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Where are the Women? A fresh look at James Salter

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All That Is, by James Salter

Published by: Picador    $29.99

James Salter’s new novel All That Is, is his first in 34 years. Not that he’s been idle. There  have been short story collections and his memoir, Burning the Days. Salter, an iconic figure in American literature, has had an extraordinarily varied writing life. Now 87, he was a war hero, serving as a fighter pilot in Korea (his novel, The Hunters, examines his wartime experiences). He then became a full time writer in New York and Paris before the Hollywood phase of his writing took over – he wrote the screenplays for acclaimed films such as Downhill Racer.

At a time when Philip Roth has declared there will be no more novels, it is heartening to see an older writer still very much in control of the medium. There are sentences in All That Is that are so carefully wrought, so luminous, a reader could weep with delight. There is no doubt Salter combines the rigorous and the poetic and he is a master of form. Why then, do I have so many reservations about the novel?

The first reason is Salter’s central character, Philip Bowman. In may ways he is a typical Salter hero, an action man and naval officer who after the Second World War, begins a career in publishing.  We see the burgeoning success of his career as a New York editor, track his first disastrous marriage and witness a series of doomed affairs, before (SPOILER ALERT!) his meeting with a woman with whom, the reader senses, he will spend the rest of his life. We meet his friends and colleagues and peer into their lives, which very much counterpoint or reflect Bowman’s own.

The sweep of the novel traces Bowman’s lifepath from the last days of WW2 to what appears to be the end of the 1980s. This is a momentous period in American history – TV, the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Civil Rights Movement, hippies, man on the moon, the IT revolution, the rise of feminism – the list of upheavals and innovations goes on and on, and yet none of this is tackled in the novel, which glosses over the shifting socio-cultural landscape as if it were a paranthesis.

Salter writes at the end of one chapter: “A frightening thing had happened. The president had been shot in Dallas”. And that’s 1963 dismissed, along with one of the most emotional and game-changing events in US politics. In the next chapter we’re back in the navel-gazing world of publishing and its smug acolytes. This is a network of WASP men, with hermetically-sealed WASP values that seem to hover somewhere around the 1930s. The handful of Jews who infiltrate this world are assimilated – no other ethnic minorities are represented.

Indeed, Bowman personifies the blinkered, prejudiced, retro-looking white American male. He is irritatingly self-satisfied and self-absorbed. He’s a lover of art and music, of Paris and good food, but if you told him that across town from his comfortable Manhattan condo there were single parent families living in poverty, rat-infested houses, racial unrest, he would probably look at you in disbelief. It’s a long time since I’ve met a protagonist in a novel so socially unaware. And it’s hard not to wonder if Salter is also out of touch with the dynamics and concerns of contemporary society.

Salter’s defenders would no doubt reply that the novel dissects and satirises a certain time and class, but I think he’s in deadly earnest.  It is telling that the most vibrant and affecting passages concern Bowman’s time fighting during the war. Here, there is an immediacy, a sense of empathy with his fellow-man that is not seen in the remainder of the novel.

This lack of empathy is especially true concerning Bowman’s attitude towards women. To backtrack for a moment: All That Is has received glowing reviews, but I’ve yet to see one female critic among the fulsome accolades accorded by the male reviewers I’ve scanned. Nor do any women writers appear on the book jacket, where you can read  plaudits by Julian Barnes, Tim O’Brien, Edmund White and (most disappointingly, as he’s one of my literary gods), John Banville.

To backtrack further, Salter’s treatment of women in his fiction to date has been equivocal at best. The women in his books are admired, worshipped, lusted over and possessed sexually, but they are also talked at (rarely conversed with) and patently intellectually inferior. Salter can write paragraphs of the most glorious sensuality and eroticism (A Sport and a Pastime arguably contains some of the best-written sex in literature – though written entirely from the male perspective) but the relationships between men and women outside the bedroom are strained.

All That Is continues in the same vein. Here’s a young Bowman with Vivian, soon to be his wife. On a previous date, he told her to read Hemingway (she hadn’t). Then:

“He wanted to go on talking about Ezra Pound and introduce the subject of the Cantos, perhaps reading one or two of the most brilliant  of them to her, but Vivian’s mind was elsewhere”.

Clearly, Vivian’s not up to such lofty discourse. Again, here’s a description of a girl met at a party. “She was lively and wanted to talk, like a wind-up doll, a little doll that also did sex.” 

Demeaning as this is, more disturbing is the way Salter completely ignores gender politics and the advances women have made over the past 50 years. Television series such as Madmen chronicle the evolution of women in the workforce and their transition from lowly secretaries in the 1950s to power-brokers. But Salter’s women never cross that threshold. They may work and hold down serious jobs yet their status remains ill-defined. Here’s a snatch of conversation that dates circa 1980, late in the novel, with Bowman very much an elder statesman by this time.

Claire continued talking about Susan Sontag. What did they really think of her – she meant what did Bowman think……

“All powerful women cause anxiety”, he said.

“Do you really think so?”……

“Men do”, he said.

That exchange almost took my breath away. It’s not only the way Sontag (one of 20th century culture’s most clear-sighted analysts) is so casually dismissed.  This scene is also a lesson in how to alienate a female audience and completely implausible given the inroads women had made by the Eighties. Whatever Bowman’s personal views, he could never, ever, have uttered them so publicly. In the next line, we read that Claire considers Bowman’s reply “chauvinistic”, yet instead of rebutting him, she goes on to make a drunken fool of herself.

Thirty pages and some plot twists later, the novel ends, with Bowman attaining a kind of peace, reconciling himself with all that is, was and is to come. Yet as a female reader, I felt cheated. Far from an epic narrative that scrutinises what it is to be human in the 20th century, I was left considering all that the novel was not but could have been.  If this is to be Salter’s last book, it holds its place uneasily and divides more than it conquers.

Read it: To observe a supreme stylist at work

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Spinal Tap: Women back off on book covers

Back by design: Women reveal only one side of themselves on an assortment of recent book covers
Chloë Schama’s intriguing essay on the current trend on book covers, published on 20 June in The New York Times, raises so many questions I reproduce it in full here. The sociological implications go far beyond the visual – is there a more insidious message here? Your responses please.
A plague of women’s backs is upon us in the book cover world. We’ve recently seen Finding Casey, by Jo-Ann Mapson; The Unruly Passion of Eugénie R., by Carole DeSanti; and The Headmaster’s Wager, by Vincent Lam, all showcasing a nape-and-shoulder combo on the jacket. The Pretty One, by Lucinda Rosenfeld, features three women with their backs turned; The Smart One, by Jennifer Close, has its heroine turned away, undoing her wrap dress; and a bride stands facing a beach on Beautiful Day, by Elin Hilderbrand.
This cover cliché is not confined to pulp fiction or books that might be described as chick-lit. One of the proposed jackets for a literary novel written by a friend of mine had a woman sitting cross-legged on the beach, her back to us. “Who is this woman?” my friend asked. “What yoga DVD did she escape from?” The cover of John Irving’s latest novel, In One Person, depicts the bare back of someone who is either clasping or unclasping a bra. On the British cover of While the Women Are Sleeping, by Javier Marías, just a sliver of a figure’s face is visible in a mirror. The British cover for Siri Hustvedt’s recent essay collection, Living, Thinking, Looking, shows a woman presumably engaged in these activities, although it’s hard to confirm; her back is to us. To be fair, book jackets occasionally feature men in this pose — The Forgotten, by David Baldacci; The Jackal’s Share, by Chris Morgan Jones; and some of James Patterson’s Michael Bennett books come to mind — but it’s much less common, and man-in-somewhat-dishevelled-suit seems the more dominant motif.

Why is the faceless woman so ubiquitous? Artists from Ingres to Irving Penn have shown that a woman’s back can be a beautiful, erotic thing — and it’s probably the largest swath of skin that can be exposed without setting off the censors. Sex sells, and this reference to the body without obvious objectification must appeal to an industry that overwhelmingly attracts and employs women. (A 2010 Publishers Weekly survey determined that 85 % of book industry employees with less than three years of experience were women.) If feminists were scrutinizing book covers, I imagine it’s stilettos, shiny lips and fishnet stockings that they would object to.

And editors, according to Julianna Lee, an art director at Little, Brown & Company, often explicitly instruct designers not to show a woman’s face: “A little bit of mystery allows the reader to use their imagination,” she says. Furthermore, omitting individualizing details spares jacket designers from the charge (by authors and readers) that they haven’t rendered characters faithfully. Even when depicted from the front, headless women are common on covers. It’s worth noting, too, that it can be difficult for writers to combat these pressures; the publishing house has the book’s best interests at heart — who are writers to object if they’re less than happy with the design?

Perhaps the trend is more inadvertent than pernicious. The ubiquitous book-cover back suggests to potential readers that the book is about bodies and the forces contained therein, and there’s nothing wrong with that — in fact, it’s a fairly accurate description of all novels. The irony is that this design has become so prevalent that it undermines the very purpose of the book cover: to whet the appetite for the real meal. As my novelist friend put it, “A book jacket seems, to me, like the single most efficient way to signal whether a book has substance or not.” But these books offer only skin, which is all surface.

Chloë Schama is a story editor at The New Republic.


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Happy Typewriter’s Day!

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On this day in 1868, Christopher Latham Sholes received a patent for an invention he called the “Type-Writer.” Typewriters had been around since 1714 and reinvented in various forms throughout the 1800s, but Sholes invented the first one to be commercially successful.

The arts radio programme, Studio 360, paid tribute to this almost forgotten technology. Listen here: http://wny.cc/11x39JC


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Confessions of a Biblioholic

 

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Hello. My name is Dina and I’m a Biblioholic. I’ve been in denial for years but now it’s time to come clean. My addiction to books is ruining my life. I went out shopping for groceries yesterday and came back with the complete works of John Cheever. My fridge is empty, the washing neglected. I haven’t cleaned my house in weeks. I’m even finding Patrick White easy to read. I need help.

Thanks for the applause and synchronised hellos, and the warm welcome, Ms Facilitator. It’s such a relief to discover that I’m not alone. All of you here, drinking camomile tea, understand my affliction. Sally, I really appreciated sharing your Jane Austen obsession. How well I know the sharp pangs of Darcy Syndrome, although I was afflicted by Knightley Disease myself – the lure of the older man –  which progressed into Rochester Phenomenon for far too long, as I recall….Martin, your Henry James fixation is perfectly natural, who wouldn’t empathise with the desire for intricate, meticulously observed sentences, where the passion for detail – every element of a room’s furnishings, for example, carefully notated – mingles with keenly-fashioned dialogue, edged with sound psychological realism and a hint of authorial comment?

I apologise, Ms Facilitator, believe me,  I’m not trying to reinforce behaviour patterns, I’m simply saying – of course I realise Fay’s suffering from Novel-induced Tourette’s. But here’s my take on it: she’s in the grip of Gritty Millennial Realism.  There’s only one way out, going cold turkey on all novelists under 35. How about a mammoth dose of Hemingway? OK. OK. Maybe that wasn’t such a great idea.

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Let’s chant. Hold hands. Close our eyes. Our mantra for this week is inspired by our Bible, Biblioholism: The Literary Addiction by Tom Raabe (paperback).

We shall destroy our credit cards

We shall answer the telephone and speak to friends

We will not read book reviews

We will cross the road when we see a public library

When we spot a bookshop, we will turn the corner and pop into a café for a coffee and muffin instead.

I admit it was flippant, Ms Facilitator, to say swapping this class for a Weight Watchers weigh-in was taking the cake. And naturally I recognise the gravity of our condition.

Peter, I’m sorry your wife has moved out, I really sympathise, although negotiating this pile by the kitchen – just one week’s reading, I think you said – must have been pretty awkward.

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Peter, stop crying, I’m not being judgmental – come back – we’ll get through this. All of us. We just have to have faith.

Let me get this right, Ms Facilitator: by watching the movie of the book, you’re saying we’ll be drawn into an appreciation of other media, and gradually increase our consumption of competing distractions? I get it – a gradual weaning, a softly, softly approach – how about Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper in For Whom The Bell Tolls? Oh, that’s on your Recommended Next Steps, is it, along with Omar Sharif in Dr Zhivago? I’m impressed. And I think you’ve got a great track record, only losing one group member to Game of Thrones.

See you all next week.


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PREPARE TO BE SURPRISED: the-oh-so-strange world of Donald Barthelme

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I confess to being a latecomer to the work of Donald Barthelme. I had read other American classic humourists such as SJ Perelman and HL Mencken but Barthelme somehow slipped through the net. It’s no wonder: Barthelme is very hard to pin down – he can be laugh-out-loud funny one moment, deeply satirical the next, completely absurd or philosophically dense, often in the space of two or three paragraphs. Two storylines exemplify this perfectly: in the first, King Kong, now a professor of art history, climbs through a window to join a drinks party; in the second, the nonsense poet Edward Lear invites friends and acquaintances to witness his death. Reading is not necessarily believing; in Barthelme what you see is not what you get; and what you get can alter almost mystically after a re-read.

Confused? Good. No-one said that reading Barthelme would be easy. I’ve just come up for air after immersing myself in his Sixty Stories for the past month and only now feel ready both to put these thoughts down and to tackle his novels. Writing on Barthelme requires assiduous preparation and a big dose of humility: he has an encyclopaedic grasp of matters temporal and spiritual and he’s widely and deeply read. However, an enlightening interview Barthelme gave The Paris Review in 1981, eight years before his death, which you can read here, http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3228/the-art-of-fiction-no-66-donald-barthelme  is a good starting point.

It’s almost a relief to acknowledge Barthelme as the quintessential post-modernist. And though such terms usually make me squirm, in his case the nomenclature fits like a glove. How else to explain the mish-mash of styles in different authorial voices, the sorties into slapstick and Existentialism, the quick-fire dialogue that melds into Joycean monologue? If Barthelme was a painter, he’d have to be Magritte, the wicked teaser with the dark underside, the trickster who makes you blink and think twice. And if he were a playwright, then he’d be Tom Stoppard, early on in his career (Stoppard serendipitously wrote a play called After Magritte), where startling, absurd sequences of events are presented to the bemused spectator, only to be revealed as completely logical by the final curtain.

So, to the stories. Or fables. Or pastiches. In Me and Miss Mandible, a 35 year-old man, mysteriously returned to his high school self, contemplates making love to his teacher and assiduously records the progress of his seduction in an elegantly written journal, while tackling fractions and geography. It’s wicked, subversive, supremely funny in a dark and dangerous way. Is it a dream, an adult fantasy? Its power lies in the way the narrative captures and reflects on childhood events from an adult perspective, rather than the absurdity of the situation.

The narrator in I Bought a Little City, however, is more forceful and dynamic. He happily buys the city of Galveston, Texas and then proceeds to change the landscape and infrastructure bit by bit to suit his whims. You can read it as a satirical take on urbanisation and the destructiveness of town planning, nor is the underlying premise of being able to buy a city so far-fetched when you consider the power of today’s mega-sized development groups. In fact, although written in the 1970s, the fable seems almost horribly prescient.

In a complete change of tone, The King of Jazz deftly mimics the riffing of jazz musicians, vying with each other in the rehearsal studio. The story reads like an improv session, setting out a melody, a refrain, a spotlight on a solo and then back to the original theme, all conducted in fast-paced dialogue.

One of my favourite stories, Margins, presents Carl and Edward, two dead-beats living on the fringes of society, as they wander through the streets of Manhattan. Their deeply philosophical and ridiculous dialogue recalls the tramps Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. There is a great deal of Beckett in Barthelme –snatches of vaudeville gleam through existential darkness – and there’s a great deal of Nabokov too, in his carefully chosen language, his word play, his authorial voice of linguist and savant.

Where, though, do you draw the line between being clever and too clever by half? Sometimes, I feel the balance is tipped against Barthelme. It would certainly be helpful to have an understanding of 19th and early 20th century philosophy before reading his story Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel – otherwise how do you get the joke? But just as you’re about to wag a finger and chastise Barthelme for unreasonable obscurity, back he comes with The Sandman, a deliciously accessible send-up of psychoanalysis, in which a lover writes to his girlfriend’s shrink proposing she give up her counselling sessions and concentrate on her relationship instead.

Go with the flow. Let Barthelme’s language and surrealism wash over you. Experience him like music, dive into in his bizarre universe. It’s definitely worth it. And it’s one hell of a ride.


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On criticism: a response to salon.com’s article on Alice Munro

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Pictured: Alice Munro

I was alerted to an article published last Tuesday in salon.com by a Facebook friend: it transpires that Christian Lorentzen, an editor at the London Review of Books recently published a scathing critique of the work of the great short story writer and novelist, Alice Munro. In return, author Kyle Minor leapt to Munro’s defence by critiquing Lorentzen himself, arguing that a writer of Munro’s stature deserves no such “takedowns”. Both articles have provoked lively responses on social media. You can read Minor’s article here: http://www.salon.com/2013/06/10/in_defense_of_alice_munro/

I haven’t any right to criticize books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and  therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.
― Mark Twain

Such quid pro quos are not new. What I found fascinating were the comments left on my Facebook page. One devotee said Munro was “above criticism”. This really got me thinking. Is anyone “above criticism”? If literary works went uncriticised, most academics and reviewers would be out of a job. As a practising journalist for over 20 years, I passionately defend the right of free speech. But I believe three issues arise. (1) Has Lorentzen the right to criticise Munro? (2) Has Minor the right to criticise Lorentzen? (3) To what extent can a critique be viewed as reasonable if it strays into the personal?

Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp-post what it feels about dogs.
― Christopher Hampton

What, then, is the role of the media critic? (I stress media as opposed to academic, because they fulfil different functions. The first represents popular culture, the second appeals to a more discrete coterie.) Surely it is to present a holistic overview of a work of art and to do so using a compelling rationale for those opinions, in language that is persuasive, independent, obviously non-defamatory and as objective as possible.  I italicise these words because, of course, all criticism is inherently subjective. However fair-minded a critic tries to be, he or she will ultimately surrender to personal bias. A critique is simply one opinion and as a reader, your affiliation to what a reviewer writes will depend on your own personal views about that critic and your own opinions about the work in question.

Post World War II, and arguably till about 10 years ago, the critic ruled supreme.  The great British critic Kenneth Tynan, for example, elevated theatre criticism into a true artform, combining incisive brilliance with literary excellence. Others preferred a more sensational approach and used skewering put-downs to build their reputations. The Daily Mail’s Milton Shulman was notorious for the cruelty of his reviews, once describing a JM Barrie play as “moving at the pace of cold porridge going uphill”. (And that was the positive part).

In Australia, our critics do not have the clout of those in the UK or the USA, who can damn a book or a show within days, resulting in lost sales or the cancellation of a season. But even there, the power of critics is diminishing. Firstly, when critiques in so many newspapers are written by authors who are friends with the writers they are reviewing,  it is hard to consider their reports anything more than an “I’ll scratch my back and you’ll scratch mine” exercise.

The second reason is the internet, whose democratising force has spawned thousands of critics, reviewers, bloggers, thought provokers and commentators, who have widened the forums of discussion. One of the greatest advantages is that it allows more opinions to be expressed but it also highlights the power of individual choice: no-one is forced to listen to, read or believe the traditional guardians of the Fourth Estate.

People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise.
― W. Somerset Maugham

As consumers of internet material, we will take what we want from the reviewers we enjoy and disregard the rest. For example, I was very sad when critic Alison Croggan abandoned her excellent blog, Theatre Notes, an overview of Australia’s theatre scene, to concentrate on her own writing. I frequently found myself disagreeing with Alison’s views but there was no denying her erudition, her brilliant writing, and even when I took issue with her, I enjoyed her posts.

Having worked as a theatre critic for The Age newspaper for four years and as a playwright myself, I’ve experienced the critical landscape from both sides. And what bruised me most when I was the target of criticism was not that a reviewer may have disliked my play – that was their prerogative – but that they had not understood it or misread my goals and objectives. Yet however much I was tempted to reply, I’d still defend their right to voice their opinion. And what I found was that word of mouth was a more powerful persuader than a review: people would come, like the play, tell their friends, and before I knew it, my seasons had sold out.

I would argue that both Christian Lorentzen and Kyle Minor have every right to their personal  views on  Alice Munro. Should Minor have attacked Lorentzen? Certainly not for his beliefs. Besides, Munro is a formidable and established enough literary figure to weather the storm, nor is anyone denying her a right of reply. Those who love her will dismiss Lorentzen’s views as laughable. Where things get tricky is the very personal tone Lorentzen adopts in his article on Munro.  Here, I do believe, are grounds for recrimination.  As to whether this could yield grounds for legal dispute, that is another question entirely. However, when criticism strays into the partisan, it is no longer fulfilling its role as objective assessor and moves too close to agit prop for comfort.

Critics sometimes appear to be addressing themselves to works other than those I remember writing.
―Joyce Carol Oats