Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘James Salter

Reading while writing

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Norman Mailer

When Norman Mailer was working on The Naked and the Dead, still in his early twenties, he fell back on a trick that I suspect most novelists have utilized at one time or another. Here how he described it to his biographer Peter Manso:

I had four books on my desk all the time I was writing: Anna Karenina, Of Time and the River, U.S.A., and Studs Lonigan. And whenever I wanted to get in the mood to write I’d read one of them. The atmosphere of The Naked and the Dead, the overspirit, is Tolstoyan; the rococo comes out of Dos Passos; the fundamental, slogging style from Farrell; and the occasional overreach descriptions from Wolfe.

I haven’t looked into this in any systematic way, but I have a feeling that a lot of writers do much the same thing—they select a book by another author whom they admire, and when they start the day’s work, or feel their inspiration starting to flag, they read a few pages of it. If you’re like me, you try to move straight from the last sentence of your chosen model to your own writing, as if to carry over some of that lingering magic. And if you’re lucky, the push it provides will get you through another hour or so of work, at which point you do it again.

I’ve followed this routine ever since I started writing seriously, and it isn’t hard to figure out why it helps. One of the hardest things about writing is starting again after a break, and reading someone else’s pages has the same effect as the advice, often given to young writers, as retyping a paragraph of your work from the day before: like the running start before the long jump, it gives you just enough momentum to carry you past the hardest part. I’ve also developed a set of rather complicated rules about what I can and can’t allow myself to read while working. It needs to be something originally composed in English, since even the best translations lose something of the vitality of a novel in one’s native language. (Years ago, I saw one of Susan Sontag’s early novels described as being written in “translator’s prose,” and I’ve never forgotten it.) It has to be the work of a master stylist, but not so overwhelming or distinctive that the tics begin to overwhelm your own voice: I still vividly remember writing a few pages of a novel shortly after reading some Nabokov, and being humiliated when I went back to read the result the next day. I stay away from such writers for much the same reason that I avoid listening to music when I write these days. It’s all too easy to confuse the emotional effects produced by proximity to another work of art with the virtues of the writing itself. When you’re reading in parallel, you want a writer who bears you forward on the wave of his or her style without drowning you in it.

Ian McEwan

This also means that there are books that I can’t allow myself to read when I’m writing, out of fear that I’ll be contaminated by their influence, for better or for worse. Obviously, I avoid bad writers, but I also steer clear of great writers whom I’m afraid will infect my style. In practice, because I’m nearly always writing something, this means that I’ve avoided certain books for years. It took me a long time to read Cloud Atlas, for instance, because it seemed like exactly the kind of overwhelming stylistic experiment that could only have a damaging impact. Mailer makes a similar point:

I was very careful not to read things that would demoralize me. I knew that instinctively. There’s a navigator in us—I really do believe that—and I think this navigator knew I wanted to be a writer and had an absolute sense of what was good for me and what wasn’t. If somebody had said, “Go read Proust,” I’d say, “No, not now.”

Or as the great Sherlockian scholar Christopher Morley noted: “There is no harm in reading any number of unimportant books for pastime, but the significant books must be taken cautiously. You don’t want them to get in the way of what might perhaps be growing and brooding in yourself, taking its own time.

And this search for books in English that have a great style, but not too much of it, has led to some curious patterns in my reading life. Usually, when I’m working on something and need a helping hand to get me over the rough patches, I go with Ian McEwan. I’m not sure that I’d describe him as my favorite living writer, but he’s arguably the one whose clean, lucid, observant prose comes closest to the ideal that I’d like to see in my own work. You can’t really go wrong with an imitation of McEwan, whereas there are other writers in the same vein, like Updike, who are more likely to lead you astray. With McEwan, at worst, you’ll end up with something boring, but it probably won’t be outright embarrassing. (It reminds me a little of what T.S. Eliot once said along similar lines: “If you follow Dante without talent, you will at worst be pedestrian and flat; if you follow Shakespeare or Pope without talent, you will make an utter fool of yourself.”) McEwan is the closest I’ve found to a foolproof choice, which is why I’m currently reading The Children Act, a few pages at a time, while I’m working up a new short story. James Salter and J.M. Coetzee are two other good options, and if I’m really stuck for inspiration, I’ll often fall back on an old favorite like Deliverance by James Dickey, or even Mailer himself, for early drafts when I’m pretty sure that I’ll have a chance to pare away any excesses of style. Every writer eventually develops his or her own personal list, and there aren’t any wrong answers. You just listen to your navigator. And maybe you don’t read Nabokov.

Quote of the Day

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James Salter

I try and finish chapters. You’d be a fool to be excited by a sentence, and a paragraph is really not that much better, although sometimes you feel a certain sense of warmth, having written a paragraph that seems to be close to what you had hoped…[Delighting in a sentence is] a little like looking in the mirror as you pass the entrance hall. Don’t waste your time.

James Salter, in an interview at the Harry Ransom Center

Written by nevalalee

April 22, 2016 at 7:30 am

“The hood came down over her head…”

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"A sort of code..."

Note: This post is the twenty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 25. You can read the previous installments here.

A section break in a novel, like the end of a chapter, is like the frame around a painting: it’s an artifact of the physical constraints of the medium, but it also becomes an expressive tool in its own right. When books like the Iliad or Odyssey were stored in scroll form, there were inherent limits to how large any one piece could be, and writers—or at least their scribes—began to structure those works accordingly. These days, there’s no particular reason why a novel needs to be cut up into sections or chapters at all, but we retain the convention because it turned out to be useful as a literary strategy. A chapter break gives the reader a bit of breathing space; it can be used as a punchline or statement in itself, like an abrupt cut to black in a movie; and it allows the patterns of the story to emerge more clearly, with the white space between scenes serving as a version of William Blake’s bounding line. This is particularly true of novels made up of many short chapters, which allow a rhythm to be established that creates an urgency of its own. We associate the technique with popular fiction, but even a literary novel like James Salter’s Solo Faces, which I’m reading now, benefits from that kind of momentum. (To be fair, more than one reader has criticized the chapters in my own novels as being too short.)

Elsewhere, I’ve defined a chapter as a unit of narrative that gives the reader something to anticipate. Ideally, every element should inform our expectations about what happens next, and as soon as that anticipation assumes a concrete form, the chapter ends. This is really more a guideline for writers than an empirical observation: in practice, chapters open and close in all kinds of places. But it’s a useful rule to keep in mind, along with the general principle that scenes should start as late and end as early as possible. And it’s often something that can only be achieved in the rewrite. When you’re writing a first draft, a chapter may simply be the maximum amount of narrative that you’re capable of keeping in your head all at once. The lengths of the chapters in my novels are organically connected to how much I can write in one day, which I suspect is also true of many other writers: “It isn’t at all surprising to write a chapter in a day,” John le Carré says to The Paris Review, “which for me is about twenty-two pages.” (I love the precision of that number, by the way—that’s the mark of a real novelist.) Later, you go back to see how the rhythms enforced by the writing process can be converted into the ones that the act of reading demands, and if you’re lucky, you’ll find that the two coincide. As Christian Friedrich Hebbel says:

Whoever absorbs a work of art into himself goes through the same process as the artist who produced it—only he reverses the order of the process and increases its speed.

"The hood came down over her head..."

What’s true of a chapter is also true of a larger section, except on a correspondingly grander scale. I’ve said before that when I start working on a novel, I usually know all of the major act breaks in advance, but that’s only half correct: more accurately, I have a handful of big moments in mind, and I know enough about craft to want to structure the act breaks around them. A major turning point that occurs without propelling one section into another feels like a waste of energy. (Any good novel will have more than three or four turning points, of course, but you intuitively sense which ones deserve the most prominent positions, and build the rest of the story around them.) There are times, too, when I know that a section break ought to occur at a certain position, so the scene that leads into it has to be correspondingly built up. A moment of peril, a cliffhanger, a sudden surprise or revelation: these are the kinds of scenes that we’ve been taught to expect just before a section ends. Sometimes they can seem artificial, or like an outright cheat—as many viewers felt about the end of a recent episode of True Detective. But if you learn to honor those conventions, which evolved that way for a reason, while still meeting the demands of the story, you often end up with something better than you would have had otherwise. Which is really the only reason to think in terms of genre at all.

When it came to the end of Part I of Eternal Empire, I knew more or less what had to happen before I began writing a single word. The novel opens with the mystery of why a painting was defaced at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and this seemed like a good time to resolve it. Until now, my two leads, Maddy and Ilya, had been moving along separate paths, and I had to set things up for them to intersect—which meant placing Maddy in real physical danger for the first time. Either of these story beats could have served as a decent ending for a section, and common sense dictated that I put them both together. Hence the footstep that Maddy hears behind her, and the hood that comes down over her head, a few seconds after she’s figured out the true meaning of the painting. Neither moment is necessarily related, except by the logic of the structure itself. (There’s also a sense in which I made the circumstances of Maddy’s abduction more dramatic because of where it fell in the book: it could have just been a tap on the shoulder, but it was better if it was shocking enough to carry the reader through the next stretch of pages.) Story and structure end up influencing each other in both directions, and if I’m lucky, they should seem inseparable. That’s true of every line of a novel, but it’s particularly clear at these hinge points, which are like the places where a building has to be reinforced to sustain the stresses of the overall design. And those stresses are about to get a lot more intense…

The downhill racer

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James Salter

Fame was not only part of greatness, it was more. It was the evidence, the only proof. All the rest was nothing, in vain.

—James Salter, Light Years

Last week, the novelist James Salter died at the age of ninety. Many of us were introduced—or reintroduced—to Salter a couple of years ago, when a New Yorker profile by Nick Paumgarten coincided with the release of what turned out to be his final book. The piece had the effect of definitively canonizing Salter in an odd but accustomed position: the most famous unknown novelist in America. By then, the story had long since taken shape of Salter as a writer who was the equal, at his best, of Roth or Updike, with just as much critical support and acclaim over five decades, but a fraction of the sales and celebrity. As a result, he became not just a writer but a kind of mirror in which other frustrated novelists, published or otherwise, could see themselves, as well as an object lesson in the fickle relationship between fame and talent. And if Salter or his fans hoped that the profile would finally grant him the cultural prominence he deserved, they were doomed to be disappointed, in characteristic fashion, in as classy a way as possible: his last novel showed up for exactly one week on the New York Times bestseller list. It was an ending that Salter might have written for himself, although clearly not the one he wanted, and it confirmed him as our great master of doing so very much, but not nearly enough.

I was intrigued enough by the profile to pick up a copy of A Sport and a Pastime, generally considered to be Salter’s best work. And it’s a novel I wish I’d read much earlier. (About halfway through, I realized that I’d been familiar with parts of it for most of my life, through the excerpts that John Irving includes in A Son of the Circus, although I’d never made the connection before.) It covers some of the same thematic and cultural ground as Tropic of Cancer, a novel I’ve tried and failed to love, and I think it’s ultimately the better book—or at least the one that fits more snugly with my own tastes in fiction. It’s detached, precise, and a little chilly, but it also contains a higher percentage of genuine smut than any other good novel I can name. Much of it feels like a novel written for other writers. The prose isn’t showy, but it’s so obsessively polished that every paragraph comes off as a miniature textbook of craft, and although the author keeps himself at a deliberate remove, it’s constantly alive with his intelligence and skill. If I were going to recommend half a dozen novels for an aspiring writer to study closely, it would probably be among them: it’s the kind of book you keep at your elbow, as I’ve recently done, while working over your own material, both as a reference point and as a reminder of all that writing can be.

A Sport and a Pastime

But what complicates the narrative of Salter as a literary bridesmaid, never a bride, is that his life was almost indescribably rich. He went to high school at Horace Mann with Jack Kerouac, attended West Point, and flew planes in the Korean War. His first novel, The Hunters, was optioned for a considerable sum—close to half a million in today’s dollars—and made into a film starring Robert Mitchum. A short documentary he made won a prize at the Venice Film Festival almost by accident. His next script was directed by Sidney Lumet, and Salter himself directed a movie featuring Sam Waterston and Charlotte Rampling. Later, he fell in with Robert Redford, for whom he wrote Downhill Racer. Along the way, he produced a handful of great novels, a lot of short fiction, and some poetry. He was close friends with Saul Bellow before tiring of being a “wingman.” He had five children with two different wives. By all accounts, he was handsome and athletic, an accomplished skier, climber, and tennis player. His novels never sold particularly well, but they attracted high praise from the readers who mattered most. Of A Sport and a Pastime, Reynolds Price said: “It’s as nearly perfect as any American fiction I know.” But real fame, and the big literary prizes, remained out of reach, and Salter seems to have seen much of his life as a waste of time and potential.

We’re left, then, with the question of whether fame is truly the sole proof of greatness, and why a writer of such enormous accomplishments could only see the places where he fell short. (Even his admirers encouraged him in this. Speaking of Salter’s movie career, Paumgarten says without comment: “Of sixteen screenplays, only four were produced.” Any screenwriter will tell you that this is a fantastic percentage.) But he wasn’t alone. If you were going to plan out the perfect writing career from first principles—a big critical success right out of the gate, a huge bestseller at your peak, and a series of late masterpieces—you couldn’t do better than Philip Roth, and I’ve written at length elsewhere about Roth’s own disillusionment. Which only raises the larger issue of whether any ambitious writer can truly be happy. Part of it can be pinned on the neuroses that drive so many writers into the lives they’ve chosen, but not all of it is imaginary. Those of us on the outside only see the published work, but a writer is uniquely qualified to measure them against the books that were never written, and none of us ever lives up to his or her full potential. In Salter’s case, that infinitesimal gap feels especially stark: he came so close to being the best that his final, tiny shortfall feels like a failure. He can start to sound a little like LeBron James after the finals: “If I could have gave more, I would have done it, but I gave everything I had.” Salter gave even more than that, and he didn’t think it was enough. But that doesn’t mean he was right.

Written by nevalalee

June 24, 2015 at 9:51 am

“The myriad past, it enters us and disappears…”

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James Salter

Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit. Most of the details, though, have long since been transformed or rearranged to bring others of them forward. Some, in fact, are obviously counterfeit; they are no less important. One alters the past to form the future. But there is a real significance to the pattern which finally appears, which resists all further change. In fact, there is the danger that if I continue to try, the whole concert of events will begin to fall apart in my hands like old newspaper, I can’t bear to think of that. The myriad past, it enters us and disappears. Except that within it, somewhere, like diamonds, exist the fragments that refuse to be consumed. Sifting through, if one dares, and collecting them, one discovers the true design.

James Salter, A Sport and a Pastime

Written by nevalalee

January 17, 2015 at 9:19 am

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