The “oral tradition,” if that is a suitable slot in which to deposit the large number of books arising from the taped interview, is a labor-saving curiosity in which our country leads the world. The exuberant exploitation of the possibilities of this “vampire capital” are just beginning and, indeed, the whole enterprise has about it a limitlessness in all its aspects.

We have here a “literature” of remarks, a fast-moving confounding of Gertrude Stein’s confident assertion that “remarks are not literature.” Sometimes remarks are called a novel, sometimes a biography, sometimes history. An author, working with his own words in the gloomy absence of remarks by himself or others, might well feel as retrograde and unproductive of print as those peasants, lacking a bulldozer, who must trundle the earth from one side to another to make a trench.

Bulk, the sheer bulk of it all.

“The transcript totaled twenty thousand pages.” (Mailer: His Life and Times by Peter Manso. “A major biography.”)

“For the third time, Cathy Zmuda transcribed hundreds of thousands of spoken words—perhaps millions in this instance….” Working by Studs Terkel.)

“It is safe to say that the collected transcript of every last recorded bit of talk would approach fifteen thousand pages.” (The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer. A novel.)

Quite a lot taken down, but why not more? What is to deter? Of the making of remarks there is no end. The “pages” each of us produces in a lifetime would outpace all the libraries of the ancient and modern world. First-person narration, this stratospheric memory bank floating freely in the universe, idling there, waiting for the button and the circling tape, is of a simplicity quite beautiful in shape. Like a bank account under prescription, it can be “attached” by the collector, in print known as the author, and drawn upon in circumstances of great variety and for purposes strange or banal or merely useful. To ponder the field, scan the prospect of effortless remembering and remarking, opens up a prodigiousness on the loose, a monumentality of retailed play-back.

Calculation, practicality put the remarks at last into one’s hand, bound as it were from exhaustion. But as in “hearing voices”—an affliction—the sounds go on and on, outside and beyond the record. The great weight of utterances does not satisfy and there is still more to be said. The truth of this enterprise, the publishing enterprise, is that the idea is its own execution. If you would know, ask, and you will be answered. And there, with little strain on anyone, will be something.

Philanthropic aura.

Give voice to the voiceless, remember the neglected and the isolated. Sometimes the starting point is the awareness of the impending ending; we are always at a point where the time is running out for those who have lived through this or that, significant or even insignificant. Slave narratives, old soldiers, superannuated craftsmen, Indians, Appalachian folk, immigrants, blacksmiths—a bond of mutuality arises between the instrument and the voice, the sophisticated person’s research plan and the honoring of the survivor by the very gesture of seeking out, taking down. What is said, details, turns of speech, life rhythms, bygone social patterns may be interesting in themselves and useful for the historian down the way. Of course the historian’s scrutiny will have a somewhat diminishing effect upon the unexamined flow because of the limits of spoken memories as documentation and the limits of each of us as a representation of historical events.

The modesty of the philanthropic intention commends it to us. The tapes and transcripts resting in the eternal peace of the libraries are a sort of gravestone for vanished persons who lived their days among a group not fully articulated. The workers in folkways seek a legibility of experience, and the tape becomes the transcript and if nothing much is done with it there is a charitable satisfaction in knowing that it exists. Liberalism, egalitarianism, a form of reverence, sent the WPA researchers to the Okies and tenant farmers, to field hands and prisoners with their songs and stories.

As documents the innocent tapes bear a resemblance to the letters and diaries of obscure persons who happened to live in a time of upheaval or who by mere placement in the scheme of things were led to thoughts beyond the weather and family greetings. But these solitary compositors worked under the conventions of literacy, of writing, and the restraining self-consciousness of their written documents is different from the restraints, selections, and omissions of speech. Were these dead persons actual acquaintances we would note that their silences tell us as much as the written and spoken words. It is often the task of the historian and the imaginative writer to discover the silences behind speech, the silences that produced the romantic text of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.


Listening in.

The tape-recorded books of today are not a gift to the cemetery of history. Instead what we have here is a sort of decomposed creativity, a recycling similar to that of the obsolete ragman who turned old clothes into paper. Propagation is the intention and storage is failure. Thus confrontation enters between the asker and the asked, and the relation is more insinuating, less sentimental, more modern, you might say, and certainly more efficient.

The books are various indeed. Appeal is to the point, appeal of the subjects, the gatherings, appeal of the root idea. Except in a few cases, appeal may be said to be the only measure of quality. Taped books are roughly to be divided into the active solicitation of the words of the unknown and the active solicitation of the remarks of the known, or about the known, the celebrated, or if not celebrated, notorious.


The simplest method is to give each person his time and move on to the next. The sequential interviewer is likely to reign over the text in the benevolent and more or less disinterested manner of the anthropologist or social worker. The “composition” is fluid, open, carefree. Exploitation is to be circumvented by the general air of affirmation. The worth of the recorded person is what is being affirmed rather than the singularity of the voice, the words.

Studs Terkel, for instance, appears in a manner surely much like that of the scouts in the WPA days. He is updated by the large extent of his own packaged and distributed tapes, but still old-fashioned, the sympathetic, thoughtful leftist, true to the proletariat and the dispossessed and ignored. His task is clear and concrete, even if he must travel hither and yon and come back burdened with a trunk full of oh and well, you know and I mean and let’s see here.

Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.* Almost six hundred pages of small, crowded type, some 135 occupations, among them doorman, airline stewardess, farmer, miner, model, cabdriver, spot-welder, hooker, and a few names such as Pauline Kael, Eddie Arroyo, Bud Freeman, that is, critic, jockey, jazz musician. About all this Terkel briefly sets the scene or briefly interrupts here and there. (“He’s the doorman at a huge apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side…. The walls could stand a paint job…. He wears his uniform….”)

The pages turn, the workers flow by as if coming out of the mill at the end of the day shift. Not one makes an impression, can be remembered; many they are and many another they might be. Just who is the hair stylist or the cabdriver? Or, rather, what are they? They do not have clothes, tics, parents, houses, fantasies. These persons are not metaphors, not a composite, and none has the weight of a line of statistics on position, social status, religion, training, whatever. The most striking thing is that few have vocal particularity. There is seldom an ear in the talking pages, hardly an echo of the fractured expressiveness heard around us.

Cabdriver: “I hate to admit that driving a cab is no longer the novelty to me that it once was. It has its moments, but it’s not the most ideal job in the world as far as determining one’s attitude is concerned.”

Sanitation worker: “You get just like the milkman’s horse, you get used to it. If you remember the milkman’s horse, all he had to do was whistle and whooshhh!”

The sanitized diction brings to mind 60 Minutes and this is not necessarily a prudent pruning for publication. The current stranger and his tape recorder, whether wishing it or not, find the subjects living in the atmosphere of television with its neat dispersal of the claims of the individual person, its condensations and programmings, its inattention and formalized forgetting, its dehydrated vocables ready for the freezer.

Tape recording without an interpretative intelligence is a primitive technology for history. It offers a moment of publicity in an undermining void. The protocol of the meeting and the docile instrument steadily transmitting pages are an orthodoxy, promoting a cheerful but rigid disengagement. The spuriousness of the encounter is ordained by the onesidedness of advantage, all of it accruing to the “author.” To understand the meaning of attention to the unknown and unrecorded one may go back to the great Victorian masterpiece, Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. Or in our own time to Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village (1969). Here the old bell-ringer talks and is “taken down” by some method. But his presence moves the listener, Blythe, to reflections, to writing: “Lost in an artpastime-worship based on blocks of circulating figures which look like one of those numismatic keys to the Great Pyramids secret, the ringing men are out on their own in a crashing sphere of golden decibels.”



Taped books about persons of established interest are now designed to make a more sophisticated use of the gathered material. A person, or rather a personality, is the center, replacing an abstraction of theme or place. Slabs of recollection, one after another, would dilute the attention to the central subject; those asked to comment are not allowed a distracting platform of their own. Instead it is the practice to slice up the interviews and disperse the remarks throughout the pages, to bring them in at appropriate points, to create something like a conversation in a crowded room. There is no intention to reproduce dialogue; each recollector is on his own, but his holding forth is subject to judicious interruption in the interest of narrative. The speakers are witnesses, coins in a box, offerings, gratuities. They are the base metals to be transmuted into gold, that is, into pages.

Mailer: His Life and Times by Peter Manso. “More than two hundred people were interviewed over a period of forty months, some interviews filling more than ten hours of tape.” Transcript close to 20,000 pages, offered as a “major biography” of Mailer and itself a “major literary event.” Gigantism is something of a phenomenon in written books and in the fair grounds, but for the taper the world is a hippodrome of garrulity.

All contemporary biographers rely upon the interview as one of many sources, including the biographer’s vision, necessary for the construction of a life. In Manso’s biography the interview is the only source, except for a few snippets from reviews and letters, and thus it seems to offer a fresh aesthetic of sorts: You, and in this case your times, are what people have to say about you. The high interest of the unfolding of this proposition, the assertiveness of the speakers, have to do with the large proportions of Mailer himself, his confidence and intrepidity, his florid pattern of experience, his disasters met with an almost erotic energy of adaptation. This promiscuity, the volume of precipitous encounters from which he has emerged like a knight from the forest, seems to have encouraged an elevation of indiscretion among the contributing friends, a situation much in the interest of the pages. Manso tells us the right of review was sometimes requested, but “in most, not.”

The drastic distance between gossip, the libertine loquacity of the dinner table, and print dissolves as we would expect since the enterprise is committed to print as a subsidiary partner, a mere vessel of the waters of orality. Wives are snubbed, well-known people swimming on the waves of the periphery are maliciously hooked by a phrase and lie about like so many fish trapped in a net. Mailer himself enters briefly here and there but of course his presence, his invulnerable presence, is in every line.

The absence of an author, the lack of a signature of responsibility, the conception of ideas as shadows of comment, vague and undefended, in a like way absorbs the activity of the commentator, the critic. What can be said about more than six hundred pages of anecdote? Description is possible and recapitulation of lively asides, but that involves a measure of culpability, the passing on of gossip. Yet any reader will think some of these books are more appealing than others and Mailer: His Life and Times may be judged to score—to score more or less, which is not to say the biography is “good” since an equation of judgment rests merely on the availability of consenting voices.

Perhaps one can judge Mailer to be a “good” idea. He is a spectacular mound of images, and, like such self-creations, mystifying and impersonal, and thereby a structure of anecdote corresponds in some way to his own accumulated articulations. His writings, the frame of the structure, are only glancingly to be incorporated or studied in the anecdotal pile, but then the work, the sharp intrusion, is the knife in the heart of most biographers.

We see that the writer had a youth, a formidable, adoring mother somewhat along the lines Freud thought friendly to a son’s success. The family is smart, cousin, sister, and Mailer himself making their way from Brooklyn to Harvard. Constant writing from the beginning, The Naked and the Dead, a splendid success, the army, marriage, political complexity increased by friendship and “reality,” second wife, “violent and orgiastic period” (his words), self-advertisement, stabbing of wife, antiwar activity, prisoner of sex, children, more marriages, Marilyn Monroe, Jack Abbott, Gary Gilmore, further marriages and children, impressive alimony, and with new wife and child a mellow middle age. And of course books at every point.

Total recall adds much to the outline, even if Mailer’s public has its own storehouse of dramatic recollection. Since little has been hidden along the way Mailer is then a subject to be discussed rather than discovered. Revelation is scarcely to be wished about the living, but this premature interment is something of a finale. What we have here is a tomb of Pharaonic memorabilia, brick upon brick in the sand.

The compositional blur of Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song is once more engaged by the frenzied entrance of the promoter Lawrence Schiller into the life and times of NM. Schiller claimed his space in the “real-life novel” and received the recognition of the results of his relentless encroachments in the formation of that spectacular publication. Schiller’s memory is composed of dollars, deals, contracts, and every kind of worry in the motel room and on the telephone. Crisis is his overcoat and he sweats from one threatened crash to another, crashes such as Gilmore’s “cop-out” suicide or, worse, his refusing to, as they say, die with dignity rather than accept, if it came, a reprieve to a life sentence.

Schiller is a most interesting gladiator in combat with reluctant witnesses, other dealers in goods of a like kind, negotiations, speed, and deadlines. In the canniness of his inquisitions he often exceeds himself, but he is a professional and brings to mind the shock of method. (Solzhenitsyn experienced the shock of the West in an encounter with two hopeful biographers. Withdrawing, he said, “The collection of ‘information’ in this way is not different from police spying.”)

Preparation for The Executioner’s Song is detailed once more in Manso’s compilation. Schiller: “By then [May 1977] I’d given him about 9000 pages of what eventually was over 16,000 pages of interview transcript.” The interviews are put together and come out quite un-Mailerish, as was noted. We find the author in a bit of staging such as, “In the mountains, the snow was iron gray and purple in the hollows, and glowed like gold on every slope that faced the sun.” Just a bit of that here and there, and nothing much when compared with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, another killer book of great interest and of another kind.

Capote’s research, acquaintance with the cast of characters, the reputed dialogue and landscape are presented in the authorial manner throughout, incorporated into a text. About one of the killers, we read that he had a face “halved like an apple, then put together a fraction off-center…the left eye being truly serpentine, with a venomous, sickly-blue squint that although it was involuntarily acquired, seemed nevertheless to warn of bitter sediment at the bottom of his nature.” This could not be said by anyone.

Mailer had his tapes in abundance; having them he came forth, to the astonishment of a few, with a text remarkable for the plainness, the anonymity of it.

Arthur Kretchmer, editor of Playboy: “You’ve got the fucking plains in your text. It’s right there.” Earlier Mailer said: “I picked it up from Norris. If the book has any feeling of small-town life, I guess I picked it up from Norris.” Norris Church, his wife, grew up in Atkins, Oklahoma, population 1391.

Schiller, about The Executioner’s Song and the possibility of its winning the Pulitzer Prize (it did, for fiction): “Because the detailing is there, the flatness, and Mailer doesn’t exist in the book. They have to give him the award.” This bit of literary criticism is most engaging. Schiller seemed to fear that The Executioner’s Song would be written—like Mailer’s Marilyn, perhaps. At the worst in the thick, resonant diction, the demonic, original clutter of Mailer’s high style, which would impugn the grayhide, elephantine mass of the record and its extraordinary, deathly appeal.

It’s true that Mailer “doesn’t exist in the book”—or largely true. And has he created the voice, the plains, the flatness, the Westness of it? Aren’t the voice and landscape those of Vern and Brenda, Nicole and Gary and Bessie, accurately taped, recounting the scenery of their life with Gilmore, filling in for Schiller or whoever, putting on every page the dental drill of the pursuit, the very extracting of memories there in the words?

The invisible hand.

A bit of neating, of course, and punctuation, the period, the comma. The text is always a great, gluey blob, and what is needed are sentences dry and separate as kernels of corn. A close reading of taped books suggests that the invisible hand is less busy than might be imagined. Punctuation, laying it out, pasting it up. The real labor of the books returns to the source, the wretched bulk of the testimony, the horror of its vast, stuttering scale. The collector is much impressed, and perhaps depressed, by the challenging magnitude. He has lifted it, sorted it, had secretaries hard at work to contain the monstrousness of what he has brought into being.

We notice the invariable publicity given to numbers: the thousands of pages, the millions of words, the long, long hours of interviewing, the large cast tracked down. The insistence upon number indicates that it is a validation. But a validation of what, of whom?

Tapes are what they are, no more and no less than themselves. They may be said to have power, all power, under the contract of an exchange. They are the property of the speaker, even if he has freely surrendered his rights; surrender or not, nothing belongs to the author. Excision, deletion, yes, and placement, the packaging of the property. It is accepted that the gibberish must be shaped up and, thereby, allowed to become itself, the speaker’s words made legible.

Additions are a moral problem. The author can receive his book as a liberal, in all senses, gift, but he cannot reciprocate, cannot, in good faith, add decorative phrasing and color as an advancement of the verbal interest and appeal of his given text. For the imaginative writer, wit and a pleasing intervention of adjective and image may be a natural temptation. But here the prohibition would seem to be clear. The author’s own words in the mouth of a subject are artificial, illicit, a reverse and most peculiar form of plagiarism.

There is little evidence that the compiler of talk feels this as a constraint. What is needed from time to time in the practical matter of emphasis, keeping the attention of the reader, is always there, somewhere in the glut. The word, the holy word, is inside the machine with its abundance and fertility constant as talk itself.

The Executioner’s Song is the apotheosis of our flourishing “oral literature”—thus far. (To see it as Mailer’s best book, as many have done, is much too fast. Mailer is a river of words, ornamental, evocative words, and cascading notions and designs. There is no plainness, flatness in him, but there is, was, a lot, a lot in the tapes.)

He, and Capote also in his different construction, had a plot, and through none of their devising, an adjunct in the death penalty. This publicly ordained ending from which there was no escape, it being fact, may have prompted Mailer to his most genuine contribution to the tale of Gary Gilmore. Mailer’s mark on the book is an accentual one. By accent, placement, and distribution, and finally insistence, no matter what a contrary cynicism about reality might have suggested, he created a romance. From Schiller’s pit, we can say that Mailer has excavated a Liebestod, possibly proposing it as a redemption of the squalor of this long, long death trip so arresting to the voyeur in most of us.

We can imagine a fraudulent tape-recorded production offered by a shy recluse as his own thousand pages of unheard sound. No, that would mean writing—and the tape recorder is first and last a labor-saving instrument.

This Issue

May 30, 1985