Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

An exercise in counterintelligence

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Norman Mailer

Some nonfiction awakens the imagination. Its personages take on the luster of good fictional characters, that is, they seem as real and complex as men and women we know intimately. The larger share of nonfiction, however, deadens perceptions. Nonetheless, when one is consumed with a subject, even mediocre treatments can, if read with sufficient concentration, enlarge the working imagination, which, once it becomes passionate, and focused, begins to penetrate the obfuscations, cover-ups, evasions, and misapprehensions of all those middling tomes that are so poorly written that the best clue to what really took place is to be found in the evasions of their style.

A man who has been coaching football for forty years need only watch a high school running back for a few plays to decide whether potential is there. Ditto for good prize-fight managers watching an amateur throw one left hook. Say as much for novelists who have spent their lives at it. I have done enough indifferent writing over the years, and spent so much time contemplating why it is bad, that by now I can read another author’s work and penetrate on occasion to what he is or, even more important, is not really saying. It is similar to that exercise in counterintelligence where one attempts to differentiate the lies from the truths your opponent is offering.

Norman Mailer, in the author’s note to Harlot’s Ghost

Written by nevalalee

November 19, 2015 at 7:30 am

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