The Empty Sky of Morning

June 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

This blue, indolent town. Its cats. Its pale sky. The empty sky of morning, drained and pure. Its deep, cloven streets. Its narrow courts, the faint, rotten odor within, orange peels lying in the corners.

-A Sport and a Pastime (1967)

James Salter will wear the dreaded “writer’s writer” label forever now that the New York Times has used it in the backhanded headline of his obituary, and I suppose it is apt; I learned about his work from the praise he received from other writers. He is a writer best read in sentences rather than scenes or plots; still, his Paris Review interview leads off by praising him as a “consummate storyteller.” A Sport and a Pastime has a lot of close-up sex in it, but it also has lines like the above, which give weight in tight, clipped phrasings (“Its cats”) and uses adjectives the way they are supposed to be used. Salter had a word for his method, and appropriately it comes from the French:

I’m a frotteur, someone who likes to rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them, to wonder if that really is the best word possible. Does that word in this sentence have any electric potential? Does it do anything? Too much electricity will make your reader’s hair frizzy. There’s a question of pacing. You want short sentences and long sentences—well, every writer knows that. You have to develop a certain ease of delivery and make your writing agreeable to read.

–The Art of Fiction No. 133


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