James Salter The Art of Fiction

At the age of 89, just a few months before he died, James Salter delivered the first Kapnick Writer-in-Residence Lectures at the University of Virginia. The Art of Fiction consists of the three lectures he presented then.

I’ve read most everything Salter has written and while I didn’t expect to learn how to write a novel, I wanted to know about his writing life and the writers who meant the most to him. They include works by Balzac, Flaubert, Babel, Dreiser, CĂ©line, Faulkner.

Salter raises the question: Why does one write? This is a question I have often pondered. To my surprise, Salter answers the question this way: …it would be truer to say that I’ve written to be admired by others, to be loved by them, to be praised, to be known. In the end that’s the only reason.”

I wonder how many writers would answer the same way?

Salter often spent time in France. He said he was always able to write there and that the French generally believe it is worthwhile to be a writer.

He spoke about the important elements in writing a novel. It’s never easy, you need to weigh each sentence, rewrite a great deal, observe closely and learn how to tell a story. “The narrative tells the story and story is the heart of things. It is the fundamental element.”

He spoke about some of the books he wrote, although he didn’t include his novel I like best, Solo Days. He described Light Years ”as being like the worn stones of conjugal life: everything ordinary, everything marvelous, everything that makes it full or makes it embittered—it goes on for years, decades, and in the end seems to have passed like things seen from a train, a meadow there, trees, houses, darkened towns, a station going by.”

The book represented the memory of those days, memories that are probably true for any marriage.

He wrote, A time comes when you are all alone, Celine wrote long before it actually happened to him, when you’ve come to the end of everything than can happen to you. It’s the end of the world, even grief, your own grief, doesn’t answer you anymore…”

And he concludes: “There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.”

In the final analysis, this is the only reason I publish whatever I’ve written.


johannes said...

“There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.”
Lovely. Yes. Thank you.
PS Surely his tongue was in his cheek when he said he wrote to be admired...?

Richard Katzev said...

I have no idea why he answered the question that way. Tongue in cheek? Who knows? I was puzzled by his answer. Was he being honest? Or jesting?

Linda said...

I think every author writes with the hope that his words will be read. But why, who knows - to make a connection with another human being, to leave behind something of permanence, "to be admired, to be loved, to be praised, to be known" - all seem to me to be about remembrance. We don't want to be forgotten. Writing marries thought and expression permanently and seems to me to be the essence of an individual. Salter is right that "only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real." It is a fine reason to write.

Richard Katzev said...


I don't write hoping that my words will be read, as you put it. My writing is entirely selfish, for myself, to see if I can do it and do it clearly and sometimes with some insight.

I've tacked this question several times on Marks In the Margin. Here is an attempt I made long ago.

Once in a while it is even fun to write or to have something to do. So many reasons to write and almost everybody seems to do it nowadays.


Linda said...

Yes, I know. Writing teaches, consoles, and brings insight to the writer even if the words never reach another person. When I am trying to understand something, work out my own uncertainties, writing is the only way I can get there. I wish I could say it is fun, but it has always been very difficult for me.

. . . but there is something special that happens when a writer connects with a reader, like a magical bridge over an abyss.

I went back and read "Why Do I Write? I." And there it is, a journey of discovery with its own intrinsic value to the traveler, while a consolation and inspiration to a reader.

Richard Katzev said...

I've tried to write my way out of distress and it never seems to work. Writing therapy as it is called may not be the cure all it is said to be.

Have a look at this: http://marksinthemargin.blogspot.com/2010/01/why-do-i-write-ii.html