James Salter Is as Good as Roth, Updike, or Ford. So Why Isn’t He Popular?

A column about life, culture, and politics.
March 28 2013 4:10 PM

The Greatest Novelist You Haven’t Read

James Salter is as good as Roth, Updike, or Ford. So why isn’t he popular?

Author James Salter.
Author James Salter at his home in Bridgehampton, N.Y.

Photo by Ed Betz/AP

It is one of the eccentricities of American publishing that James Salter has not been widely embraced as a great writer. His books are as good as those of post-war novelists like John Updike, Philip Roth, Richard Ford, and critics have often said so, and yet he is nowhere near as beloved or popularly read. He is frequently referred to as a “writer’s writer,” which sounds terrible, as if he writes effete, airless sentences, as if his novels and stories were obscure poetic exercises, but none of that is true. His writing is as muscular, as clear, as accessible, as lively as those other writers, and yet he is still somehow relegated to that dreary shelf of “writer’s writers,” but even writers have often never bothered to read him.

Katie Roiphe Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages and In Praise of Messy Lives.

All of this may change with his fantastic new novel, All That Is, which he is publishing at the age of 88, clearly at the top of his game. Still, it’s worth thinking about why his books have never quite caught on. One reason may be that his view of love is too stark, too uncomfortable, too challenging for broader American consumption. In the work of other heralded great male novelists, love vanishes and is lost, people cheat and run off, but those novelists don’t question love, or press down on its latent tragedies and accidents and randomness with the quite the same relentlessness that Salter does.

All That Is contains a brilliant indictment of love, even as it revels in its sensual transports. Its hero, Philip Bowman, is a war veteran, and then a successful publisher. He passes through one marriage and many affairs. (Salter writes of one of them “They made love like it was a violent crime.”) He brings to the novel a rich, odd perspective, as if he is watching life down here from a very distant planet. He pins down the delusions of pressing human attachments (“Everything he had wanted to be, she was offering him”), and examines how these attachments can be so urgent and so seemingly singular and so fleeting.

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It is perhaps not an accident that Salter would publish this very beautiful book at the age of 88. He senses the end in beginnings, applies the acquired wisdom of years, the terrifying perspective of accumulated experience, to the ordinary goings on of the heart. He writes, “There was a time, usually late in August, when summer struck the trees with dazzling power and they were rich with leaves but then became, suddenly one day, strangely still, as if in expectation and at that moment aware. They knew… The sun was at its zenith and embraced the world, but it was ending, all that one loved was at risk.”

It is in that mood of expansive exaltation and impending doom that Salter elegantly scrutinizes his hero’s affairs. He writes of the pretty blonde Bowman marries: “He loved her for not only what she was but what she might be, the idea that she might be otherwise did not occur to him or did not matter. Why would it occur? When you love you see a future according to your dreams.”

On their wedding day, Salter writes with his usual precision: “Bowman was happy or felt he was, she was his, a beautiful woman or girl.” The writing is so simple, and yet there is a shadow, the loss before the fact, the tenuousness and fragility of identity. It’s that line, “Bowman was happy or felt he was” that haunts. Here, as elsewhere, Salter interrogates our perceptions of love: Were you happy, or did you just feel like you were happy?

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