Writers in love with other art forms

In the last summer of his life Norman Mailer felt he had the face he deserved and the solitude he craved. He was living alone in a house in Provincetown not far from the one he’d rented when he came out of the army in 1946, the little cabin where he began writing The Naked and the Dead (1948). In 2007 I went to Cape Cod and spent two days interviewing him for the Writers at Work series in The Paris Review. When I came to the kitchen table on the second morning, he was drawing faces on oyster shells, the faces of Greek gods. I’ve got one beside me now as I write: the face of Zeus traced out on a bumpy shell.

I asked him which of the other art forms he thought being a novelist was closest to. “Acting,” he said.

Why? “Because it’s the same work. A novelist and an actor have to know how to inhabit characters.”

So, which actor do you admire most? “Warren Beatty,” he said. “And not for the obvious reasons.”

The exchange stuck in my head because of what it says about Mailer’s humour and a novelist’s task overall. I would venture that every novelist has another art form that he thinks explains his own technique or dignifies his own style. We all have our shadow art, the one that isn’t ours, the one we might covet, feeling it knows something about us. Sometimes the novelist becomes a critic of that art and a very good one – as Graham Greene did of film, or Julian Barnes of television – but, most often, he or she will just imbibe it secretly, knowing that the novels could be enriched by the rules of the other art form.

Long before I was a writer, when I was just a haphazard reader and a dreamer of stories, I learnt about an influential book by Harold Bloom. The Anxiety of Influence, published in 1973 when I was five years old, is taken up with the terrifying influence of poets on each other. The book’s title became a kind of sob that writers and critics would deploy when discussing the agony of writing. Poor novelists: they could only sit at their screens wailing inwardly at the realisation they would never be Henry James or, more upsettingly, that they were already Henry James but not as good.

I never believed it. I don’t believe in the meteoric culture of anxiety generally. Obviously, some people have it, some people are crippled by it, but most of the novelists I’ve ever known are in love with influence. They thrive on it. Mailer’s feeling about acting was that the good actor’s typical experience and process gave courage to his own: if you could walk on a stage and be someone else for three hours, plumbing the depths of a soul and a history not your own, then any good novelist would want to examine how that is done. Half the job of a working writer is to seek and maintain his own affinities. You’ve got to know where to lay your empathy and why. And you’ve got to know how to recognise the kind of material that releases your imagination. You don’t always find those things in other novelists: often, indeed, it will be the artist in the next field, the craftsman, the expert, the sportsman, the hero in another line, who will pump fresh air into the recesses of your talent.

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