In the hour and a half we spent together, Mailer was definitely up for it. He didn’t like it when I brought up the stabbing of his wife and he asked me why I wanted to know about that. He felt uncomfortable when I pursued this line of questioning, saying that he wrote a book of poetry with the title Death to the Ladies, and he wrote about using a knife, and it was obviously a subject worthy of exploration. His discomfort and my questions led to some good television, not the kind you see very often. I even told him I knew about his five-dollar remark for challenging questions, and he said that I had risen to that occasion.
What I found upon editing that interview later was that Mailer had a very precise way of thinking. His sentences were complex yet clear. He didn’t hem and haw. He spoke in perfect paragraphs. And he had interesting things to say.
You believe that in Hemingway’s time there were great writers like Faulkner, Steinbeck, Wolfe, Fitzgerald, and, of course, Hemingway. But that’s not true today. Why not?
MAILER: We’re getting to questions that are too large to answer. It’s probably because of the prevailing currents of the age. Hemingway and Faulkner between them captured profound elements in the American soul. At that time, reading was the most profound way to deepen your knowledge of existence. So writers were respected more. They were more important. We’re moving from writing into electronic circuitry, television, computers. Print, as such, is going to disappear. It’s a long way from going away, but there is a point where the act of reading a book may become a rare luxury, equal to eating Russian caviar. People now read off word processors on screens where not only are the letters abominable but the image is full of flickering. If you could normally read a hundred pages without stopping, will you be able to read ten or fifteen under those conditions? It’s as if the very sensuous qualities of reading are being taken away from us. In other words, reading’s become an effort, equal to, say, having a pair of uncomfortable plastic earphones on, the sort they give you in an airplane, where it hurts your ears and your head and the sound’s not very good. So you’ve got to work for the movie that you’re seeing.
Your editor compared you to Picasso in terms of your range, your refusal to age or to lose energy. Is that an agreeable comparison for you?
MAILER: It’s a little on the grand side. Picasso’s a great artist who made huge changes in the word. There are two kinds of artist. There’s the artist who essentially has an identity, and we turn to that artist to feel the resonance of that particular identity. Matisse, Renoir, Cezanne, to a lesser extent Van Gogh. We know what we’re going to get when we look at their work. But with Picasso, he was interested in throwing away his own identity in order to find a new one. Style for him was not something that was attached to his identity; style was a cutting edge with which he attacked the nature of reality. So he went through a whole series of phases and changes. I find literary style is that for me. But don’t trust what I say because it’s self-serving, as all writers’ remarks are. The negative aspect of that is, ‘He can’t write good any more so his new style is a departure.’ Take your pick.
You once told Mike Wallace that violence and creativity have a twin-like relation. Do you still believe that?
MAILER: I think it’s still true. That’s part of the problem: if you cut all the violence out of society, you also cut out all the creativity. In fact, that’s just what we’re doing now: working for a law and order society that will not have any violence in the streets. At the same time things are getting less and less creative. I’ve never taken myself so seriously as to speak of Mailer’s Law of this or that, but I finally have one. It’s Mailer’s Law of Architectural Precedence in American Universities. Go to any university in the country and you have no problem determining the order in which the buildings were erected on that campus. The more atrocious the architecture, the newer the building. If the building next to you is less atrocious than the one you’re in, it was built before. The oldest building on the campus is invariably the nicest. That says something about creativity going out of life. It also says something about violence going out of life, because there’s a tendency in American life to become more and more safe.