You know who’s having himself a moment is Norman Mailer. From a whopping new edition of selected essays to a whoppinger new biography, that “most celebrated and most reviled” of American writers is again in death commanding the attention he demanded in life. In this spirit of resurgence, we’ve posted below a most Mailerish of excerpts from his “First Advertisement for Myself,” from his 1959 book full of them. Say what you will—he certainly did—but the man could write.
An author’s personality can help or hurt the attention readers give to his books, and it is sometimes fatal to one’s talent not to have a public with a clear public recognition of one’s size. The way to save your work and reach more readers is to advertise yourself, steal your own favorite page out of Hemingway’s unwritten Notes From Papa On How The Working Novelist Can Get Ahead. Truman Capote did it bravely when he began, and my hat is off to him. James Jones did it, and did it well. Kerouac would deserve ears and tail if he weren’t an Eisenhower gypsy. I, in my turn, would love to be one of the colorful old-young men of American letters, but I have a changeable personality, a sullen disposition, and a calculating mind. I never have good nor accurate interviews since I always seem to get into disagreeable situations with reporters—they sense no matter how pleasant I try to be, that I do not like them—I think the psychological requirement for working on a newspaper is to be a congenital liar and a compulsive patriot. Perhaps I should hire a public relations man to grease my career, but I do not know if I can afford him (not with the size of the job he would have to do for me), and moreover I would be obliged sooner or later to spoil his work. While there would be hardly a limit to how lovable he could make me in the public eye it would be exhausting for me to pretend to be nicer than I really am. Indeed, it would be downright debilitating to the best of my creative energies. So I do not care to approach the public as a lover, nor could I succeed for that matter. I started as a generous but very spoiled boy, and I seem to have turned into a slightly punch-drunk and ugly club fighter who can fight clean and fight dirty, but likes to fight. I write this not solely out of self-pity (although self-pity is one of my vices) but also to tell the simple truth: I have not gotten nicer as I have grown older, and I suspect that what has been true for me may be true for a great many of you. I’ve burned away too much of my creative energy, and picked up too slowly on the hard, grim, and maybe manly knowledge that if I am to go on saying what my anger tells me it is true to say, I must get better at overriding the indifference which comes from the snobs, arbiters, managers and conforming maniacs who manipulate most of the world of letters and sense at the core of their unconscious that the ambition of a writer like myself is to become consecutively more disruptive, more dangerous, and more powerful. It will be fine if I can write so well and so strongly as to call my shot, but unfortunately I may have fatigued the earth of rich language beyond repair. I do not know, but it is possible. I’ve been in too many fights, I’ve been hit on the head by a hammer, and had my left eye gouged in a street fight—and of course I’m proud of this (I was a physical coward as a child), and so I’m proud I learned a bit about fighting even though the cost may end as waste. There may have been too many fights for me, too much sex, liquor, marijuana, benzedrine and seconal, much too much ridiculous and brain-blasting rage at the minuscule frustrations of a most loathsome literary world, necrophilic to the core—they murder their writers, and then decorate their graves.
If I put down words so final as these, it is not in any sense that I alone have been mistreated—on the contrary I have had more good luck and conceivably more bad luck than most writers (which tends to give one the hard satisfaction of knowing a little more of what the swindle is about). No, these ill-mannered bleedings and gripes are to record a clear record: I had the luck to have a large talent and to use some of it, and if I know how very much more I could have done if new luck had come my way, well—that is not my story, but everyone’s story, every last one of us could have done more, a creation or two more than we have done, and while it is our own fault, it is not all our own fault, and so I still feel rage at the cowardice of our time which has ground down all of us into the mediocre compromises of what had been once our light-filled passion to stand erect and be original.
You can see then that this collection of pieces and parts, of advertisements, short stories, articles, short novels, fragments of novels, poems and part of a play comes to be written, after all, and for the most part, on just such a sweet theme—the shits are killing us, even as they kill themselves—each day a few more lies eat into the seed with which we are born, little institutional lies from the print of newspapers, the shock waves of television, and the sentimental cheats of the movie screen. Little lies, but they pipe us toward insanity as they starve our sense of the real. We have grown up in a world more in decay than the worst of the Roman Empire, a cowardly world chasing after a good time (of which last one can approve) but chasing it without the courage to pay the hard price of full consciousness, and so losing pleasure in pips and squeaks of anxiety. We want the heats of the orgy and not its murder, the warmth of pleasure without the grip of pain, and therefore the future threatens a nightmare, and we continue to waste ourselves. We’ve cut a corner, tried to cheat the heart of life, tried not to face our uneasy sense that pleasure comes best to those who are brave, and now we’re a nation of drug addicts (caffeine, equanil, seconal and nicotine), of homosexuals, hoodlums, fart-faced Southern governors and a President so passive in his mild old panics that women would be annoyed if one called him feminine. The heat in our juvenile delinquency is matched only by the unadmitted acceleration of our race into cancer, that disease which is other than disease, that wave of the undifferentiated function, the orgy of the lost cells.
So, yes, it may be time to say that the Republic is in real peril, and we are the cowards who must defend courage, sex, consciousness, the beauty of the body, the search for love, and the capture of what may be, after all, an heroic destiny. But to say these words is to show how sad we are, for those of us who believe the most have spent our years writing of fear, impotence, stupidity, ugliness, self-love, and apathy, and yet it has been our act of faith, our attempt to see—to see and to see hard, to smell, even to touch, yes to capture that nerve of Being which may include all of us, that Reality whose existence may depend on the honest life of our work, the honor of ourselves which permits us to say no better than we have seen.