AN INFORMAL DEBATE on the DOMESTICATED AESTHETIC of the LITERARY MIDDLEBROW

Posting my reasoned critiques of Imperial Plague Propaganda (which is designed to move the psychological cattle, from point A to point Q, in record time), these six or seven months, has been like opening up a series of exquisite 19th century Japanese umbrellas in a howling catshit hurricane. The size of the lying megaphone wind-machines (and coordinated catshit cannons), in this metaphor, renders “free speech” a moot point. I’m going to recharge my batteries by focusing on Lit, Music, Cinema and (as ever) Fucking My Beautiful Wife (take that, Puritans… have you noticed how puritanical our porn-based Mootopia is becoming of late?). I’ll be talking Books and Sex over the next few posts.

Here’s a perfectly good debate, on the matter of James Salter, in which I was involved. Not only Salter, of course: there are thoughts on the whole question of what is considered GOOD WRITIN’ and what, precisely, constitutes “elitism,” a word as distorted by casually imprecise overuse as “racism” and “misogyny” are. If you’re a dedicated student of Reading/Writing, this may trigger a response in you…

  1. Ugh, James Salter. As in:

****”Late in the afternoon they drove through the iron gates that were posted with a warning that only one car at a time could pass through. The long driveway led upward with evenly spaced trees on either side. At last the house appeared, a vast facade with many windows, every one of them lit as if the house were a huge toy. When Amussen knocked at the door there was a sudden barking of dogs.

“Rollo! Slipper!” a voice inside cried and then began cursing.

In a mauve, flowered gown that bared one plump shoulder and impatiently kicking at the dogs, Liz Bohannon opened the door. She had once been a goddess and was still beautiful. As Amussen kissed her, she said,

“Darling, I thought it was you.” To Vivian and her new husband, she said, “I’m so glad you could come.”

To Bowman she held out a surprisingly small hand that bore a large emerald ring.

“I was in the study, paying bills. Is it going to snow? It feels like it. How was your Christmas?” she asked Amussen.

She continued pushing away the importuning dogs, one small and white, the other a dalmatian.

“Ours was quiet,” she went on. “You haven’t been here before, have you?” she said to Bowman. “The house was built originally in 1838, but it’s burned down twice, the last time in the middle of the night while I was sleeping.”

She held Bowman’s hand. He felt a kind of thrill.” ****

Ugh.

  1. The Devil 

November 15, 2017 at 3:00 pm

If you base your game on James Salter you’ll get laid a lot. This is why I sent him to Earth; to sow the seeds of sin.

  1. steven augustine 

November 15, 2017 at 3:36 pm

More stylistic gold from the Pre-Postmodernist Reader’s Digest Club; guess the practitioner… (well, he has a grand 1950s-type sense of setting, like Salter, and he studs his paper-dry sentences with “cried” instead of “said,” often…)

*******

“Three rounded towers soared above the corners of the large house, with a foursided battlement rising at the fourth corner. The roof contained eleven chimneys and was broken repeatedly by dormers. The ground floor was surrounded by a pillared veranda, while all doors leading into the house were made of heavy oak studded with brass fittings. It was possible to sleep eighteen guests in comfort, with four Negro servants to attend their needs.

“What we have in mind,” Claude Barker told the Seccombes, “is a club … a gentlemen’s club. We’ve selected a suitable corner in Cheyenne and we’ll keep the membership exclusive. All of us here, plus a few others with the right kind of background.”

“What are you calling it?” Charlotte Seccombe asked.

“The Cactus Club,” Barker said.

“Oh, that’s delicious!” Charlotte cried, but her husband was more interested in the list of proposed members. They were all substantial cattlemen, except for the manager of the Union Pacific Railroad; of the initial twenty members, fourteen would be Americans, six British. Socially they were impeccable; in ranching, the most powerful.”

******

  1. The Devil 

November 15, 2017 at 3:57 pm

Stephen_Augustus-

The problem with what you’re doing is twofold:

1: Everyone writes bad lines sometimes. Even myself, when I wrote the Bible and the Koran, dropped in a few less than choice lines. So, its not fair to cherry pick the body of work of an artist looking for bad lines, bad pages, or even bad books. As Henry Miller said in Tropic of Cancer (paraphrasing here),  “we live in a fallen, disgusting time, our brightest lights are infinitely dimmer than those that showed before us, and so we need to read entire libraries in the bare hope we might find amongst all those pages one single, true line.”

2: For every sentence you quote above I can crack open Sport and a Pastime and find three or four descriptions of the female form and / or sex that would justify an entire life of hackwork.

  1. steven augustine 

November 15, 2017 at 4:07 pm

@The Devil

Nah: Salter is a solidly middlebrow (shading to bodice-ripper-esque) stylist. As was James Michener (sample #2). Not a dime’s worth of difference between their narrative semi-aesthetics. One should cultivate a sensitivity to such things… or Mr. Joyce lived and died in vain. Miller himself mocked (and was stung by unflattering comparisons to the commercial puissance of) Margaret Mitchell. Henry’s bad sentences were good because they were daring; he risked, above all, bad taste. Salter risked kitsch. Big Diff.

  1. steven augustine 

November 15, 2017 at 4:08 pm

“For every sentence you quote above I can crack open Sport and a Pastime and find three or four descriptions of the female form and / or sex that would justify an entire life of hackwork.”

Do it, good Sir!

  1. Herb Longley 

November 15, 2017 at 4:32 pm

Steven,

I haven’t liked a ton of other Salter that I’ve read, but Dusk and Last Night are great collections by most any standard. And I find “middlebrow” to be a similar descriptor to “fascist”–it basically means “something I don’t like.” He certainly wasn’t avant-garde, but his perceptions of human nature and weakness in a story like “American Express” are hardly commonplace.

  1. The Devil 

November 15, 2017 at 4:45 pm

I don’t have the book in front of me, but, off the top of my head:

“Her breasts were small and heavy, like bags of money.”

Boom!

  1. steven augustine 

November 15, 2017 at 4:51 pm

Herb!

“And I find “middlebrow” to be a similar descriptor to “fascist”–it basically means “something I don’t like.”

Well, when I use “middlebrow” I mean e.g. “smartish and pleasant enough but displaying a less than rigorous use of language”… (clichés abound, often) … when I say “fascist” or “Fascism” I mean something very specific, as well.

  1. steven augustine 

November 15, 2017 at 5:04 pm

@Devil:

““Her breasts were small and heavy, like bags of money.”

What kind of money? Bundles of 50s? Does he mean there were corners visible in the flesh? Or were her breasts filled with coins and sagging a bit with the awful, poorly-balanced weight of the metal (in rolls or randomly grouped)? I’ve yet to see a bag of money that looked like any of the breasts I’ve seen, in fact… the textures were all wrong, for a start.

Um… that is not a debate-closing example, Beelzebub….! Sorry!

Laugh

  1. The Devil 

November 15, 2017 at 5:24 pm

No, it was coins. “Her breasts were small and heavy, like bags of coins.”
Or was it money? Hmm.

*****

Look, I’m not going to engage you in an argument over subjective personal artistic tastes because I invented arguments over subjective personal artistic tastes and I know where they all go: straight to Hell. And since I have no intention of hanging out at a faculty mixer, I’m going to have to call this a day. Adieu.

  1. steven augustine 

November 15, 2017 at 5:33 pm

Devil!

I just want to know how you think comparing breasts to sacks of money is supposed to conjure (with admirable elegance and perfect justice), for the reader who is actually paying close attention to the words, human breasts of any shape or dimension? Well, it won’t. QED: not a rigorous use of language on Salter’s part there.

Too bad you don’t want to play anymore…!

  1. Herb Longley 

November 15, 2017 at 10:53 pm

Steven,

Well then by your definition I don’t think Salter is very middlebrow, at least relative to most writers. I don’t know if Devil is just taking the piss, but here’s an excerpt from “Last Night” about a dying woman:

“Certain memories are what you long to take with you, she thought, memories from even before Walter, from when she was a girl. Home, not this one but the original one with her childhood bed, the window on the landing out which she had watched the swirling storm of long ago winters, her father bending over her to say goodnight, the lamplight in which her mother was holding out a wrist, trying to fasten a bracelet.


That home. The rest was less dense. The rest was a long novel, so like your life; you were going through it without thinking and then one morning it ended: there were bloodstains.

Or from the end of the aforementioned “American Express,” in which [SPOILER], one of the two expat lawyer who has spirited away and statutorily raped a young Italian girl looks out his window in an evil post-coital bliss:

“[A young man in a cap] was going to get the rolls for breakfast. His life was simple. The air was pure and cold. He was part of that great, unchanging order of those who live by wages, whose world is unlit and who do not realize what is above.”

These are, by my estimation, good excerpts of Salter’s but by no means singular. He has, I think, an unusual knack for compressing both immediate sensual experience and, simultaneously, the sweep of people’s entire lives, into very short passages. I totally understand him not being to everyone’s taste–there is an unfashionable sense of tragic heroism in much of his writing that borders on grandiosity–he is not, to put it mildly, an ironic writer. And there’s the basic fact that he liked writing about the rich (though not, I think, without an accompanying perspective). But I do think there’s a quality and perceptiveness to the writing that defies a middlebrow, let alone bodice-ripper, classification.

  1. steven augustine 

November 16, 2017 at 1:57 am

Herb:

“I totally understand him not being to everyone’s taste–there is an unfashionable sense of tragic heroism in much of his writing that borders on grandiosity–he is not, to put it mildly, an ironic writer. And there’s the basic fact that he liked writing about the rich (though not, I think, without an accompanying perspective).”

What you refer to as a lack of irony, I’d call a middlebrow fear of ambiguity… and the grandiosity is another aspect of the ongoing flirtation with kitsch. “Bodice-ripper” language is language that relies on certain traditions of description (“swirling snow”), rendering a text very comfortable but also lacking electricity/ freshness/ surprises. There are very few surprises in Salter’s texts but I understand that his readers like that. Speaking of which: writing about the rich is often a middlebrow stylist’s duty, imposed by his/her readers’ taste for morality tales that hinge on matters of money (see Franzen’s “Purity”).

My point here is that a slightly-to-extremely more fastidious attention to language-for-its-own sake, wedded to narrative, can offer subtler pleasures than meat-and-potatoes storytelling. I’m talking about Prose with a little more Poetry in it. When Salter verges on the Poetic, he does so with comfortably broken-in language (comparing, for example, a chubby girl to a “Rubens”… or, even better, the girls in Salterville who are “loose-limbed”); the Poetry is so borrowed/ traditional that it loses in force what it gains in the ease with which it goes down or slips on. I like buying my shoes brand new; I expect and respect that initial discomfort.

Salter says, of his protag (a publisher: perfect), in All That Is,

“He knew that some of the best writers began as journalists and sometimes ended as journalists when the passion faded.”

Ha ha! No.

To borrow and tweak your own (classist) citation: “He was part of that great, unchanging order of those who love middlebrow books, whose world is unlit and who do not realize what is above.”

  1. Jack M 

November 16, 2017 at 8:19 am

I guess it’s cool to hate Salter now. How amusing.

  1. Herb Longley 

November 16, 2017 at 9:52 am

Steven,

“To borrow and tweak your own (classist) citation: ‘He was part of that great, unchanging order of those who love middlebrow books, whose world is unlit and who do not realize what is above.’ “

That’s a misreading of that passage, though–“American Express” meticulously tracks the moral degradation of these two men, to the point where the weaker (and more circumspect) of the two is able to feel okay, even smug, about the rape that his wealth facilitates. My experience with Salter is mostly in the stories (and A Sport and a Pastime), so maybe we’re talking past each other here, but I think reading him as an uncritical classist snob is a pretty gross misreading–I don’t detect any of that Fitzgeraldian servility to the rich in his stuff. I do think he liked writing about the wealthy because he liked writing about grand stuff–sex and death and betrayal and so on–and the rich provide a smooth canvas on which to work, unlike the poor, in which pesky things like bills and health insurance are always getting in the way. I wouldn’t want every writer to work Salter’s milieu, but I think it works for him.

As far as language goes, we’re agreed he’s not a grade-A stylist on the level of someone like, say, Bellow. I disagree that there aren’t surprises in his prose, but I also don’t think utter freshness of language is the entire game with him. Again, I think he has weird knack for compressing large swaths of life into a few sentences. It’s aesthetically both impressionistic and cinematic (to completely mix metaphors), and I can forgive the occasional swoony or stock phrase for the rare effect he sometimes achieves in the motion of his stories.

  1. steven augustine 

November 16, 2017 at 7:36 pm

@Jack M

Who said anything about hate? Hating James Salter would be like hating Herman Wouk, John Irving, Tom Wolfe or framed reproductions of the greatest hits of the French Impressionists, suitable for a breakfast nook. Everything has its place.

Herb!

Listen, I like Paul Theroux’s (pre-1990s) material well enough, and it is easily within the same tonal-range of Salter’s stuff, if slightly more explicitly bookish. I just think Theroux is (was) much better at metaphors; technical matters count, for me (which is why I can’t embrace unedited Ray Carver, or P.K. Dick, as powerful as Dick’s imagination was: those clunky sentences! I also consider Bellow wildly uneven: Henderson is *atrocious*… on a par with Gilligan’s Island). I can see people not noticing or giving a damn about such things and fair enough. But if you *do* take the trouble to notice literary mechanisms on that level, I feel that you will gain something as a reader… new levels of relish in the face of stronger texts. Or new appreciation for the bits of your fave writer’s that *do* work brilliantly (as opposed to her/his filler, blunders and rush-throughs).

And there’s just that whole category of The Filmable Middleclass American Novel that I’m bored with, really. The tone, the range, the value system. Bored with it. I suspect that it’s the fact that they’re rooted in a postwar affluence that many readers now have a phantom nostalgia for.

I’d rather hang with Vonnegut’s semi-dark tragicomedies if I’m going to look backward that unspectacular distance… or even to Malamud. If you ever get a chance to read “Pictures of Fidelman,” it’s a nice, midcentury, middlebrow book with a picaresque streak twisting through it. More imagination than Salter and a better class of Bohemian set-pieces.

  1. Herb Longley 

November 17, 2017 at 4:34 pm

Steven,

“But if you *do* take the trouble to notice literary mechanisms on that level, I feel that you will gain something as a reader… new levels of relish in the face of stronger texts.”

This is a pretty condescending formulation. I take a great deal of trouble to notice literary mechanisms, cliches, etc.–in fact, I do it for a living. Like you, I generally like or dislike books on the basis of the strength and freshness of their prose.

But I also sometimes encounter authors whose prose may be uneven or even trite in places, but who have certain strengths that counterbalance the presumptive prose deficit. Carver is an interesting example–his prose is dull as dirt (tactically, many would argue), but he has other virtues: among them, dry humor and a great ability to conjure a backdrop of the world’s casual violence. Salter is the same–I find his ability to capture enormous life tragedies/dramas in tiny blocks of prose somewhat singular.

On that point, we can disagree, but it isn’t because my sense of language isn’t refined enough, I don’t think. Likewise, my appreciation of, say, some of Spielberg’s movies is not predicated on an incomplete appreciation of Kubrick or Eisenstein.

  1. steven augustine 

November 18, 2017 at 6:35 am

Herb!

The Kubrick/Spielberg comparison is a good one. Spielberg’s films are populist fun, they have their place, but, for example, it’s hard to imagine Stanley Kubrick taking on The Holocaust, or the Arab/Israeli troubles, as Spielberg has, without showing lots of characters (or any characters) consumed by Hatred… the elision is absurd and renders Spielberg’s treatments of these subjects not-to-be-taken-seriously; he shows us insanity as a sanitized stand-in for Hatred in “Schindler’s List” and he shows us masculine honor and/or misguided ideology in “Munich” but no Racism or Hatred. In other words: his films (or these particular two), as texts, are not profound… whether or not they have interesting moments and are entertaining. I don’t know any committed cinephiles or filmmakers (I know three of those) who treasure Kubrick/Godard/Varda/ Farocki/Cassavetes and also rate Spielberg as anything better than populist pleasure. People have been so battered by *real* snobs (class-conscious elitists in gated communities and private schools) that they’re triggered by “snobbery,” in matters of culture (the arts/ lit) that isn’t snobbery at all… it’s the hierarchy of quality that we *all*, in some dimension, appreciate: which rappers are the best, which French horn players, which restaurants, which eye doctors and so on. You can nail your colors to the mast regarding Kendrick Lamar’s obvious superiority to Biz Markie/ Vanilla Ice without being called an Elitist, thankfully, but get specific regarding Spielberg/ Kubrick and you’re not likely to escape the E-word… and matters of Lit things are much, much touchier. But how can anyone read, eg, Harold Brodkey’s collection “Stories in an Almost Classical Mode” and then read Salter’s “Dusk and Other Stories” and be blown away by “Dusk…”? Brodkey’s attention to language goes beyond Salter’s good-but-standard approach; Salter wasn’t doing anything that hadn’t been done, when he got that collection published, in 50 years of New Yorker stories.

A good way into my critique of Salter’s hidden weaknesses is to have a closer look at some of the praise for him… like “The Devil’s” (back-firing) example of Salter’s breasts-as-bags-of-money simile up-thread: these examples show why Salter’s fans are fans but not, necessarily, that Salter is as good as they think. A gushing review in the New York Times, of “Dusk…”, says:

“But time and again, what could become mannered is redeemed by the precision of a writer who observes accurately and intensely. Here is New York as seen by one of the young lawyers in ”American Express”: ”The city was divided . . . into those going up and those coming down . . . those who waited and those who did not, those with three locks on the door and those rising in an elevator from a lobby with silver mirrors and walnut paneling.” Or consider his descriptions of various women: ”She looked like a young dog, the white of her eyes was that pure.” ”She was a woman who had read books, played golf, gone to weddings, whose legs were good, who had weathered storms, a fine woman whom no one now wanted.” ”She was flat-faced, like a fighter. She would be living in the trailer park. . . . Her kids would eat white bread in big, soft packages from the Woody Creek Store.”

I think that supposed praise is inadvertently damning of both Salter’s limited craft (and obvious prejudices) and the reviewer’s taste in stereotypes. And that “young dog” metaphor is just hilariously flat-footed… what a picayune point of correspondence on which to justify comparing the woman’s face to a dog’s! And that up-and-down New York (with walnut paneling) line: too general, banal and obvious, to be of any interest. What major city *doesn’t* feature both rich and poor? And isn’t there a more incisive way to characterize both? Isn’t there a deeper way, with a few strokes, into a character, than telling us her legs are sturdy, she’s been to weddings and played golf? This ain’t remarkable writing.

Again: Salter’s work has a place on the mountain. But at (or near) its top? I think he and Spielberg are fine where they are: half-way up. And we can, gloriously, agree to disagree on that! I suppose we must, in fact.

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR [letters are vetted for cogency and style]

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s