one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. He won two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award, and he was among the pioneers of New Journalism. His first novel, “The Naked and the Dead,” is a must-read.

As a great male 20th-century writer he was, not shockingly, a drunk, a misogynist, and deeply offensive. In other words, he would have been a hit on Twitter.

Esquire magazine contributor Tom Junod wrote the last profile of Mailer before his death.

“He’s always stood for the novel as the main event, the test of courage, the test of manliness, the high-stakes bet, the thing that’s worth living your life for, the thing that’s worth wrecking your life for, the sum total of a man’s experience and struggle, and, yes, a man’s experience rather than a woman’s,” Junod wrote.

“Partly, it was a generational thing,” he continued, “he was one of the writers who came up under the sway of Hemingway, when the novel was seen as a way for men to go at other men and other writers, mano a mano.

“Partly it was an existential thing, because the novel is a heroic go at the void, an attempt at self-definition in the face of the chaos of a man’s—well, Mailer’s—life.

“Partly, though, Mailer reveres the novel as the essence of his own humanism, which is strict and powerful and unorthodox.”

Mailer was an imperfect man, but he was damn close to being a perfect writer.

Here are 10 quotes from him on the subject of writing:

On journalists

“If a person is not talented enough to be a novelist, not smart enough to be a lawyer, and his hands are too shaky to perform operations, he becomes a journalist.”

On writer’s block

“Writer’s block is only a failure of the ego.”

On the key traits of a writer

“The writer can grow as a person or he can shrink. … His curiosity, his reaction to life must not diminish. The fatal thing is to shrink, to be interested in less, sympathetic to less, desiccating to the point where life itself loses its flavor, and one’s passion for human understanding changes to weariness and distaste.”

On mediocrity

“The mark of mediocrity is to look for precedent.”

On subject matter

“To choose to go out and find a new subject to write about is always false to a degree. I would argue that your material becomes valuable only when it is existential, by which I mean an experience you do not control.”

On book writing

“Writing books is the closest men ever come to childbearing.”

On the ideal setting to write

“I like a room with a view, preferably a long view. I like looking at the sea, or shop, or anything which has a vista to it. Oddly enough, I’ve never worked in the mountains.”

On being a beginner

“When I first began to write … at Harvard, I wasn’t very good.”

On writing like you talk (describing his first writing class at Harvard)

“We were instructed to write with something of the ease in which we might speak, and that is a good rule for beginners. In time it can be absorbed, taken for granted, and finally disobeyed. The best writing comes, obviously, out of a precision we do not and dare not employ when we speak, yet such writing still has the ring of speech. It is a style, in short, that can take you a life to achieve.”

On lovemaking

“One thing I’ve learned in all these years is not to make love when you really don’t feel it; there’s probably nothing worse you can do to yourself than that.”

(Many of these quotes are from Mailer’s book on writing, “The Spooky Arts.”)

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