James Salter, a “writer’s writer” died last week at the age of ninety. Accolades written about him repeatedly talked about how beautiful his writing was and that in spite of it, his books were not best sellers, nor was he known as widely as he would have liked. I wondered why that was and borrowed a novel and autobiography from the library.
It’s always interesting when people talk about “technique” whether it’s in writing or in playing the piano, for example. Technique is what you learn when studying an instrument so that you develop facility and consistency in the way that you play the notes. That’s only the beginning, however, because there are as many different techniques as there are pianists. Playing scales, double-thirds, Czerny and Cramer exercises are all tools toward developing technique when playing the piano.
The thing is, being facile and playing evenly or with endurance is not even the half of it. Playing music so that it speaks to the listener is the endpoint one strives for after learning years of technique. It’s similar to what they say in sports – when you’ve got it mastered, then you can let go and just enjoy yourself. So while technique is great to have, it’s only a part of the “have-to-haves.”
Apparently, James Salter had it in spades. His sentences are interesting, varied and have rhythm. I enjoyed reading parts of his books. What I discovered in perusing both of them is that they are in large part autobiographical and moreover, they reflect a lifestyle of his social strata – well off, and hobnobbing at restaurants and parties with many of his peers in New York, Paris and wherever they travelled. Meals and what they ate reflected a period in time when certain foods were fashionable. There wasn’t any fusion cooking there.
And that’s where I reflected on why his books had not become more popular: they weren’t because they didn’t appeal to a broad spectrum of readers, just a narrow one similar to his own background and life experience. This is when I began thinking about “old fogeys.” He wrote about what he knew but I don’t know if he was aware of how ensconced he was in the half century he wrote about constantly. His descriptions were similar to stories written by Louis Auchincloss, John Cheever, and most of all, John O’Hara. Men wore hats, women wore fur coats, they all smoked and drank a lot. Many of them had affairs. That was the social milieu of those writers.
Salter’s books were similar, I couldn’t really tell if his writing was better. I had read Cheever and especially O’Hara when I was in college and that was a long time ago – about times that were distant in time from when I read them too. That got me thinking about how we might think about ourselves, our habits and our lives at our age. That is, that naturally, we might only look through the prism of the era and the age that we lived through – not necessarily even in the present, and definitely not different for the future, whatever that might be.
And that’s my point. If we decide to be “old fogeys” about what we think about and how we think about it, we’re hopelessly living in a time-capsule of our own making. Things have to be just so this way. Or, things can’t be different in that way. Because that’s the way we’ve always been used to things. OMG! I don’t want to be stuck in an era like Salter’s books.
That doesn’t mean that I’m trying to act like a Millennial, not that I could figure out what that was. But, for the first time, I’ve actually realized that there are true generation gaps no matter how spry you might think you are mentally. We ARE a product of our generation. And if we don’t watch out, that’s all there will be until we croak unless we recognize that we might be shutting down.
So, I decided to shake it up, or shake it off (according to Taylor Swift’s song) and to become more aware of either being complacent without realizing it, or being so habituated to patterns that life becomes boring and uninteresting, to put it mildly.
I’m not sorry that I read Salter’s writing. I wanted to understand what his life was like. And I think I have a pretty good idea from reading about him online and reading his books. He had a good life. He was lucky too to have married someone who was good for him and loved him to the end.
But there’s an awful lot written about writing as “craft.” And I think it’s overrated, to be honest. In music, I’ve listened to plenty of pianists who played musically and with genuine feeling, communicating with the audience. And their technique was not barn raising either. I’ve also listened to lots of technical pyromaniacs who set the piano on fire with their technique but you didn’t really care if you listened to anything they played or not. So, technique doesn’t get you there. It helps, but it isn’t the magic potion that accounts for concert bookings, book sales nor lofty reputations.
This little exercise of reading and reflection has moved me to think about the hat that I’m always wearing, to take it off and to look around for other caps to try on. It’s never too late, they say. And it’s time to shake it off, shake it up or go back to bed.