Norman Mailer on Trolls and Critics

The Spooky Art, Norman Mailer’s book on the art and business of writing, is a lost classic of the writing advice genre. Like Mailer himself, it’s brilliant, frustrating, and full of fist-fighting analogies.

What’s cool about this title is that it was written for working writers and advanced amateurs. You won’t find much in the way of plotting advice or grammar pointers, but you will learn  how to deal with unreasonable movie execs and how to handle potential pitfalls in the writing life, even outdated ones like Seconal addiction.


Mailer has a lot to say about facing criticism. He hated critics and often times the feeling was mutual. However, he accepted that criticism is inevitable in the writing game. As he saw it, the only way to write another book after your last one was eviscerated by the rabble is to develop a thick skin.

“Every good author who manages to forage a long career must be able to build a character that will not be unhinged by a bad reception. That takes art.”


The Spooky Art was published in 2003, a few years before internet trolling came into its own. But these lines could apply as easily to a hostile comment as a bad review:


“(A writer) Must learn to live with the bruises left by comments on his work.”


And if the moral high road isn’t satisfying enough for you, Mailer goes on to offer advice–from personal experience–on how to physically intimidate a reviewer at a book party without actually throwing a punch.

Image: the Daily Mail


Autumn Reading: My Massachusetts Bookshelf

Today was perfect reading weather on Cape Cod: Grey and wet with northeast winds and a small craft warning out on the water. It’s good to be home in the fall and surrounded by my books.

Here are my top home-state reads.

Mystic River -Dennis Lehane (fiction)


The movie (more specifically Sean Penn’s back tattoos) helped put working class Boston on the sexy map.

There aren’t too many American cities where you could set a convincing  tale of Dostoevskian evil, guilt, and redemption, but it works in Boston.


The Perfect Storm – Sebastian Junger


If you took out the storm and the epic struggle for survival at sea, this would still be a fascinating read.

Most of us haven’t a clue how a piece of fish gets on our plate. In the case of swordfish, fishermen from the small town of Gloucester travel over a thousand miles in relatively tiny boats to reach their fishing grounds. They fish with 40 mile long lines (called longlines.) They die at rates higher than soldiers in combat.


A Death in Belmont – Sebastian Junger


An investigation of a rape and murder–in a wealthy Boston suburb in 1963–for which the wrong man may have been convicted. Race, the psychology of killers and jurors, and the mood in Boston in the days following the Kennedy assassination.


Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace (fiction)


Maybe this is how Tokyoites feel about Lost in Translation… I’m not sure I recognized my hometown, but it’s interesting to see it from an outsider’s brilliant brilliant brilliant point of view. Respect.


The Friends of Eddie Coyle – George V. Higgins (fiction)


The story of a gun dealer and his lowlife cronies, required reading for writers looking to unfuck their dialogue. Elmore Leonard’s agent gave him this book as a homework assignment to fix the way his characters talk.

Spoiler alert, Eddie Coyle has no friends.


Black Mass – Dick Lehr & Gerard O’Neill



The Departed tried to tell this story. One criticism of the movie from Boston people is that the truth was even crazier.  

Through the 70s, 80s, and 90s Whitey Bulger and his Winter Hill Gang terrorized South Boston. They murdered, mutilated, and extorted, all while enjoying the protection of the FBI.

Same neighborhood as Good Will Hunting, Boston’s a small town.

Off the Leash: a Year at the Dog Park – Matthew Gilbert



One for the dog lovers and anyone who needs something uplifting after Black Mass. Off the Leash is the story of one reluctant dog-person’s initiation into the little world inside of Brookline’s Amory Dog Park.  A story about friendship, and an inside look at Boston’s 4-legged social scene.  This is the book-length debut of Boston Globe TV critic Matthew Gilbert.

Cape Cod – Henry David Thoreau 


Life, nature, sand dunes. It’s Walden with an ocean instead of a pond.

The links (in the titles and book covers) are all affiliate links. 

Cormac McCarthy: a Reading List

Cormac McCarthy is a mentor I’ve never met. We all have one of those, a teacher who sends us on a quest to seek our teacher’s teacher’s teacher. Here is an ever-growing reading list of my informal study of McCarthy and his influences. I’ll be updating the list on Goodreads.



The Novels of Cormac McCarthy (Obviously.) If you’re new to him, and squeamish about blood, start with All the Pretty HorsesBlood Meridian can’t be denied, but it’s gruesome.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Carson McCullers, The heart is a Lonely Hunter

MacKinlay Kantor, Andersonville

James Joyce, Ulysses

Beckett’s Trilogy

Faulkner, lots of Faulkner…

And Shakespeare

Fydor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment & the Brothers Karamazov

Gustav Flaubert, Salammbô

Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness

Flannery O’Conner, Complete Stories

Djuna Barnes, Nightwood

James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer

Oakley Hall, Warlock




The King James Bible

Lt. Col. David Grossman, On Killing

Harold Bloom, Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ & Cormac McCarthy’s ‘All the Pretty Horses’ 

Edwin T. Arnold, Border Trilogy Companion & Perspective on Cormac McCarthy

Steven Frye, the Cambridge Companion to Cormac McCarthy 

Georg Guillemin, the Pastoral Vision of Cormac McCarthy

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: a Brief history of Humankind 

Leslie Harper Worthington, Cormac McCarthy and the Ghost of Huck Finn 

Wallis R. Sanborn, Animals in the Fiction of Cormac McCarthy


Homer, The Iliad & The Odyssey

Milton, Paradise Lost 

W.B Yeats, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’

Ted Hughes, CrowThere’s no direct influence I can find here, but Hughes is a perfect complement to McCarthy in terms of  powerful language and haunting description of the natural world.

Friday Roundup

“I like grit, I like love and death, I’m tired of irony.”
― Jim Harrison

Seth Godin on failing ’til you don’t (featuring van Gogh’s Ramsgate.)

The 40-hour workweek is bad for business. 

The art of the pitch parts I & II over at Steven Pressfield’s blog.

On Being tells you Why You Haven’t Written Your Book Yet (hint, ‘you haven’t turned off the damned internet’).

Lessons from Jim Harrison

Last Saturday, we lost Jim Harrison. He was one of America’s literary treasures, and perhaps our greatest craftsman of the novella.  On the page, Harrison was best known for Legends of the Fall. His extracurricular activities included gourmet cooking and eating, raising many dogs,  fly fishing,  and chilling with the likes of Jack Nicholson, Anthony Bourdain, and Jimmy Buffet.

When I was an undergraduate, he was the writer I wanted to be. Here are few things I gleaned from that episode of hero-worship:  

Nobody Wants to Read About Landscapes and Food–Unless they’re Written Brilliantly

Someone said Jim Harrison is to food what Henry Miller is to sex. His details are out of this world. The trick is, he knows when to be sparse and economic, and when to linger on every sensation.

New York is a Distraction 

Harrison was well aware of the advantages of being a non-New York writer–peace and quiet for one. According to his obituary in the Times, he had ‘little but contempt’ for the city, and was not afraid to question New York’s cultural prominence. He told The Paris Review, ‘The Upper East Side of New York was constitutionally the most provincial place I’d ever been.’ Also, he found Hollywood paid much better.

Hemingway and Faulkner didn’t go to College…

Jim Harrison did, but his degree was delayed by frequent road trips and romances. He used college to get his hands on the books he needed to teach himself the craft of novel writing.

Living Well is what Matters

He broke up his writing days with cooking and eating with friends. He collected wine and recipes for woodcock, grouse, and birds I’ve never even heard of.  His  memoir includes strip clubs among his lifelong obsessions.

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