The Virtues of Reticence: On James Salter’s ‘Don’t Save Anything’

November 14, 2017 | 9 books mentioned 31 7 min read

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Among the many attractive qualities of the late James Salter—his powers of evocation; his famously ungross writing about sex; his apprehension of and about mid-century masculinity—is that he didn’t overestimate his chosen profession. He wore it lightly, the way ace pilots he knew wore their heroic qualities lightly. That writing had been a choice for him, before it was anything else, was paramount.

Salter chose to resign his commission from the Air Force in 1957, after a grueling education at West Point and 12 years of service that saw him fly over 100 combat missions during the Korean War. Leaving the military to become a novelist “was the most difficult act of my life,” he writes in the first of the essays collected in this new volume of nonfiction, Don’t Save Anything. Difficult not because writing was dangerous or glorious (“I had seen what I took to be real glory”), but because there was no way, with his background, to avoid imagining as marks of personal weakness the potential humiliation, financial risk, and egotism that writing invites. West Point trained him for the opposite of those things; naturally, he ended up avoiding all three in a career that yielded six novels, two books of short stories, plays, screenplays, a brilliant memoir, and the journalism gathered here. He wrote with a new lease on life, under the name James Salter rather than his birth name James Horowitz. “Call it a delusion if you like,” he writes, “but within me was an insistence that whatever we did, the things that were said, the dawns, the cities, the lives, all of it had to be drawn together, made into pages, or it was in danger of not existing, of never having been.”

covercoverHaving gotten a late start, Salter wasted no time and no words; from The Hunters (1956) to All That Is (2013), every sentence feels measured and without ornament, the emotions precisely located before their conveyance. Paragraphs resolve with a pronounced matter-of-factness, often along a chain of clipped, plainly wrought details marshalled by a style that’s always subtle, never self-amused, and capable of devastating poignancy. Salter practiced the indulgence of writing with a kind of operational humility, even on topics like war and sex that other male writers of his generation could crow about ad nauseam. “Don’t save anything” was his advice to other writers, his widow Kay Eldredge Salter explains in the preface to this book. Saving “phrases or names or incidents” for some better, future composition was a luxury unsuited to someone so familiar with mortal risk, or at least someone who really knew how to savor the moment.

In his own moderate way, Salter did live a sort of bon vivant American literary life, whose familiar locales (New York, Paris, Rome, Aspen, Iowa City) provide the backdrops to some of these essays. He met glamour with curiosity and discernment—never taken in, exactly, but entering on his own terms. His friendship with the young Robert Redford, for example, is described in one of this collection’s fuller pieces, about his experiences in screenwriting. (In New York, “when I went into restaurants with Redford, eyes turned to watch as we crossed the room—the glory seemed to be yours as well.”) Ultimately, though, the movie business failed to move him: “Looking back, I suppose I have always rejected the idea of actors as heroes, and no intimacy with any of them has changed this,” he writes. “Actors are idols. Heroes are those with something at stake.” He might have said the same about writers. Glory belonged not to the individual but to the endeavor, like in the military. ”The thing that is marvelous is literature,” he says in another essay, “which is like the sea, and the exaltation of being near it, whether you are a powerful swimmer or wading by the shore.”

covercoverDon’t Save Anything is an odds-and-ends collection of pieces mostly written for magazines, from The New Yorker and Esquire to Outside and European Travel and Life. A few of them cover topics and rehearse memories more richly developed in his superb collection of travel writing, There & Then (2005), and the memoir Burning the Days (1997), which may be his masterpiece. Still, with a biography of Salter yet to appear (his papers at the University of Texas lie in waiting), Don’t Save Anything does more than any publication since the memoir to show us who he was, to “reveal some of the breadth and depth of Jim’s endless interest in the world,” as Kay Eldredge Salter puts it. That’s all very welcome, and reading Salter on French restaurants or the history of Aspen is preferable to reading just about anyone else on those subjects, but it’s when Salter reveals more than merely his interests that the prose really flickers, as it does throughout Burning the Days. On catching a glimpse of Redford at a premier years after their friendship had waned, he writes:

There was a virtual rain of light as flashbulbs went off everywhere, and, amid a small group moving down the aisle, the blond head of the star could be seen. I was far off —years, fact—but felt a certain sickening pull. There came to me the part about Falstaff and the coronation. I shall be sent for in private, I thought, consoling myself. I shall be sent for soon at night.

He was, at last, when The Paris Review awarded him its lifetime-achievement Hadada Prize in 2011, with Redford as the presenter. (“This is my Stockholm,” Salter told the gala.)

covercoverPredictably, these essays illustrate how at ease Salter felt in the world of derring-do—not bloodsports, but auto racing, skiing, and climbing. His fluency in the often unspoken codes of male camaraderie and competition was a transferrable skill, and he mined those pursuits for literary productions like the novel Solo Faces (1979) and the screenplay for Downhill Racer (1969), in which Redford starred and which Robert Ebert called “the best movie ever made about sports—without really being about sports at all.” Like Jon Krakauer after him, Salter could hang: profiling the legendary climber Royal Robbins, Salter clings to the crag right with him (“Almost from the first moment, certainly from the time you are eight or ten feet off the ground, there is the feeling of being in another element, as distinct as diving into the sea”).

About authors Salter is courteous here, a powerful swimmer hailing others further out. For a very different editorial staff of People, he interviewed Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, Antonia Fraser, and Han Suyin. For The Paris Review, which published many of his short stories, he wrote a gorgeously rendered but myopic essay-in-vignettes about the Italian poet and proto-fascist Gabriele d’Annunzio. (The logic here is that only so many writers have ever also been fighter pilots, and d’Annunzio is more interesting than Roald Dahl or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; Salter’s essay, included in There & Then, about the favorite Tokyo hotel of Yukio Mishima, another reactionary whackjob, has little to say about Mishima.) In his tributes to people like Dwight D. Eisenhower, Isaac Babel, and the editor Ben Sonnenberg, Jr., his style brings to mind that of another consummate “writer’s writer,” the reporter Murray Kempton. Like Kempton, Salter could write about his subjects with a sense of history and deep continuity, casting them almost as actors from antiquity or myth.

Salter’s fans may wish he had written more before his death in June 2015, but seen from another vantage his reticence can look like virtue: unlike many in the nursing home of “American letters,” Salter didn’t feel compelled to weigh in on every controversy under the sun. Whatever his private grumblings, he didn’t re-enlist to fight in the culture wars on behalf of Allan Bloom, the Ayatollah, or Patrick Bateman, at least not in these essays. At a time when Joyce Carol Oates brings a suicide vest to a gunfight each day on Twitter, Salter’s non-intervention comes as a relief more than anything. And since his fiction is so far from broad social portraiture, it’s no surprise that when Salter does veer into the realm of “commentary,” he sounds imprecise and ambivalent, firmly out of his lane.

Only in the last essay of the book, a transcribed lecture from 1995, do we get all the predictable hand-wringing about the state of the canon, the universities, deconstructivism, euphemistic discourse, the souring influence of television, computers, and pop culture, etc.; he locks sights and rains death from above on one straw man after another. The worth of literary texts, he insists, “is not in their provenance or their good intentions, just as their achievement is not to be gauged by their conformity to the moment’s panethnic pansexual Panglossian social or political enthusiasms.” This kind of talk came very cheap in the ’90s, of course, and represents a riskless engagement with literature. It makes Salter seem so much more common than some of us would like to think he was. But the mistake, Salter himself would surely agree, is to come expecting heroism in the first place.

Elsewhere, a 1998 “Talk of the Town” piece about Bill Clinton’s perjury seems neither here nor there. The truest shame of the bunch is “Younger Women, Older Men,” a meandering essay full of literary and historical and autobiographical referents, about the attraction of older men to younger women and vice versa. Needless to say, it is among the last takes on that presently extremely charged topic that anyone will want to read at the end of the 2017. It’s not so lecherous or piggish (Salter’s own much younger wife, with whom he spent nearly 40 years before his death, was no doubt at the front of his mind through it all) as it is equivocal and even playful where neither of those things can do. On one page he praises a young heterosexual couple in words that could come from a Focus on the Family newsletter, and on the next he says something so definitive as: “The slightest understanding of things shows that men will take what they are not prevented from taking, and all the force of society must be set against this impulse.” Would that he concluded right there—shout it from the mountaintops—but no, it goes on. From the mouth of a character it would all be one thing, but this is cud you don’t want to see the author chew with his own mouth wide open. One really not worth saving—a sharper editor would have consigned it to the yellowing pages of the March 1992 Esquire.

coverIn his lifetime, Salter found admirers as various as Saul Bellow, Teju Cole, Richard Ford,  Roxane Gay, Jhumpa Lahiri, Michael Ondaatje, and Susan Sontag, who numbered him “among the very few North American writers all of whose work I want to read, whose as yet unpublished books I wait for impatiently.” While assembled with the respectful intention of not reprinting material published elsewhere, Don’t Save Anything proves that there remains an unpublished, more definitive book of Salter’s essays—one to really affirm his stature as a worker in the medium. In addition to much of what’s here, that book would cull from the travelogues of There & Then and the food writing of Life is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days (2006), which he wrote together with Kay Eldredge Salter. It would also include what has to be his most fully realized essay: “You Must,” about West Point, originally printed in Esquire, anthologized in Best American Essays 1993, and later modified to become a chapter in Burning the Days (which explains its absence here). A worthy successor to George Orwell’s boarding school nightmare “Such, Such Were the Joys,” “You Must” displays all the gifts that Salter could bring to the table as a writer of nonfiction (“Seventeen, vain, and spoiled by poems, I prepared to enter a remote West Point,” he says by way of introduction).

But until the collection appears that can take the whole measure of Salter’s interests—Library of America, are you listening?—we should count our lucky stars that this much more of his work is now so close at hand. It’s one more invitation to wade out into the sea where he plunged himself a full 60 years ago and to which he belongs now, a lifeguard on the horizon signaling that the water is just fine.

has written for The Paris Review Daily, Eater, The Brooklyn Rail, and Baltimore City Paper among other publications.

31 comments:

  1. James Salter was a colonialist superman who murdered revolutionary pilots in the skies above Korea. How less woke can you be than that?

    I’m shocked that the Millions would publish such Yankee propaganda.

  2. Salter was a terrible writer. Very stylish to me at first, but his attitude towards women is appalling. There is a basic hollowness in his novels. And why again did he feel the need to drop his birth-name go Horowitz?

  3. Well, his style is what he’s known for. If you don’t like his attitude towards women, you don’t like him as a person, but that doesn’t have anything to do with his writing. Style is mostly what matters. Miles Davis wasn’t so nice to women either, doesn’t mean he wasn’t a good jazz musician. And actually, I think what you mean to say, Robert, is you don’t like his characters’ attitudes towards women. I’m not aware of Salter doing or saying horrible things to women. He was divorced, sure, but so are lots of people.
    And as a Jewish woman, I think it’s absurd to criticize someone for changing their name. Yeah, that Bob Dylan, what a self-hating Jew for not sticking with Zimmerman? Come on.

  4. Ugh, James Salter. As in:

    ****”Late in the afternoon they drove through the iron gates that were posted with a warning that only one car at a time could pass through. The long driveway led upward with evenly spaced trees on either side. At last the house appeared, a vast facade with many windows, every one of them lit as if the house were a huge toy. When Amussen knocked at the door there was a sudden barking of dogs.

    “Rollo! Slipper!” a voice inside cried and then began cursing.

    In a mauve, flowered gown that bared one plump shoulder and impatiently kicking at the dogs, Liz Bohannon opened the door. She had once been a goddess and was still beautiful. As Amussen kissed her, she said,

    “Darling, I thought it was you.” To Vivian and her new husband, she said, “I’m so glad you could come.”

    To Bowman she held out a surprisingly small hand that bore a large emerald ring.

    “I was in the study, paying bills. Is it going to snow? It feels like it. How was your
    Christmas?” she asked Amussen.

    She continued pushing away the importuning dogs, one small and white, the other a dalmatian.

    “Ours was quiet,” she went on. “You haven’t been here before, have you?” she said to Bowman. “The house was built originally in 1838, but it’s burned down twice, the last time in the middle of the night while I was sleeping.”

    She held Bowman’s hand. He felt a kind of thrill.”****

    Ugh.

    Oh, and:

    “The truest shame of the bunch is “Younger Women, Older Men,” a meandering essay full of literary and historical and autobiographical referents, about the attraction of older men to younger women and vice versa. Needless to say, it is among the last takes on that presently extremely charged topic that anyone will want to read at the end of the 2017.”

    “Charged topic?” Wha…? Yeah, now that it’s 2017, we can’t openly discriminate, or make disparaging remarks against, Gay couples or mixed-race couples… but we can go to town, with the same bigoted zeal we once reserved for the former and the latter, on “Younger Women, Older Men”… for some reason. Harvey Weinstein = “Younger Women, Older Men,” right?

    Well, my Wife is 17 years younger than I am. We’ve been married for 13 years. Our Daughter will be 12 soon… when should we break the news to her that she’s the product of an illicit relationship?

    No, but, I love the Puritan Hypocrisy of PC Provoncials! It’s so… blatant.

  5. If you base your game on James Salter you’ll get laid a lot. This is why I sent him to Earth; to sow the seeds of sin.

  6. More stylistic gold from the Pre-Postmodernist Reader’s Digest Club; guess the practitioner… (well, he has a grand 1950s-type sense of setting, like Salter, and he studs his paper-dry sentences with “cried” instead of “said,” often…)

    *******

    “Three rounded towers soared above the corners of the large house, with a foursided battlement rising at the fourth corner. The roof contained eleven chimneys and was broken repeatedly by dormers. The ground floor was surrounded by a pillared veranda, while all doors leading into the house were made of heavy oak studded with brass fittings. It was possible to sleep eighteen guests in comfort, with four Negro servants to attend their needs.

    “What we have in mind,” Claude Barker told the Seccombes, “is a club … a
    gentlemen’s club. We’ve selected a suitable corner in Cheyenne and we’ll keep the membership exclusive. All of us here, plus a few others with the right kind of
    background.”

    “What are you calling it?” Charlotte Seccombe asked.

    “The Cactus Club,” Barker said.

    “Oh, that’s delicious!” Charlotte cried, but her husband was more interested in
    the list of proposed members. They were all substantial cattlemen, except for the
    manager of the Union Pacific Railroad; of the initial twenty members, fourteen
    would be Americans, six British. Socially they were impeccable; in ranching, the
    most powerful.”

    ******

  7. Stephen_Augustus-

    The problem with what you’re doing is twofold:

    1: Everyone writes bad lines sometimes. Even myself, when I wrote the Bible and the Koran, dropped in a few less than choice lines. So, its not fair to cherry pick the body of work of an artist looking for bad lines, bad pages, or even bad books. As Henry Miller said in Tropic of Cancer (paraphrasing here),” we live in a fallen, disgusting time, our brightest lights are infinitely dimmer than those that showed before us, and so we need to read entire libraries in the bare hope we might find amongst all those pages one single, true line.”

    2: For every sentence you quote above I can crack open Sport and a Pastime and find three or four descriptions of the female form and / or sex that would justify an entire life of hackwork.

  8. @The Devil

    Nah: Salter is a solidly middlebrow (shading to bodice-ripper-esque) stylist. As was James Michener (sample #2). Not a dime’s worth of difference between their narrative semi-aesthetics. One should cultivate a sensitivity to such things… or Mr. Joyce lived and died in vain. Miller himself mocked (and was stung by unflattering comparisons to the commercial puissance of) Margaret Mitchell. Henry’s bad sentences were good because they were daring; he risked, above all, bad taste. Salter risked kitsch. Big Diff.

  9. “For every sentence you quote above I can crack open Sport and a Pastime and find three or four descriptions of the female form and / or sex that would justify an entire life of hackwork.”

    Do it, good Sir!

  10. Steven,

    I haven’t liked a ton of other Salter that I’ve read, but Dusk and Last Night are great collections by most any standard. And I find “middlebrow” to be a similar descriptor to “fascist”–it basically means “something I don’t like.” He certainly wasn’t avant-garde, but his perceptions of human nature and weakness in a story like “American Express” are hardly commonplace.

  11. I don’t have the book in front of me, but, off the top of my head:

    “Her breasts were small and heavy, like bags of money.”

    Boom!

  12. Herb!

    “And I find “middlebrow” to be a similar descriptor to “fascist”–it basically means “something I don’t like.”

    Well, when I use “middlebrow” I mean e.g. “smartish and pleasant enough but displaying a less than rigorous use of language”… (clichés abound, often) … when I say “fascist” or “Fascism” I mean something very specific, as well.

  13. @Devil:

    ““Her breasts were small and heavy, like bags of money.”

    What kind of money? Bundles of 50s? Does he mean there were corners visible in the flesh? Or were her breasts filled with coins and sagging a bit with the awful, poorly-balanced weight of the metal (in rolls or randomly grouped)? I’ve yet to see a bag of money that looked like any of the breasts I’ve seen, in fact… the textures were all wrong, for a start.

    Um… that is not a debate-closing example, Beelzebub….! Sorry!

    Laugh

  14. No, it was coins. “Her breasts were small and heavy, like bags of coins.”
    Or was it money? Hmm.

    *****

    Look, I’m not going to engage you in an argument over subjective personal artistic tastes because I invented arguments over subjective personal artistic tastes and I know where they all go: straight to Hell. And since I have no intention of hanging out at a faculty mixer, I’m going to have to call this a day. Adieu.

  15. Devil!

    I just want to know how you think comparing breasts to sacks of money is supposed to conjure (with admirable elegance and perfect justice), for the reader who is actually paying close attention to the words, human breasts of any shape or dimension? Well, it won’t. QED: not a rigorous use of language on Salter’s part there.

    Too bad you don’t want to play anymore…!

  16. A great comment by Atwoodian. And Devil? You know you are really a kitten right? To call out Salter for colonialism is very undevilish. Meow!

  17. Steven,

    Well then by your definition I don’t think Salter is very middlebrow, at least relative to most writers. I don’t know if Devil is just taking the piss, but here’s an excerpt from “Last Night” about a dying woman:

    “Certain memories are what you long to take with you, she thought, memories from even before Walter, from when she was a girl. Home, not this one but the original one with her childhood bed, the window on the landing out which she had watched the swirling storm of long ago winters, her father bending over her to say goodnight, the lamplight in which her mother was holding out a wrist, trying to fasten a bracelet.
    That home. The rest was less dense. The rest was a long novel, so like your life; you were going through it without thinking and then one morning it ended: there were bloodstains.

    Or from the end of the aforementioned “American Express,” in which [SPOILER], one of the two expat lawyer who has spirited away and statutorily raped a young Italian girl looks out his window in an evil post-coital bliss:

    “[A young man in a cap] was going to get the rolls for breakfast. His life was simple. The air was pure and cold. He was part of that great, unchanging order of those who live by wages, whose world is unlit and who do not realize what is above.”

    These are, by my estimation, good excerpts of Salter’s but by no means singular. He has, I think, an unusual knack for compressing both immediate sensual experience and, simultaneously, the sweep of people’s entire lives, into very short passages. I totally understand him not being to everyone’s taste–there is an unfashionable sense of tragic heroism in much of his writing that borders on grandiosity–he is not, to put it mildly, an ironic writer. And there’s the basic fact that he liked writing about the rich (though not, I think, without an accompanying perspective). But I do think there’s a quality and perceptiveness to the writing that defies a middlebrow, let alone bodice-ripper, classification.

  18. Herb:

    “I totally understand him not being to everyone’s taste–there is an unfashionable sense of tragic heroism in much of his writing that borders on grandiosity–he is not, to put it mildly, an ironic writer. And there’s the basic fact that he liked writing about the rich (though not, I think, without an accompanying perspective).”

    What you refer to as a lack of irony, I’d call a middlebrow fear of ambiguity… and the grandiosity is another aspect of the ongoing flirtation with kitsch. “Bodice-ripper” language is language that relies on certain traditions of description (“swirling snow”), rendering a text very comfortable but also lacking electricity/ freshness/ surprises. There are very few surprises in Salter’s texts but I understand that his readers like that. Speaking of which: writing about the rich is often a middlebrow stylist’s duty, imposed by his/her readers’ taste for morality tales that hinge on matters of money (see Franzen’s “Purity”).

    My point here is that a slightly-to-extremely more fastidious attention to language-for-its-own sake, wedded to narrative, can offer subtler pleasures than meat-and-potatoes storytelling. I’m talking about Prose with a little more Poetry in it. When Salter verges on the Poetic, he does so with comfortably broken-in language (comparing, for example, a chubby girl to a “Rubens”… or, even better, the girls in Salterville who are “loose-limbed”); the Poetry is so borrowed/ traditional that it loses in force what it gains in the ease with which it goes down or slips on. I like buying my shoes brand new; I expect and respect that initial discomfort.

    Salter says, of his protag (a publisher: perfect), in All That Is,

    “He knew that some of the best writers began as journalists and sometimes ended
    as journalists when the passion faded.”

    Ha ha! No.

    To borrow and tweak your own (classist) citation: “He was part of that great, unchanging order of those who love middlebrow books, whose world is unlit and who do not realize what is above.”

  19. Steven,

    To borrow and tweak your own (classist) citation: “He was part of that great, unchanging order of those who love middlebrow books, whose world is unlit and who do not realize what is above.”

    That’s a misreading of that passage, though–“American Express” meticulously tracks the moral degradation of these two men, to the point where the weaker (and more circumspect) of the two is able to feel okay, even smug, about the rape that his wealth facilitates. My experience with Salter is mostly in the stories (and A Sport and a Pastime), so maybe we’re talking past each other here, but I think reading him as an uncritical classist snob is a pretty gross misreading–I don’t detect any of that Fitzgeraldian servility to the rich in his stuff. I do think he liked writing about the wealthy because he liked writing about grand stuff–sex and death and betrayal and so on–and the rich provide a smooth canvas on which to work, unlike the poor, in which pesky things like bills and health insurance are always getting in the way. I wouldn’t want every writer to work Salter’s milieu, but I think it works for him.

    As far as language goes, we’re agreed he’s not a grade-A stylist on the level of someone like, say, Bellow. I disagree that there aren’t surprises in his prose, but I also don’t think utter freshness of language is the entire game with him. Again, I think he has weird knack for compressing large swaths of life into a few sentences. It’s aesthetically both impressionistic and cinematic (to completely mix metaphors), and I can forgive the occasional swoony or stock phrase for the rare effect he sometimes achieves in the motion of his stories.

  20. @Jack M

    Who said anything about hate? Hating James Salter would be like hating Herman Wouk, John Irving, Tom Wolfe or framed reproductions of the greatest hits of the French Impressionists, suitable for a breakfast nook. Everything has its place.

    Herb!

    Listen, I like Paul Theroux’s (pre-1990s) material well enough, and it is easily within the same tonal-range of Salter’s stuff, if slightly more explicitly bookish. I just think Theroux is (was) much better at metaphors; technical matters count, for me (which is why I can’t embrace unedited Ray Carver, or P.K. Dick, as powerful as Dick’s imagination was: those clunky sentences! I also consider Bellow wildly uneven: Henderson is *atrocious*… on a par with Gilligan’s Island). I can see people not noticing or giving a damn about such things and fair enough. But if you *do* take the trouble to notice literary mechanisms on that level, I feel that you will gain something as a reader… new levels of relish in the face of stronger texts. Or new appreciation for the bits of your fave writer’s that *do* work brilliantly (as opposed to her/his filler, blunders and rush-throughs).

    And there’s just that whole category of The Filmable Middleclass American Novel that I’m bored with, really. The tone, the range, the value system. Bored with it. I suspect that it’s the fact that they’re rooted in a postwar affluence that many readers now have a phantom nostalgia for.

    I’d rather hang with Vonnegut’s semi-dark tragicomedies if I’m going to look backward that unspectacular distance… or even to Malamud. If you ever get a chance to read “Pictures of Fidelman,” it’s a nice, midcentury, middlebrow book with a picaresque streak twisting through it. More imagination than Salter and a better class of Bohemian set-pieces.

  21. Steven,

    “But if you *do* take the trouble to notice literary mechanisms on that level, I feel that you will gain something as a reader… new levels of relish in the face of stronger texts.”

    This is a pretty condescending formulation. I take a great deal of trouble to notice literary mechanisms, cliches, etc.–in fact, I do it for a living. Like you, I generally like or dislike books on the basis of the strength and freshness of their prose.

    But I also sometimes encounter authors whose prose may be uneven or even trite in places, but who have certain strengths that counterbalance the presumptive prose deficit. Carver is an interesting example–his prose is dull as dirt (tactically, many would argue), but he has other virtues: among them, dry humor and a great ability to conjure a backdrop of the world’s casual violence. Salter is the same–I find his ability to capture enormous life tragedies/dramas in tiny blocks of prose somewhat singular.

    On that point, we can disagree, but it isn’t because my sense of language isn’t refined enough, I don’t think. Likewise, my appreciation of, say, some of Spielberg’s movies is not predicated on an incomplete appreciation of Kubrick or Eisenstein.

  22. Herb!

    The Kubrick/Spielberg comparison is a good one. Spielberg’s films are populist fun, they have their place, but, for example, it’s hard to imagine Stanley Kubrick taking on The Holocaust, or the Arab/Israeli troubles, as Spielberg has, without showing lots of characters (or any characters) consumed by Hatred… the elision is absurd and renders Spielberg’s treatments of these subjects not-to-be-taken-seriously; he shows us insanity as a sanitized stand-in for Hatred in “Schindler’s List” and he shows us masculine honor and/or misguided ideology in “Munich” but no Racism or Hatred. In other words: his films (or these particular two), as texts, are not profound… whether or not they have interesting moments and are entertaining. I don’t know any committed cinephiles or filmmakers (I know three of those) who treasure Kubrick/Godard/Varda/ Farocki/Cassavetes and also rate Spielberg as anything better than populist pleasure. People have been so battered by *real* snobs (class-conscious elitists in gated communities and private schools) that they’re triggered by “snobbery,” in matters of culture (the arts/ lit) that isn’t snobbery at all… it’s the hierarchy of quality that we *all*, in some dimension, appreciate: which rappers are the best, which french horn players, which restaurants, which eye doctors and so on. You can nail your colors to the mast regarding Kendrick Lamar’s obvious superiority to Biz Markie/ Vanilla Ice without being called an Elitist, thankfully, but get specific regarding Spielberg/ Kubrick and you’re not likely to escape the E-word… and matters of Lit things are much, much touchier. But how can anyone read, eg, Harold Brodkey’s collection “Stories in an Almost Classical Mode” and then read Salter’s “Dusk and Other Stories” and be blown away by “Dusk…”? Brodkey’s attention to language goes beyond Salter’s good-but-standard approach; Salter wasn’t doing anything that hadn’t been done, when he got that collection published, in 50 years of New Yorker stories.

    A good way into my critique of Salter’s hidden weaknesses is to have a closer look at some of the praise for him… like “The Devil’s” (back-firing) example of Salter’s breasts-as-bags-of-money simile up-thread: these examples show why Salter’s fans are fans but not, necessarily, that Salter is as good as they think. A gushing review in the New York Times, of “Dusk…”, says:

    “But time and again, what could become mannered is redeemed by the precision of a writer who observes accurately and intensely. Here is New York as seen by one of the young lawyers in ”American Express”: ”The city was divided . . . into those going up and those coming down . . . those who waited and those who did not, those with three locks on the door and those rising in an elevator from a lobby with silver mirrors and walnut paneling.” Or consider his
    descriptions of various women: ”She looked like a young dog, the white of her eyes was that pure.” ”She was a woman who had read books, played golf, gone to weddings, whose legs were good, who had weathered storms, a fine woman whom no one now wanted.” ”She was flat-faced, like a fighter. She would be living in the trailer park. . . . Her kids would eat white bread in big, soft packages from the Woody Creek Store.”

    I think that supposed praise is inadvertently damning of both Salter’s limited craft (and obvious prejudices) and the reviewer’s taste in stereotypes. And that “young dog” metaphor is just hilariously flat-footed… what a picayune point of correspondence on which to justify comparing the woman’s face to a dog’s! And that up-and-down New York (with walnut paneling) line: too general, banal and obvious, to be of any interest. What city *doesn’t* feature both rich and poor? And isn’t there a more incisive way to characterize both? Isn’t there a deeper way, with a few strokes, into a character, than telling us her legs are sturdy, she’s been to weddings and played golf? This ain’t remarkable writing.

    Again: Salter’s work has a place on the mountain. But at (or near) it’s top? I think he and Spielberg are fine where they are: half-way up. And we can, gloriously, agree to disagree on that! I suppose we must, in fact.

    PS Any thoughts on the new format of The Millions, btw…?

  23. Steven,

    I don’t disagree about Salter having many weak and blind spots, it’s just that there’s a particular thing he does better than most–that elegant little sweep, the ability to crystallize lives. If that aspect of his writing doesn’t strike you, then yeah, I can see him just feeling like a B-grade Hemingway who writes about rich people. Though, as The Devil said upthread, I do think you’re cherry-picking his bad moments. “American Express” has many exquisite sentences and paragraphs and formulations.

    Funny about Brodkey, I’ve hated everything I’ve read by him. He’s a great stylist, I guess, but his stories just seem like impenetrable exercises in self-regard. Maybe I should give him another go.

    Re: site design, I kind of like it, makes TM look more modern, but in doing so it loses a little of the old charm and looks more like other sites (Electric Lit, etc.). But I bet they’re still working out the kinks and it’ll look snazzier as time goes on.

  24. Hi Steven! I too had some anxieties on this score but it turns out that everything is still in order as you scroll. The pieces that appear on the page are all in order of publication, with a few static bands of other content (the Amazon Top Ten, for example). The big difference for the moment in publication order is that Curiosities are now in the stream along with main posts, although you can identify them easily if you’re just looking to read essays/reviews.

  25. We’ve been making little tweaks all weekend. Any other feedback you have as you are poking around, don’t hesitate to let us know!

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