Don't Be a Blogger Manqué, Norman Mailer

Mailer's writings were important to me because they sustained the illusion that journalistic prose could be the most exciting kind of prose. I still believe that, even though it rarely happens. The way Mailer did journalism, something happens to the character in the story, who is also our correspondent on the scene. A truth is revealed, and emotion is restored to events. In Mailer's best reports, something also happens in the life of the nation.
06/28/2005 10:54 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Once upon a time in journalism Norman Mailer was one of the people pushing the boundaries of the form. The way a Josh Marshall is pushing it today. Or a Glenn Reynolds. Or a Barista of Bloomfield Avenue (Debbie Galant).

There still resides, however, under my aging novelist's pate a volunteer intelligence agent, sadly manque.

Mailer wrote that here at the Huffington Post May 17th. He also said: "I'm beginning to see why one would want to write a blog." This was a change of heart. In a December, 2002 interview he was asked if he "did" the Internet. "I don't," Mailer said. "That would use up what I have left."

In the short item he posted at this site, Mailer suggested that maybe Newsweek was set up, and maybe the riots in Afghanistan were set off as part of the plot. "If you want to discredit a Dan Rather or a Newsweek crew, just feed them false information from a hitherto reliable source," he wrote. "You learn that in Intelligence 101A." It wasn't a serious attempt to push forward into that (paranoid, but not entirely counter-factual) thesis. It was Mailer saying: if I had the time, I could...

"I'm beginning to see why one would want to write a blog." Now that, I felt, was a little more serious. (So was "sadly manque.") In fact, a few weeks before his debut at the Huffington Post, Mailer spoke at the University of Texas, where the library had just purchased his papers for $2.5 million. He "recalled being a young writer in the 1950s and said he might have been a blogger if there had been an Internet back then," according to the AP (April 29, 2005.)

"In the '50s, you couldn't get anything interesting published," he added. (Mailer helped found the Village Voice in 1955, partly for that reason.) He's probably right; he would have been a blogger if the 1950s had existed when the Net was invented.

Like the guy who does a little magic, but is not a magician (Johnny Carson was in that category) Mailer believes he does a little CIA, though he is not with the Agency. And he would argue that you need a novelist for understanding what the CIA is up to. One of the problems I've always had with this argument is that I do not classify Mailer as a novelist, though he has written eleven of them and is no doubt working on a twelth right now.

To me he is a great American journalist and fits well the more general category of writer. His natural forms are (were...) opinionated reportage--often on assignment for magazines--and social criticism. He excelled at political metaphor and the character sketch. He was at his best when writing about what he saw during events in the life of the nation. His political judgments were not to be trusted, but that's true of most writers, artists and intellectuals (bloggers too.)

And without making a big to-do about it, his books were important to me when I was starting out in prose. This would be mid-1970s, between Armies of the Night (1968, Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction) and The Executioner's Song (1979, Pulitzer Prize for fiction, even though it's factual.) It was the scribbler's equivalent of an adolescent crush.

Mailer's writings were important to me because they sustained the illusion that journalistic prose could be the most exciting kind of prose. I still believe that, even though it rarely happens. The nonfiction writer Richard Ben Cramer, who is a good example of Mailer's influence, told my NYU colleague Robert Boynton (in an interview for Boynton's terrific new book The New New Journalism):

I want my books and articles to have the same impact a novel has on a reader: something happens to the character in the story during which an emotional truth is revealed. That is a goal nonfiction and fiction can share.

The way Mailer did journalism, something happens to the character in the story, who is also our correspondent on the scene. A truth is revealed, and emotion is restored to events. In Mailer's best reports, something also happens in the life of the nation. (In an interview he said: "America is the real religion of this country.")

For example: John F. Kennedy is nominated for President and he dazzles the 1960 convention, depressing the traditional party bosses who sense that television and Kennedy's charisma will undermine their influence by creating a more direct connection between candidate and voter. (Which indeed came to pass, but Mailer had it as news before that.) On the discomfort of the old fashioned boss in 1960:

In fact it is a mystery to the boss how Kennedy got to where he is, not a mystery in its structures; Kennedy is rolling in money, Kennedy got the votes in primaries, and, most of all, Kennedy has a jewel of a political machine. It is as good as a crack Notre Dame team, all discipline and savvy and go-go-go, sound, drilled, never dull, quick as a knife, full of the salt of hipper-dipper, a beautiful machine; the boss could adore it if only a sensible candidate were driving it, a Truman, even a Stevenson, please God a Northern Lyndon Johnson, but it is run by a man who looks young enough to be coach of the Freshman team, and that is not comfortable at all. (Link.)

Which is not what the reporter at the school board meeting in Rochester should be doing. On the other hand, the problems of the reporter at the school board meeting in Rochester should not be the test of all things great and good in journalism-- though some preach a religion very much like that.

So even though it's five weeks late I still want to welcome Norman Mailer, the American writer, to blog writing-- and advise him about how to get on with it. A blogger's currency is not, as so many believe, rattling off an opinion. It is links. Here are three links for Mailer, the would-be blogger.

  • Simon Waldman, (Director of Digital Publishing, The Guardian) The Importance of Being Permanent. (PressThink, Jan. 7, 2005)
  • An author who is 82 should have no trouble making the connection.

    As the first gang of bloggers to be credentialed to a national political convention made final preparations for their trip to Boston, I posted this. Many were young, talented upstarts. Many, I figured, would not know exactly what to do when they got to Boston. Nor would they know how Mailer did it when he covered the 1960 convention in Los Angeles, where the Democrats nominated JFK. So when I found that his November 1960 piece for Esquire, Superman Comes to the Supermarket, was online and linkable, the post was born: "There is another way of 'covering' a political convention," I wrote. "Send a writer and let the writer find a language adequate to the event." I said blogging is about linking. In this case it was linking people to the past when they needed it for an assignment in the present.

  • Bill O'Reilly and the Paranoid Style in News. (PressThink: October 21, 2003)
  • One day I found that a famous essay Mailer would know--Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964)--was online. ("I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.") I think this is one of the best short essays ever written about American political life, and so I used it to interpret the style of televised resentment in the performance of Fox's Bill O'Reilly. Mainly I was trying to reach those who might click the link and delve into Hofstadter's ideas from 40 years earlier. The whole post was about the link, which still works. Today if you put the words "Bill O'Reilly" and "paranoid" into Google, this post usually comes up first. (There's the import of being permanent.)

    Now through the good offices of the Huffington Post, our common table, I have for Mailer a friendly and practical suggestion. One more time, he should get credentials and do some reporting. I mean White House reporting for the Post. Bloggers do that, you know. And they ask questions others would not.

    I suggest it not because the big story of our time comes from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and Mailer's the man to interpret it for us. No. But my free advice is: wanna volunteer, don't pick amateur spook for an ID. Don't be a Tom Clancy. Don't do two-minutes of paranoia. And no more of this, please.

    Say the word and I'm sure Arianna's team will get you a day pass to the White House press room. Go to some briefings, use your eyes and ears, scribble in your notebook, and--linking to the transcripts at whitehouse.gov--tell readers of her blog what you see, and hear, and what happens to you, Mailer: writer with puzzle. Get inside the heads of the participants, including the reporters asking questions they know will not be answered. (On principle, as it were.)

    Scott McClellan at the White House podium: who really has a language adequate to that event? In rendering things steadily more opaque by talking about them with reporters, McClellan will often say: "The President has been very clear..." Which is funny, except that he has no sense of humor. (Unlike Ari Flesicher, who gave you a wink.)

    If you actually try to listen to McClellan explain something, you almost always know less after his answer than you did before he began talking. This type of talent (subtractive) is rarely examined because the normal reaction to it is immediate frustration. A proper job description for McClellan would include: "making George W. Bush less legible." And that is something Mailer might, by blogging from the White House, manfully try to reveal.

    Manque means: unfilled or frustrated in realizing an ambition. Don't be a blogger manqué, Norman Mailer. Do something you do well, journalism with an interior life, and do differently than other correspondents: describe, describe, describe on the big canvas you got from wanting to be a big novelist.

    Finally, I admit my purposes are sentimental, and not entirely realistic. Mailer's first two tries at the Huffington Post I choose to call practice swings. Mailer the blogger has not yet appeared with a bat in his hand. Of course he was correct in 2002: writing seriously for the Internet (and learning to think with a link) "would use up what I have left."

    I can think of worse ways for him to go.