Author: James Salter

Publisher: University of Virginia Press

ISBN: 978-0-8139-3905-6

James Salter got tagged a "writer's writer," i.e., a writer whose use of language, insights into the human condition, ability to create art but whose books don't become best sellers. Richard Ford, in an introduction to Salter's reissued novel Light Years, wrote: "It is an article of faith among readers of fiction that James Salter writes American sentences better than anybody writing today." Salter had been a combat fighter pilot in WWII and in the Korean War, and resigned from the Air Force after eleven years to write full time. He wrote screenplays, short stories, and novels and six months before he died at ninety in 2015 he gave three lectures at the University of Virginia, now published as The Art of Fiction with an introduction by John Casey. The lectures are titled, "The Art of Fiction," "Writing Novels," and "Life into Art." 

Salter asks, Why write? For money? Recognition? A sense of importance? As the jacket writer notes, "Confronting a blank sheet that always offers too many choices, practicing a vocation that often demands one write instead of live, the answer for Salter was creating a style that captured experiences, in a world where anything not written down fades away."

Because Salter is so interesting—far more interesting than a review of his thoughts—let me simply quote from the lectures rather than attempt a precis of their contents:

"Over the years I've never found myself truly intimate or comfortable for a long period with people who don't read or have never read. For me, it's an essential. Something is missing in them otherwise, breadth of reference, sense of history, a common chord. Film is too simple . . . "

"I don't know where the urge to write comes from. I don't believe it's inborn, but it comes early. I had no daemon in me, as Faulkner said he had, nor D.H. Lawrence, but there are writers who have no daemon . . . In any case, genius is unto itself . . ."

"Actually, I don't think anyone can teach you how to write a novel, or if they can, not in an hour. It's difficult to write novels. You have to have the idea and the characters, although additional characters may appear to you as you go. You need the story. You need, if I can put it this way, the form . . . "

"I try to write regularly. I have difficulty beginning each day. If I can leave myself a line or a few words to help me take it up again, it goes much better. The day sometimes goes well. More often it doesn't. I'm reconciled to the certainty that I'll be disappointed in what I've written. I write when I don't feel like it, but not when it revulses me . . ." 

You can read The Art of Fiction in an hour or so, but it is the distillation of a writer's life experiences. It is a book every writer of fiction should read, think about, look up the writers Salter admires, read them, reread Salter, and think about one's writing.