The Art of Fiction by James Salter
Celebrated in the American fiction canon for his precise, confident prose and stylized mid-century stillness, the late James Salter unquestionably deserves a book like the University of Virginia Press’s The Art of Fiction. Compiling three lectures Salter gave during a residency at the college in 2014, The Art of Fiction provides readers with an inspiring transcription of one of contemporary literature’s greatest authors speaking candidly about his personal and professional endeavors in writing. The book is not only an essential supplement for fans of Salter but an enlightening read for all.
For Salter’s longtime readers, The Art of Fiction is illuminating: his lectures touch upon all his novels (including Toda, the working title for his final book All That Is). He recalls discussions with agents and colleagues and the process of placing stories in Esquire (“one of the two or three magazines that would print a story of mine,” he recalls). It is humbling to hear Salter still saddened by the negative reviews that his 1975 novel Light Years initially received: “I had worked five years on the book. I had used myself up.” But, in hindsight, now a literary veteran, his wisdom is staggering:
It’s a rare writer who doesn’t experience rejection at one point or another and the book was after all not anything sacred, thought it had been sacred to me. But this is philosophically speaking and was of no use at the time. Philosophy is a slow-acting cure.
There’s plenty in The Art of Fiction to inspire writers, but these lectures achieve that important blurriness between being a text for writers and one for readers. Salter was exceptionally well-read, and showcases wisdom from Scheherazade to Flaubert throughout each lecture. Salter develops an idea about the importance of style in literature while investigating Madame Bovary and Flaubert’s expertise:
[Flaubert] weighed each sentence. He selected, rejected, reselected each word. “A good sentence in prose,” he said, “should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable, as rhythmic, as sonorous” He tested his sentences and paragraphs aloud in what he called his gueuloir–his yelling place–to judge their rhythm and fluidity…
To hear Salter describe Flaubert saying “he wanted to write objectively, exactly, precisely, withholding metaphor and moral judgement” opens the clouds a little bit: this sounds exactly, precisely like what Salter was trying to achieve in his novels.
To connect Salter to Flaubert in this way is not a stretch, but Salter inspires an even deeper read: the spoken nature of these Salter texts creates a marvelous link between Flaubert’s gueuloir and Salter’s auditorium: the lectures are fluid, sonorous, and unchangeable. “Of course not every word can be the perfect word,” he concedes:
Not every room overlooks the river. There are thousands of ordinary words that make up a book, just as in an army there are many ordinary soldiers and occasional heroes. But there should not be wrong words or words that degrade the sentence or page. You have to have a taste for what you’re writing. You have to be able to recognize when it’s gone bad.
Wise words for an aspiring writer, but there’s something more important underneath: Salter teaches us, albeit indirectly, that we must have an ear for what we’re reading.