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This is a sentence from Norman Mailer's book The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing. I am stuck on the meanings of the words "ultimates" and "speed", which don't seem to correspond with anything mentioned in the book or anything I am familiar with. Are they metaphors? What does Mailer mean?

I had run into the business of trying to tell a good story and yet say exceptional things about the nature of the world and society, touch all the ultimates, and still have it read like speed. (The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing, p. 186)

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Mailer says that he wanted his writing to accomplish two goals:

  • "Say exceptional things about the nature of the world and society". He wanted to discuss serious social, philosophical, and moral matters. Not only that, he wanted to say exceptional things about those matters. This is what he means by touch all the ultimates: express profound and original thoughts about the most important issues.
  • "Tell a good story". Mailer says books should read like speed, i.e., methamphetamine. Speed stimulates the central nervous system and is addictive; a good story likewise should be stimulating and impossible to break away from.

These two goals can be at odds with each other. Something that engages with deep issues in a serious way might not actually be very easy to enjoy. If I tell you that a novel discusses in great depth whether the inevitability of death renders life more meaningful or less so, and that the novel shows tremendous scholarship and originality in its ideas and arguments on both sides of the issue, would you think, "oh great, I'll take it along on my next beach vacation"? Does such an issue even lend itself to a fast-paced and engaging narrative? It would take a very gifted writer to be able to pull off such a novel.

Mailer certainly tried to bridge the gap between entertainment and seriousness. The Executioner's Song, for example, is a gripping tale, but it is also a philosophical exploration of both the death penalty and the right to die. This dual purpose of writing as both enjoyable and instructive, which Horace called dulce et utile some two millennia ago, is what Mailer is referring to in this sentence.

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Unpicking this requires that we expand the quote a little bit and determine that Mailer is talking about writing novels compared to writing journalism. Here's a fuller quote:

It was vastly easier than trying to write novels, and I was discouraged with the difficulty of writing fiction at that point. I had run into the business of trying to tell a good story and yet say exceptional things about the nature of the world and society, touch all the ultimates, and still have it read like speed.

So what Mailer is talking about here is the content of a good novel. "Touch all the ultimates" is, in effect, an extension of "exceptional things about the nature of the world". He's using the word "ultimate" by this definition (from the Cambridge Dictionary):

the best or most extreme example of something

He's talking about the ultimate questions of human nature, of being, of existing in the world. He clearly feels that a great novel should shed light on the human condition and address the existential questions that we all ask about our time and purpose on the earth.

"Read like speed" is a little confusing because "read" can be both a verb and a noun, i.e:

it's the best novel I've ever read.

I was having a quiet read of the newspaper.

It is natural, given the context, to read Mailer's version as a verb but in fact, he means it as a noun: text that someone is able to parse quickly as one tends to do when one is enjoying a novel rather than closely scrutinising, say, an academic text.

In short, Mailer is essentially enthusing about the relative ease of writing good journalism over writing a good novel.

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