Is good writing enough? Depends on your bifocals …

Boston T

Boston T (Photo credit: Premshree Pillai)

I have loved James Salter‘s books for twenty-plus years. I read Light Years,  Solo Faces, and A Sport and a Pastime in my early twenties, commuting on the T. The sentences! The imagery! I was rapt. I babbled on about him to anyone who would listen. Once, if I’m not mistaken, I missed the social cues of a total stranger who commented on the jacket design but was, in retrospect, probably trying to connect with me on a more, ah, visceral, level.

And this past spring, his novel All That Is was released. It came out before my birthday; I put it on my wish list, and it was the first gift I sat down to savor.

His sentences: still gorgeous. Imagery, check. Felt like I was “in the book?” Not so much. I’m well past the mid-point of my life; my most strident days are, at least for the moment, in the past (though I’ve also learned to never say never ‘cuz then next thing you know your veggie husband’s going all carnivore because carbs are bad and the auto-pilot grocery shopping that used to take twenty minutes morphs into a meander through the meat department, truly a foreign land for a former vegetarian). But I could not relate to Salter’s characters: primarily men, who bed women, who find their physical satisfactions in women, who strive for things that strike me as — dare I say it? — superficial. No amount of gorgeous writing can sustain my interest in a story that I don’t connect with. At least not this year.

A writer I respect noted that because Salter is from a different era, we thus have to grant his work some leeway vis-a-vis our standards of equality, etc.  Despite his sexist-by-today’s-standards representation of the world, my colleague continued, he’s one of the great writers.

Stack of Books

Stack of Books (Photo credit: KristinNador)

This set me to puzzling. I agree that those from different temporal and geographic points in human civilizations cannot be held to the social mores and standards of our own. Nonetheless, the idea that great writing can be such solely because of its  craftsmanship unsettled me. Can a book that leaves me completely cold be “great” for me? Do I have to be wrong about its qualities? Or are those of us who write, and who read the recommended Works of Great Literature just fooling ourselves into imagining there’s an objective standard by which Literature can be judged? That if one doesn’t like author X, it’s because we don’t get it, rather than that perhaps author X isn’t, in all circumstances and in all their works, Great. And what the heck: who’s great all the time? Not me. Glass houses and all that.

My puzzling led me to decide that I don’t quibble with the quality of Salter’s writing. But I’m done spending time with authors who build worlds where women, non-Caucasians,  young men,  hippies, potheads, whoever — don’t resonate with me by page one hundred. And I will give any author a hundred pages: I liken this to the point made by David James Poissant in his essay, “I Want to Be Friends with Republicans” (Nov. 3 2013 New York Times.) It takes time to get to know someone, and we’re all more than One Issue. I read to immerse myself in other worlds, and I have been surprised more than once by initially-offensive characters whose authors lead me to places of unexpected wellsprings of empathy within myself.

Small Beauties

Small Beauties (Photo credit: ecstaticist)

We find meaning where we see it, and just because someone else resonates with an essay, poem, novel, or short story doesn’t mean we will, or that we should. We should seek meaning for ourselves, connections between ourselves and others, sustenance for ourselves — sustenance to carry us through  whatever tedium our daily labors entail, sustenance for us to give thanks for the thousand small beauties inherent in our lives.

I don’t care, anymore, if, for you, it’s Great Literature or formulaic romance. I do care that we find our connections wheresoever they are, and that we even aspire to such seeking.

And this leads me to an unpleasant discovery: in the darker corners of my soul, I want my interpretation of what stories should do to be Right. To be The Way to Interpret Literature. I don’t want to allow that your Favorite Great Writer might be mediocre to me. Oh! My hypocrisy hast bitten me squarely on my rump yet again!


Anna Quindlen

Anna Quindlen (Photo credit: Angela Radulescu)

With this conundrum in the forefront of my mind, I browsed my bookshelf for guidance. I found it in Anna Quindlen‘s succinct, slender book, How Reading Changed My Life:

Reading has as many functions as the human body, and … not all of them are cerebral. … And if readers use words and stories as much, or more, to lessen human isolation as to expand human knowledge, is that somehow unworthy, invalid, and unimportant?

Nope. Whatever eases your journey is worthy, valid and important. I wish for you today at least a haiku’s-worth of beauty and connection. Or a limerick’s-worth, if that serves you better.

3 responses to “Is good writing enough? Depends on your bifocals …

  1. I too have loved Salter’s writing but there was something about it that bothered me. It took awhile to articulate it but I have at last, I think figured it out. It seems to me that in his fiction sex is a weapon, used to conquer or vanquish. There is a winner and a loser; usually the man is the winner, the woman’s role is to surrender. Not much fun in that kind of transaction, and no love at all.

  2. Les, thank you for this– it hit me well.


    Sent from my iPad


  3. My arms are up to shield myself from the tomatoes, but… I have not read James Salter. And I don’t think good writing is enough, not if the story doesn’t resonate. Though I may appreciate the craftsmanship, I can’t enjoy even great sentences if they don’t speak to me. And I’m done with the shoulda’s. So someone tells me an author is great, and I hear it over and over again, and I think, OK, I should read this writer, I should at least familiarize myself with his or her work, then it just *becomes* work if the characters or plotting or setting or whatever doesn’t resonate. I’m finally getting to the point where I realize, hey, we don’t have to like every “great” writer any more than we have to like every “great” artist. I think that’s the nature of any art form – it will blow some people’s minds, while others say “ho hum.” And that’s okay.

    In other words, I think your last statements are perfect: “Whatever eases your journey is worthy, valid and important.” Amen sister.

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