Norman Mailer

We Are in Love with the Word, Part I

VTR Date: February 1, 1986

Guest: Mailer, Norman


VTR: 2/1/86

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Years ago, when a television station was actually paying me to do this program each week, I wondered how someone could possibly be so lucky as to be rewarded for doing what he so much enjoyed doing. Which is somewhat the thought that occurred to me recently when I wondered about quite how many superlatives I use in introducing THE OPEN MIND. An extraordinary book, today’s brilliant guest, what a fascinating idea and so on. And I appreciated allover again what a blessing it is to deal so frequently with ideas and individuals one has chosen just because they are quite so extraordinary, brilliant, fascinating. Which is a particularly appropriate formulation right now because my guest and the themes I would like to probe with him today and next week too, if he’ll stay around, range not only so far and wide but so now and forever as they merit all of the superlatives at my command. First, however, a birthday greeting to Norman Mailer, Aquarian, who yesterday ended January by getting older and presumably even wiser. Which of course, me, to ask him just how much wisdom was displayed by the poets, playwrights, editors, essayists, and novelists who were together and perhaps set asunder by the International PEN Congress that he presided over here in America last month. Mr. Mailer, how wise were they?

MAILER: I think, I think most of the wisdom took place in the corridors and over drinks and in the conversations. It reminded me allover again that writers are essentially people who like to have a conversation with one or two people more than they like to address audiences. So I don’t know. We had a huge Congress and an awful lot of a great many good things happened. Some bad things happened.

HEFFNER: What were the unwise things that happened?

MAILER: Oh, it was a comedy of errors. You know we had never done anything like it before and so we… for instance, the day that Secretary Schultz appeared at the opening session of the Congress which was a large and prestigious affair at the public library, there were a great many people in PEN who resented his presence, and proceeded to write about it and sign letters protesting his presence. There were people who were calling from the audience that wanted to produce a letter and present it to him. And a little simple communication back and forth would have helped a lot.

HEFFNER: And yet you had said that, “I knew if someone came in who’s ultra left there would be no outrage. If someone came in who’s right wing, there would be a protest.” Why? What does this tell us about writers?

MAILER: I think most writers, most serious writers, are generally opposed to the government. That they… the state they live in, I think this is natural. Writers are, particularly talented writers, because untalented writers are often highly developed functionaries; they are functionaries of the word and the paragraph and they can write manipulative prose. There’s a great difference in my mind between people who write manipulative prose, that’s prose to try to get people to do certain things in certain ways, inspirational books would come under the heading of manipulative prose. And there are people who are really trying to communicate a vision of life such as it is. It can be a warped vision of life. An angry vision. A satiric vision, or whatever, but it’s their vision. And when they’re trying to do that, they’re trying to write as well as they possibly can. And they tend almost always to be critical of the country that they live in…

HEFFNER: But not…

MAILER: …and thereby serve an immensely valuable purpose. That’s the critical factor you might say. Where would we all be if we didn’t have a critical side to our brain that was always monitoring our actions and saying well, you’ve made a damn fool of yourself again?

HEFFNER: But why would you use the word if you weren’t attempting well, you say, manipulate. Let’s forget about that. If you weren’t attempting to move people in your direction?

MAILER: I think it’s a waste when you move people in your direction. One has to try to move them humanly. That is, you just speak to them out of the truth of your own experience. You say this is what I have learned from these particular experiences. And if you agree with me, maybe you’ll go along with what I feel is true. And there’s another way where you study the weaknesses in people and you study their sentimental hot spots so to speak, and you touch them. And you play them. You play them with great skill. And I remember powerful politicians and statesmen who were absolute masters of that. There are very few in the world today. We don’t even have to name them. We know exactly who they are.


HEFFNER: And writers, too, you’re saying.

MAILER: Well, writers are bad at that. Good writers are bad at that. Bad writers…


MAILER: Manipulative writers are very good at that. I can give you a title or two. How to Improve Your Heart in Five Weeks. That’s a book that is bound to sell. A lot of people are worried about their heart condition. If they believe that a book will tell them how to improve their heart in five weeks, they’ll go out and buy it. That’s manipulative. Again, go back to what I said. If people write directly out of their experience, they try to communicate the truth of their experience. So someone else is saying maybe you’ll agree with me. That’s not manipulative.

HEFFNER: But as president of PEN America, you began the meeting in January ‘86, you said, “we are in love with the word. We are proud of it.” You said, “our works, writers, are, we may hope, exquisitely constructed elucidations of our most private prayers, obscene, atheistic or devotional, but still our prayers close to curses writers may be the last humans to inflame with words. Let us have an extraordinary week then with bonfires of words, explosions of words, votive lights of words, luminescence of words, let us return to the war and the play of words that will yet show our battered wife of a world some glimpse of starlight in the aesthetic heavens.” Did it happen?

MAILER: Well, before we go to that there’s one word left out. I think it was “inflame themselves with words.” The writers are the last to inflame themselves with words.

HEFFNER: Uh hum.

MAILER: Rather than inflame with words.

HEFFNER: All right.

MAILER: Since they are my words it matters to me.

HEFFNER: I stand corrected.

MAILER: Did it happen?

HEFFNER: Excuse me. Let me stop. You mean not inflame others, but inflame themselves?

MAILER: First. That’s the difference. You see, the manipulator inflames others with words. The true writer first inflames himself or herself with language.

HEFFNER: The flame isn’t there before you put the word on paper?

MAILER: If you write without a flame, then you are manipulating.

HEFFNER: So the flame is there. You’re not inflaming yourself. You have a purpose when you sit down?

MAILER: Well, we could make a great deal of it, but what I was trying to say is that we intoxicate ourselves with words and we’re the last to do. Most people nowadays intoxicate themselves with music, with sports, with self-improvement, with bodybuilding. We inflame ourselves with words. We’re writers.

HEFFNER: You know, Neil Postman, who was writing about, who has long since been writing about, the impact of the electronic media seems to believe that given the electronic media of our times, we may become less and less involved with the written word. Does that seem to you to be the case?

MAILER: Oh, it’s a great concern of mine. I think it’s, it quite possibly, can happen. There’s a… I wouldn’t know how to put it, but I just feel that television leeches out interest in the written word. And I think we’re all becoming reduced, serious novelists are becoming almost as rare a, almost as much a luxury to culture as poets were just twenty years ago. In other words, twenty years ago people would read novels and wouldn’t think that much about reading poetry. They didn’t feel any longer that they really had to read poetry. Reading a good novel was enough. Or even reading a novel was enough. I think at this point reading a good novel is equal in the average person’s mind to reading poetry. Why be bothered with it? It’s too difficult. Too tricky. To what end.

HEFFNER: And what’s the impact of that observation upon publishers and publishing in this country?

MAILER: Well, it’s getting more and more difficult to get a good serious first novel printed that doesn’t have much chance of selling. It’s exactly, you see exactly the same phenomenon on Broadway. Through the list, I think there’s one serious play on Broadway right now, Bloodknot. The others are all, ah… they can be good plays, but they are all musicals or entertainments essentially. And I think something of the same is happening in publishing. A young editor, and generally it’s young editors who bring new novelists you know, because they are the same age and they tend to pal around together, I think are finding it harder and harder to get a young novelist printed. Because the publishing house knows they’re going to lose money on that writer and the economics are such that there’s just not room for the small venture any longer that loses money.

HEFFNER: Was that demonstrated in any way in the PEN meeting? Other perhaps than the difficulty in when you were reproached and approached with the question of women at the PEN meeting? You made some comments, I believe, that had to do with the difficulty in getting sufficiently fine writers who were women too.

MAILER: Well, that went through quite a mangle. Actually the reason, objection, that the women, and the women who objected were, may I say, professional objectors. Betty Friedan is, you know, a professional. I don’t mean the word invidiously, but she was a professional agitator. She lives for moments when she can find possibly some wedge where women aren’t being treated properly so she can run in and get a good deal of publicity for herself.


HEFFNER: But either the wedge is there or it isn’t.

MAILER: Well, the fact is that, the reason it was there in the first place, the reason we had many fewer women than men on the panel, is because we never paid any attention to it. We never noticed it. And the reason we never noticed it is that PEN has so many women in positions of importance all through the organization that we just don’t think that way. We don’t have a gender problem. We don’t say how many women do we have on this committee, how many men do we have on this committee. After it was allover, I was curious. I went through our committees. We have eight permanent committees that are important in PEN that do the various jobs that PEN takes care of. Freedom to Write Committee, Membership Committees, so forth. And six of the chairmen, six of the eight chairmen of these committees, are women. Now I’ve never made a nose count before because it just hadn’t been necessary. There are a great many women in PEN on the executive board doing the work. I have counted the vice presidents. We have six vice presidents. Three are women. We just simply didn’t pay attention to all this. It wasn’t a matter of concern to us. We don’t think that way. It, the idea of having a certain number of the women on a panel is absurd to me. If I ever saw a panel with eight women and two men I promise you I wouldn’t say how dare they do this. Were they discriminated about? I would just say it just so happened that eight women know a lot about the subject and two men.

HEFFNER: But the sensitivity that…

MAILER: I think it’s an outrageous sensitivity because I think it’s going too far. That is, women had twenty years ago, women had a great many things to complain about that they no longer have to complain about. When you have… when you have middle class people engaged in activities, there’s really… there really… when their economic base is secure, there’s only one question you ask and that is, is excellence served. I said in the course of that Congress at one point, when I was chair on the last day, that the only excuse of the middle class is excellence. Is the search for excellence. The middle class is a peculiar class. They have neither the fundamental vigor and sense of outrage of the working class and they don’t have the elegance of the upper classes. What they have is a passionate desire to improve themselves. And when they do, they are an honorable class. When the middle class searches for excellence, it’s exciting and interesting. When the middle class gets complaisant and it starts counting the value of its family condominium, next to, compared to the next family’s condominium, or how many women or how many men or how many this or how many that are on a committee then it’s kind of silly.

HEFFNER: You know you said in relation to this, and you were quoted after the PEN meeting as having said, there are countries in the world where there are no good women writers. Then you said, “I’m going to have to pay for that for years with lousy reviews.” Do you think that is true?

MAILER: Well, let me say that was the first and last sentence in a long paragraph. What I said in between is that there are countries in the world where there are no good women writers. I said this ought to prove the women’s point. That women are seriously exploited in many places in the world. And one of the marks of that exploitation precisely is that you don’t have women writers in countries where the women are egregiously exploited. And that’s what I said in the middle and that got left out.

HEFFNER: And at the end when you indicated that there is if not an old boys’ network than at least an old girls’ network in reviewing of books, that you’d have to pay a price for that?

MAILER: Well, I think what’s happened is that the women do have such power in America by now. I mean I’ve visited college campuses where there isn’t a male on the faculty who’d dare ever stand up to any of the women because they will… I don’t know why they don’t, but they don’t. They’re really terrified of the women. The women intellectuals on the faculty control the faculty for all practical purposes. I was on a campus once where the first day I got there somebody wrote a commentary about me, a column about me, I was going to be on the campus for a week lecturing, in the college paper that was the worst piece of gutter journalism I’d seen since Dorothy Kilgallen died. That goes back, what, thirty years. I mean you have to go back to Walter Winchell and Dorothy Kilgallen to find stuff that was that bad that was that gutter press in a reputable college paper. So I said to the editor of the paper, it happened to be a man, a boy, I said, I’d like to write an answer to that. This was really pretty awful. And he hemmed and he hawed and he flimflammed allover the place. But finally what he came down to was, no, he didn’t want my answer. It was one of the few times I’d given an offer of free writing and it wasn’t taken up. But he was terrified of the women on the paper. This is absurd. This is going too far.

HEFFNER: What happens, then, to a society in which that observation is correct?

MAILER: What observation is correct?

HEFFNER: That things are going too far. You talk about a…

MAILER: Oh, well, I’ll give an example of what’s happened already. I think the women have ruined the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party has had candidates throughout the last twelve years that are about as rousing as oatmeal. And one of the reasons is that no man can rise in the Democratic Party now who doesn’t say women first. The women are wonderful. Whatever the women want. In the old days…

HEFFNER: We used to say women first. Women and children first.


MAILER: Yes. But what I’m getting at is that when the women, for instance, insisted that Mondale take a woman as a vice presidential candidate that was silly politics. That was absurd. You don’t say take a woman for the candidate. You say who’s going to make the best running mate for Mondale so there’s a chance to beat Reagan. Now they said there’s got to be a woman or we’re going to revolt. And they would of. They’d of messed the Democratic Party up totally if he hadn’t given them a woman. So what’d they do, they got in a panic. Democrats got in a panic. And they looked around. They had two choices. They had Diane Feinstein in San Francisco, the Mayor of San Francisco, and she’d been divorced a couple of times, I gather, so they were nervous about her and besides San Francisco is a homosexual city and they were worried about that. And the other choice was Gerry Ferraro. Who’s… a marvelous personality. She’s lively. She’s tough. She’s a good candidate. She speaks well on the stump. She’s terrific. But they didn’t go in for the kind of examination you’ve got to give a vice presidential candidate. They didn’t learn a thing from Eagleton. And the reason they didn’t learn is because they were in a hurry and they were in a panic and the women were on their ears and on their backs and they were clawing at them and saying you better have a woman, Mondale, or you’re in a lot of trouble. Well, there’s one candidate Mondale could of had and that was Hart. That would of made sense. That would have made sense the same way when Kennedy picked Lyndon Johnson. It would have unified the party. The women would have had all the power in the world. They have enormous power in the Democratic Party already. They would have had power in some other fashion. You don’t have to have tokenism. You don’t have to have the symbolic candidate. You don’t have to have a woman who’s a vice president. I mean there’s nothing special about men or women that makes them ideally suited to be candidates. The leading woman politician in the world today is Maggie Thatcher. And she’s got politics that would make the average liberal Democrat, make their stomach curdle.

HEFFNER: But if there’s nothing special about women that would make particularly good candidates…

MAILER: Or bad candidates.

HEFFNER: And I presume you’re saying the same thing about men?

MAILER: Yes, there’s nothing special about any given man that makes him well… what I’m getting at is that there are individuals who make good candidates. And there are combinations of individuals that make a good president and vice president. A good running team for a campaign.

HEFFNER: What are you going to do about the question that’s raised so often that compensation… about moving to the development, as you said, your comment about good women writers are not to be found in many countries which is an indication of let’s call it the sexism that exists there and the exploitation of women that exists there. How do you overcome that if you don’t find yourself on the short end at times at the beginning of women in politics?

MAILER: Well, I’d say a lot of the women who are carrying on right now in New York about how many women are on this panel and how many women are on that panel when they know in their hearts that they have equality at least, and possibly superiority in New York, because most publishing houses now in New York are run by women. The women are in no trouble now in New York and the idea that women have no rights in New York is absurd. Let them go down to Texas. Let them go down to Alabama. Let them go down to Mississippi and fight for their sisters there. Let them go to these third world countries. Let them start a Peace Corps and go there and work. Let them go out and get shot on the line. Let them die for their idea’s. But they’re just pushing around a poor little gaggle of male liberals in New York. They can’t even take over the Republican Party in America which is where the male still has some centrality and control.

HEFFNER: But you say they have taken over the Democratic Party.

MAILER: Absolutely. Which is why the Democratic Party keeps losing elections because by the time a candidate gets done satisfying the women there’s nothing left to the candidate.

HEFFNER: You know you talk about women and…

MAILER: Look at the candidates that we’ve had.

HEFFNER: In the Democratic Party?

MAILER: Yes. And I mean they’ve all been representatives of oatmeal. I mean the last one with any honor was George McGovern. And he had to start satisfying the women a great deal. Maybe too much. Then after that who did you have in ‘76? Jimmy Carter.

HEFFNER: The women’s candidate?

MAILER: Absolutely. Carter again in ‘80.

HEFFNER: Now what’s the Mailer ticket then?

MAILER: Teddy Kennedy. Somebody real.

HEFFNER: Not involved with women?

MAILER: I don’t want to put a curse on it, but Mario Cuomo. That’s a good candidate. Gary Hart’s suitable. There are a lot of candidates who work. But the question of whether they have a woman for vice president is something that is decided on its merits. Gerry Ferraro was simply not ready to be a vice president. She was a congressman. The last time anyone picked a congressman to be a vice president, it was when Barry Goldwater chose Bill Miller. Remember Bill Miller?

HEFFNER: Sure do.

MAILER: He chose Bill Miller because Bill Miller was a preventive. Bill Miller was a preventive against getting assassinated. Nobody ever saw a Bill Miller who was going to shoot Barry Goldwater.

HEFFNER: The wonderful thing about Bill Miller is that he said that about himself.

MAILER: Well, he wasn’t a stupid man. He just wasn’t a very big man

HEFFNER: You know I can’t help but go back to, let’s see, March ‘71. Norman Mailer really has that issue that month of Harper’s Magazine, “The Prisoner of Sex” is…

MAILER: That’s a perfect example. May I pull that up? I want to show you something.

HEFFNER: Sure. Sure.


MAILER: This article, “The Prisoner of Sex,” where’s the camera, over there?

HEFFNER: It should be over here.

MAILER: This, you have to read it about five times before you can make it out. It reads like “The Prision-er of Sex.”

HEFFNER: The impact of a woman editor?

MAILER: Yeh. Absolutely. But when I saw it I said, oh oh, some woman who hated this piece designed that cover. And in fact I happened to be right.

HEFFNER: Tell me about hating the piece, though. Why would a woman hate it?

MAILER: Because she didn’t read it.

HEFFNER: Well, I read it. And now I’ve lost that wonderful point at the end… here it is. If she had read it, she would have found Mailer saying about himself, “so he was grateful to a writer who wrote a book the lady published in 1910, Emily James Putnam, the first dean of Barnard. She was a writer with a whip of the loveliest wit. He would give her the last quotation. He would give the last quotation to her for she had given the hint of the way.” The hint of the way. The hint of the way was sort of an answer to the question that you began your article with, who’s going to do the dishes. Now is it so surprising that Betty Friedan and a lot of others would have gotten up there at PEN and assumed that Norman Mailer, president of PEN in America at that point, was giving expression “to attitudes toward their sex that they found anathema?

MAILER: Yes. But they didn’t explore it. They were just there to get onto the front page of The New York Times. And they succeeded. They’re very good at that. The fact of the matter is that PEN’s an honorable organization which has absolutely no problem with men or women. We never think about that. We really, you know, we’re reasonably sophisticated people there. We simply haven’t thought about that in a long time.

HEFFNER: But forgetting…

MAILER: I mean I’ve given you these statistics. We have…six of our eight chairmen are women.


MAILER: Permanent committees. That’s not a… I mean there’s aren’t too many organizations that can say that comfortably.

HEFFNER: But let me ask you…

MAILER: But did Betty ask that, no. She just said why… you know how it all started on the opening day of the ceremonies? She said, Norman, I noticed there aren’t too many women on the panel. I said “oh for God’s sake, Betty, don’t play the numbers game.” So that was a dumb thing that I did. Because I gave Betty the idea. She said, oh, oh. I think I will play the numbers game. She did. But when she was doing it, she was bad-mouthing an honorable organization, PEN. She was doing us a lot of harm. She was making us look silly in the papers. She got our executive secretary up there in tears, apologizing. It was all a lot of nonsense. The reason that we… one of the reasons why we had so many men on the committee and so few women is most of the good women that we invited for one reason or another didn’t come.

HEFFNER: Mr. Mailer, I think it’s probably correct to say that most Americans reading about PEN in January ‘86 were much more interested in Mailer, much more involved with Norman Mailer than they were with your distinguished organization. So that I come back to the question that you raised in The Prisoner of Sex, Who’s Going To Do The Dishes? Who’s going to do the dishes? Not in PEN, presumably — they don’t have any dishes, dirty or clean.

MAILER: I really don’t follow you, who’s going to do the dishes in relation to PEN?

HEFFNER: No, I’m saying — let’s drop PEN for the moment — what’s happened to Mailer’s ideas about…

MAILER: Well, it is a terribly tough idea, who does the dishes. And I think it probably comes down to who does, how do you divide the work in a marriage. And if you, I never was able to answer it in that.

HEFFNER: But you did say that…

MAILER: I can tell you my own, in my own life I ending up doing the dishes as much anyone in the family. And we’ve got a lot of people in my family.

HEFFNER: Well, that’s fair enough. But here in ‘71…

MAILER: I can answer your question.


MAILER: You have a happy household when there isn’t really great attention paid to who does the dishes. That’s when you’ve arrived. When you get to the point where whoever happens to be around sees there are a lot of dirty dishes, does it, then you’ve got a nice household. Now there are times when I’d make that claim for my house, my home. That whoever’s there does do the dishes. There’s times when the kids will come in and do the dishes. There are times when I’ll do them. There are times when my wife will do them. I think there’s a general feeling that the one who is least tired ought to do the dishes.

HEFFNER: And yet, look, you’re the one who wrote and I quoted you, misquoted you in one instance before, you said, “we’re in love with the word. We are proud of it.” “The word,” you went on, “precedes the formation of the stake.” Your words in ‘71 in The Prisoner of Sex, not hidden by an editor by working over the cover, you quoted Dean Putnam and you said she had given the hint of the way. She wrote and you quoted, “apart from the crude economic question, the things that most women mean when they speak of happiness that is, love and children and the little republic of the home, depend upon the favor of men and the qualities that win this favor are not in general those that are most useful for other purposes. A girl should not be too intelligent or too good or too highly differentiated in any direction. Like a ready-made garment, she should be designed to fit the average man. She should have just about as much religion as my William likes, the age-long operation of this rule by which the least strongly individualized women are the most likely to have a chance to transmit their qualities has given it the air of a natural law.” You do find that the hint of a way out of the problem?


MAILER: No, I’m saying… you’re misreading that woman, forgive me but I think you are, she’s saying that satirically. She’s saying this is how God-awful it is. She is saying that precisely women are encouraged to be mediocre. I agree with that. That is why the women’s revolution has had a great deal to offer. What its had to offer is that women have been encouraged to be mediocre and cowardly and simple and to hide their light. And that’s terrible. That’s terrible for women. That’s terrible for men, too. Because anyone who’s obliged to become less than they want to become is injured by that. And the form the injury usually takes is spite and hatred and retaliation in subtle, cowardly ways. So it’s no good for men either to have that. And I’m totally opposed to that. I think one-half of the woman’s revolution has been marvelous. And that’s the half that says that women have the right to be more brave. But women have as much tyranny in them as men. And if someone doesn’t simply stand up for them and say you are going too far and you are going too far in a place where there’s no need to go that far, then they’re going to become, they’re going to become Stalinoid brutes.

HEFFNER: And you think…

MAILER: Like any other power group. The natural tendency of any power group is to become Stalinoid and brutalistic and oppressive. Because any group that isn’t resisted tends to give its power, it’s almost like a law of physics. It’s a law of human physics… tends to give its power to the mediocre center where the people who have the fewest ideas end up dominating the greatest number.

HEFFNER: Mr. Mailer, do you think that’s happening now in the twenty seconds we have left for this program?

MAILER: That is happening now where?

HEFFNER: In this country.

MAILER: Yes. I think it’s happening to a great extent.

HEFFNER: And I gather you think…

MAILER: And I think it goes as high as the presidency, yes sir.

HEFFNER: I think that’s the point at which we’ll end this program. And pick up here the next time around. Thanks, Norman Mailer. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please do write THE OPEN MIND in care of this station. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, good night and good luck.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from the Richard Lounsbery Foundation; the M. Wiener Foundation of New Jersey, the Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; Mr. & Mrs. Lawrence A. Wien; Pfizer Incorporated; and The New York Times Company Foundation.