“The euphemism ‘writer’s writer’ has been applied so many times
that Salter visibly recoils at hearing it.
(‘That means nobody knows who you are,’ he told me….)
He admits that he writes with specific people in mind, but “enhanced a bit; not necessarily made more admirable, just made clearer or more appropriate to their role. You say, ‘Come backstage here just for a minute. I’d like to fasten this part of your coat—it looks a little funny when you turn profile—and then you’ll be ready to go.’ That’s about what it’s like.”
–Above, both from the Village Voice interview by Scott Foundas, 3/27/2013
James Salter, a ‘Writer’s Writer’ Short on
Sales but Long on Acclaim, Dies at 90
I daily note the subjects of the New York Times obituaries to see if someone I know of has died and to see if the main subject of the article interests me. I learn a lot that way. On June 20, 2015 the heading of the major obit struck me because I have a strong interest in literature, though the name Salter is only vaguely familiar to me and he never wrote anything read by me (my own construction–I’ve waited years to have the opportunity to use it). Besides, the “short on sales but long on acclaim” aspect in the heading struck me as possibly similar to Shepherd.
The obituary, by Helen T. Verongos, grabbed me–from beginning to its last words–for its thoughtful and sensitive elegy of sadness at the desire-to-achieve and its appreciation of what had been achieved. Indeed, I recognized similarities to Jean Shepherd’s life, aspirations, disappointments, and achievements. Quotes from the obit I record in bold type indented, and my comments are in standard type, full-width
James Salter, whose intimately detailed novels and short stories kept a small but devoted audience in its thrall died on Friday….
James Wolcott described him…as America’s most “underrated underrated author.”
“Small but devoted audience in its thrall” and “underrated underrated” seem especially appropriate regarding Jean Shepherd. The following comment rings a bell regarding Leigh Brown, acting as Shep’s agent, having to seek publication elsewhere when Doubleday, publisher of his first two books, turned down his The Ferrari in the Bedroom, and I, erstwhile promoter of Shep for publication, struggle with a certain amount of agony, to get my two more book manuscripts of Shep transcripts published. Salter’s publisher turned down a novel manuscript and only through a fellow-author’s influence did his A Sport and a Pastime achieve publication, subsequently highly regarded:
The print run was small, and the publishers, Mr. Salter said, “were holding it like it was a pair of dirty socks.”
Bringing to mind Shepherd deserting his family in the blandings of New Jersey for the creative ambiance of Greenwich Village, is Salter’s way of dealing with suburban family life:
Living in the Hudson River Valley, he did his writing in New York in a room in Greenwich Village, where he befriended artists but felt himself to be their inferior. “I was from the suburbs,” he wrote. “I had a wife, children, the entire manifest. Even in the city I found it hard to believe I was working on anything of interest.”
That, indeed, seems to be what Shepherd feared and avoided–with his apparent heartless abandonment of his family.
The obit mentions several important literary prizes that Salter won, reminding one of the many that Shepherd also won–yet which didn’t satisfy their longing for even more and better.
Describing Salter’s 1997 memoir, Burning the Days, the obit continues:
Though autobiographical in style and substance, it is almost indistinguishable from his stories, in keeping with Mr. Salter’s often-stated refusal to believe in the “arbitrary separation” of fact and fiction.
Not quite as Shepherd might have put it or admitted, but it probably indicates a shared affiliation they both had for the uses that their facts-into-fictions enjoyed. Early on (in a reminder to Shep fans of their hero’s desires), the obituary comments that:
But he never achieved the broad popularity he craved.
The obituary ends on a warmly considered comment on a creator’s legacy (Salter’s, and, Shep-enthusiasts should think, also of Shepherd’s):
…the book [his final novel] did appear on The Times best-seller list for a week, but never achieved the success he had hoped for.
At the end of his life, his legacy mattered. As Mr. Salter once wrote, “Life passes into pages if it passes into anything.”
Yes, Shep fans remember his comment on our penultimate fate: “Can you imagine 4,000 years passing, and you’re not even a memory?” Yes, Shep, but even worse, what about beyond that by a couple billion years–when the Earth spirals down its orbit by plunging into the sun. But please, don’t let that stop anyone from fighting the good creative fight here and now!