Norman Podhoretz Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Battle over Ideas: Conversation with Norman Podhoretz, former editor of Commentary; 4/6/99 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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The Art of Writing

You have had a distinguished career as a writer and as an editor. Let's talk a little about writing.

Do you believe writing is a gift?

Yes, a gift. Also a curse.

How, in what ways?

You can be taught to write correctly. The English did it, but they seem to have lost the knack for teaching people to write correctly. They once had it. But writing in the sense in which you mean it, good writing, distinguished writing, writing of high literary quality, is something that I believe cannot be taught. Podhoretz with Mario Vargas Llosa, early 1990s It is something you are born with. You may or may not cultivate it properly and if you are born with it -- the reason I say it can be a curse -- is that unless you submit to it and try to exercise that gift, it makes you suffer. It is like an unused muscle. I don't know what the right analogy would be.

I have had times in my life when I have rebelled against writing and I have had what they call writer's blocks which have been among the more miserable periods of my life. And I have often prayed that I could give up the compulsion to write. I no longer do [pray], but I did finally submit and got over this periodic fall into blocks. There are natural writers, and if you are a natural you are stuck with it. If you are not a natural writer, it's either impossible to write decently or is a torment.

You find your voice by finding the materials that you can work with, you seem to be saying in your book, Making It.

It's not just the materials. I would almost put it the other way around. You have to find a voice before the materials that you wish to deal with will allow you to deal with them.

I have sometimes compared this to musicians or composers finding the right key in which to write a symphony or a quartet. I don't know anything about music technically, but I know that key is very important. I don't quite understand why, but I have that same experience. I have to find the tone and I often have abortive starts on pieces or books. Ex-Friends, my latest book, is the fourth version that I tried. I didn't finish the other three, but I wrote. And in the case of each of my books and often in the essays I have written, I have started wrong and gone along until I was stopped internally because the voice was not true, in the way that you might say a musical pitch is true. Until you find that voice, the material resists you. At least that is my experience.

You talk in your new book and in other of your books about Lionel Trilling. He was a very influential teacher. You say that he taught you that ambition was an admirable quality of character. He also taught you to place a high value on honesty. He also taught you that confessing to one's true feelings was one of the most courageous and valuable things a writer could do. Is that partly what you mean by finding your voice?

That is the theoretical basis of it. Yes.

Finding your true voice means that it is you and not someone else who is speaking whatever it is you are speaking about. You are not being a ventriloquist for someone else. What you have to say may not be very interesting or important, and in fact many writers are afraid that what they have to say is of not great significance, which is why they try to imitate other voices; but the assumption behind what Trilling taught me and what I believe very fervently to this day is that if you are going to write, it's you who must do the writing, not someone pretending to be someone else.

In doing that, do you deal with your past experience? In your chapter on Norman Mailer, in a footnote, you suggest that possibly he never consummated his talent because he didn't confront his Jewish heritage.

Well, that is a touchy point, but I believe it to be true. Podhoritz

Mailer, like me, was born in Brooklyn, although on a slightly higher economic level, in a better neighborhood. He went to the same high school I did, though he is seven years older than I am, and then he went to Harvard. Even though he and I had been very, very intimate friends for a long time, I suspected but never knew till I did some research that he had been regarded as this dreaded sissy, this momma's boy, when he was a kid on the streets of Brooklyn. He spent his entire life trying to extirpate what he himself called the "nice Jewish boy" from his soul, which is one of the reasons he has done so many outrageous things and gotten into trouble, including with the police. It's part of trying to overcome that life-long terror of being a sissy. Now, on the other hand, along with this package appears to be some refusal to associate himself in any way with his Jewishness, although he came of immigrant Jewish stock. And so he made himself into something he wasn't, and to go back to our earlier point, I think that one of the reasons Mailer never fulfilled the great promise I saw in him when we both were a lot younger is that he did not find, especially in his novels, a true voice. He pretended to be someone named Sergius O'Shaugnessy in The Deer Park. Well, he knew -- about being such a person named Sergius O'Shaugnessy -- as much as I do, which is nothing. And there was a certain falsity that crept into his work as a result of his constant evasion, which I think continues to this very day, of confronting what is down deep or bred into his bone.

You wrote in Making It that at bottom "the writer wants coherence and order. Coherence in himself and order in the world."

Oh, that is a good sentence. I had forgotten I wrote that. I am glad you quoted it.It's a long time. I haven't reread Making It in a very long time and I wrote it thirty-five years ago. Well, I think it is true. Let me put it this way: it is certainly true of me.

Norman Podhoretz, Making It, photo by Dorothy S. Gelatt There are some writers who either are incapable of achieving coherence because their minds live in a state of confusion and even thrive in a state of confusion, and there are some who don't wish to achieve coherence, who think there is something wrong with it, who like the idea of being full of contradictions. Walt Whitman said, "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself ... I contain multitudes." Well, that's okay for a poet, like Whitman, but for writers of discursive prose like myself, and I think even for novelists, coherence, which is a very difficult quality to achieve, is of the essence. It makes for lucidity, intelligibility, and in the end meaning, and without it you have confusion, which in my opinion is not a particularly pleasant state to be in or foster in others.

Your three works, your trilogy, so to speak --

You're right, it is a trilogy.

You use your own experience to explicate the battle of ideas that shaped public discourse. Tell us about doing that.

Here I have to be immodest, and I am not famous for my modesty, so I won't be violating anyone's sense of me out there, anyone who knows anything about me: I think I invented this form. I stumbled upon it in a notorious essay I wrote in 1963, "My Negro Problem and Ours." The form consists of using one's own experience as a means of exploring a larger theme. People have called these books of mine, that is, Making It, Breaking Ranks, and Ex-Friends, memoirs or autobiographies. They aren't in my judgment memoirs or autobiographies. I once tried the word autocase history, but it is not a very graceful word and it never took. That's the essence of it. I am the case history on the basis of which whatever theme it is I am trying to illuminate, whatever segment of our intellectual or cultural or political history I am exploring, takes place. Making It, for example, is a book about the role of success and the compulsion for success in American culture. Making It And I used the story of my own career as a jumping-off point for talking about attitudes toward success in various segments of our society -- where they come from, what they mean, the kinds of hypocricies they have generated. Making It in its day was an enormously controversial book.

Because you uncovered the dirty little secret.

I said that the dirty little secret -- a phrase that I took from D.H. Lawrence and revived; he used it to apply to the Victorian attitude toward sex. I said that among the American intellectuals, or at the upper reaches of American culture, the ambition for success was a dirty little secret. Everybody wanted it but you were not supposed to aspire to it. William James called it "the bitch goddess," and the worship of "the bitch goddess" was considered corrupting. I said that everybody, including intellectuals like me, worshipped "the bitch goddess" -- that's one of the things that made them American, and what's more, there was nothing so terrible about it. In fact, there was a lot to be said in favor of it. And people were outraged by this defense of the pursuit of success. I used success in the ordinary sense and not in the fancy sense of "I am happy, therefore I am successful." I meant material advancement: acquiring more money, power, influence, fame, whatever, than you had when you started. Then I did the same thing in Breaking Ranks on politics. Breaking Ranks is the story of how I moved from being a member of what used to be called the Movement with a capital M, the New Left and the counter-culture, of which, again to be immodest, I was one of the founding intellectual fathers in the late fifties.

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