Big Books, Literary Misogyny, and James Salter’s All That Is

When I read a book like James Salter’s All That Is that no-one else I know is reading, I wonder whether to blog about it. I blog to have a conversation; in this case, will I just be talking to myself? So I’ve tried to connect my review to some online conversations that were on my mind as I read, to give you a way in to discussion even if the book itself is of no interest to you. Also this is going to be kind of a mess, because I’m really tired but I want to post something.

All That Is covers 40 years in the life of Philip Bowman, from his WWII naval service through a career in publishing, into late middle age. Despite the grand title and the historical scope, it’s not a long book (it’s just shy of 300 pages). But it is a big book, thematically, and as I read I thought of a recent Twitter discussion about whether any book needed to be over 1000 pages, because Salter’s book has many of the qualities (to me they aren’t faults) that people criticized big books for: there isn’t a clear plot arc; there all kinds of episodes and characters that don’t lead anywhere, or anywhere obvious. Bowman may be the central character (he’s certainly not a hero, and I hesitate even to describe him as a protagonist), but the point of view shifts among many characters, including some who appear only briefly. Arguably, most of the novel is composed of meandering byways. Lisa Zeidner describes it as “a plaintive, impressionistic look at how we live in time, how little we ever understand about the amorphous shape of our own lives,” and I think that sums it up well. I can see how the episodic, open-ended nature of the book and the lack of a coherent character arc would drive some readers crazy, but it’s purposeful and for me was powerful. 

My favorite review (I read a bunch, since I didn’t have anyone to discuss the book with) is Rob Sharp’s in The IndependentSharp, too, talks about the way Salter depicts the passage of time: “Description functions like an accordion, in which pages can concertina to decades or minutes as the plot demands.” And why not, because some moments in our lives are more memorable, more significant, than whole years. And what’s significant isn’t always what you’d think. A snatch of conversation between Bowman and one of the writers he edits gets as much page space as his divorce.

I loved this structure, and the way, as Sharp also notes, “The book’s tempered language places the profound and commonplace side by side, affording tragedy the same impact as commuters in traffic; failed marriages are described with the regularity of meals.” This kind of realism is in keeping with Salter’s epigraph, which suggests that “only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.” This is a book by a man in his 80s, and it has an elegiac quality, looking back over a life and attempting to give it shape and meaning.

Bowman’s life, though, is rather empty. He has what appears to be a reasonably successful career in the clubby world of mid-20th-century New York literary publishing (though we don’t see much of it). He reads and goes to parties and rents weekend houses in the Hamptons or upstate. But none of the many houses and hotel rooms the novel dwells in and on become a home. His marriage fails, and subsequent relationships don’t last; he often seems to fall for women who are still “sort of” married to someone else, and who don’t find him worth cutting that tie for. The narrative is emotionally muted and keeps us at a distance from Bowman (as it always refers to him), reflecting his unspoken loneliness and isolation. 

If Bowman looks for meaning anywhere, it’s in sex. And therein lay the rub in this novel, for me. Well, it isn’t just sex, really. As Zeidler points out, Bowman falls in love and is drawn to domestic pleasures. Here he is visiting a married couple, for instance:

From the pair of them Bowman felt a strong pull towards connubial life, joined life, somewhere in the country, the early morning, misty fields, the snake in the garden, tortoise in the woods. Against that there was the city with its myriad attractions, art, carnality, the amplification of desires.

Passages like this made me regret I had to rush through the novel’s second half before it returned itself to the online library. You have to dwell in those sentences, ponder them. Is that snake in the garden symbolic? (Come on, how could it not be?) In so many of the relationships this book depicts, someone is tempted away. And the phrase harks back to the scene where Bowman’s future wife takes him home to meet her father: Bowman thinks he sees a snake go into the ivy, and Vivian snatches up a rake, wades in and starts whacking away (no snake ever appears). 

Perhaps this scene reflects Bowman’s concern that in some way he isn’t man enough. In the opening scenes of the book, when he’s a young sailor, he both welcomes the authority, the chance for meaningful action, and fears he won’t measure up–he’s still a virgin, for one thing. Sexual desire is really what makes him fall in love; all the women he loves are beautiful, and it’s not ever clear to me why else he loves them. And in sex, at least sometimes, he finds affirmation and a sense of power. Bowman’s focus on sex is explained in generational terms:

The great hunger of the past was for food, there was never enough food and the majority of people were undernourished or starving, but the new hunger was for sex, there was the same specter of famine without it.

My own feeling is that sex is great and all, and I’m glad to have it in my life, but to treat it as a kind of holy grail, the most meaningful part of life, seems kind of boring and shallow. Your mileage may vary.

There is a rather clickbaity and definitely spoilery debate between Roxana Robinson and Katie Roiphe at Slate (I mean seriously, the URL text is “james salter is/is not a sexist”). I think Robinson, in particular, is conflating the author and the character and neither of their posts is all that thoughtful or nuanced. But obviously other people noticed the issue. Even Sharp’s laudatory review dings Salter for some “clunky” writing about women and sex; that’s not the word I’d use for a sentence like “She was lively and wanted to talk, like a wind-up doll, a little doll that also did sex.”

Reading All That Is made me think about criticisms I often see from romance readers (and not only from them) of literary fiction by men and the way it treats female characters. There are female characters who get a point of view here, but the women seemed to me, for the most part, less fully realized than the men. I don’t know that I’d say Bowman objectifies women, but he does see them primarily in terms of their desirability as possible sex partners. And there is one scene where he takes a troubling sexualized “revenge” on an innocent party. On the other hand, here we have a man who finds in love and domesticity the most important moments of his life, even though he consistently fails at them. And the affirmation he finds in sex comes as much from being desired and showing he can give a woman pleasure as from seeking his own pleasure.

I think the distance of the narrative from Bowman creates space in which we can decide for ourselves how to judge his actions. I don’t agree with Robinson that we are necessarily meant to admire, celebrate or like him. I have also read books by women, for women (i.e. some romance novels) that defined “manliness” more or less as Bowman does, in terms of a man’s sexual desirability, his ability to make a woman desire to submit to him. And in those books, unlike Salter’s, I am asked to see the man as a hero, to admire him. Here there was no expectation that I identify so closely. I’m still disentangling my feelings, but my discomfort about some of the ways women were portrayed in the novel didn’t outweigh the things I loved. I’m glad I (belatedly) discovered Salter.

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10 Responses to Big Books, Literary Misogyny, and James Salter’s All That Is

  1. merriank says:

    Not a book I am likely to read but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying reading about your reflections on your experience of reading the book and applying your thinking to the latest aliens and earth girl finding love story I am reading.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks, Merrian! I was partly thinking about how genre shapes our expectations. I don’t think I’d appreciate a romance (maybe SFF?) structured like this book. In genre fiction, I expect a plot/character arc and–at least in romance and mystery–I expect all the elements to contribute to that. The aim of the book and my purpose in reading is different. And I like that variety. I’ve been reading a much wider range of books again and finding it very rewarding; I get different things from different books, and I want them all.

  2. Sunita says:

    This is such a fantastic post. As I said on Twitter, I haven’t read this yet, but I’ve read most or all of Salter’s other novels, and you’ve totally nailed what makes his books so compelling for me. It must be those years of thinking about literary content and style in a systematic way. 😉 Salter is as good as anyone I’ve ever read (especially in contemporary fiction) at mixing the quotidian with the extraordinary in such a way that they are both equally important (if that makes sense).

    I agree completely that his women are less well realized than the men. I think this is because he doesn’t really explore what he doesn’t feel he can properly inhabit. He works from the inside out, and he doesn’t really get women. But I feel as if he’s very up front about that (unlike some other highly regarded male authors of the 20thC). Women are seen through the lens of the men who narrate and are the center of his stories. I think the emphasis on sex is because (a) that’s what men think about a lot; and (b) it’s a metric of success but also of being fully alive and engaged in the world; maybe it’s men’s connection to being alive the way emotional engagement works for (many) women. The role of sex is central dating from his breakout novel, A Sport and a Pastime, which he had a hard time getting published.

    Your point on big v. long books is spot on, too. When I was looking at the lengths of various books I thought of as “big,” I discovered that many of them were much shorter than I remembered, more like 400-700 pages than 1000. But they read like longer books; you linger over them, you immerse yourself, you think about them in between the times you’re actually absorbing the words. These days I read any number of genre books that are 300-500 pages, but most don’t feel quite like that to me. I think that’s why I’ve been putting off reading this book (aside from the fact that it’s likely the last Salter novel, given his age and writing pace): I want to immerse myself in it. I still remember the experience of reading several of his other ones, in terms of where I was and how it felt.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thank you, and thanks so much for introducing me to Salter!

      As you said on Twitter, I do feel I’m getting a (certain) male point of view in a way that helps me understand and to some extent appreciate/sympathize with it, even though it is quite alien. And that’s one reason I read. He definitely reminds me of Richard Ford, about whom I feel the same. I know some people say you can get the male POV anywhere, and sure, but seldom this thoughtfully.

      One review I read contrasted Salter with Hemingway’s version of masculinity and I remembered Richard Ford’s story collection WOMEN WITH MEN (vs. Hemingway’s MEN WITHOUT WOMEN). Ford and–at least here–Salter seem to me to be writing a male version of the domestic novel; these men want connection but don’t really know how to get it. (Interesting that real estate comes up in both–what’s a home?). I’m going to buy this and press it on my husband, who loves Ford. I want to know what he thinks (a male point of view on masculinity from a male point of view, I guess?)

      Anyway, this was a great reading experience and I will seek out more.

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this book, Liz. It’s on my TBR list and on a list of possibilities for one of my book clubs. It looks like there would be lots to discuss and I get a mixed-gender crowd at that book club, so I’m eager to hear both the female and male POV on any misogyny in the book.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think it would make a good book-club book. It’s really a fast read, but with lots to discuss. And as an essentially “domestic” novel from a male point of view, I think it has something to offer a variety of readers/tastes. If you do discuss it, I’d love to hear how it goes!

  4. Janine Ballard says:

    But it is a big book, thematically, and as I read I thought of a recent Twitter discussion about whether any book needed to be over 1000 pages, because Salter’s book has many of the qualities (to me they aren’t faults) that people criticized big books for: there isn’t a clear plot arc; there all kinds of episodes and characters that don’t lead anywhere, or anywhere obvious. Bowman may be the central character (he’s certainly not a hero, and I hesitate even to describe him as a protagonist), but the point of view shifts among many characters, including some who appear only briefly.

    I don’t recall making those criticisms myself, and I wanted to clarify that I don’t dislike any of them. In fact a book like this very effectively makes one of the points I tried to make in that discussion — that it is possible to include a lot without going over a thousand pages.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I hope this didn’t come off as “sub-blogging” you! I was thinking not about your points per se but of the conversation your tweets and op-ed post started.

      A number of the comments/things people said they disliked had me thinking about how reading a lot of genre shapes our expectations of what a book should be/do (e.g. “start with action!”). There is plenty in here that some readers would probably see as flab/loose ends, despite the overall leanness of the book. I had to re-adjust my own expectations as I read it.

      In some ways it reminded me of William Boyd’s ANY HUMAN HEART (which, OK, is about 500 pages, not 1000), which also covers a life–and is much longer. Or of Anthony Powell’s DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME (which is 12 short-ish books covering the lives of a group of school friends). So I guess I would say that this kind of scope (decades of a life) CAN be done in a short book, but doing it in a longer book isn’t necessarily worse or a weakness. Just different.

  5. Janine Ballard says:

    A number of the comments/things people said they disliked had me thinking about how reading a lot of genre shapes our expectations of what a book should be/do (e.g. “start with action!”).

    I think literary fiction is also a genre, but I agree inasmuch as I think reading largely in one genre has shaped my expectations and not always in good ways. I try to mix it up within that genre in various ways, and occasionally outside it, but there’s a limit to how much of that i can or even always want to do, between my slow reading speed, my reviewing for DA, and my desire to keep current with what’s coming out. Sometimes I miss the days when I read what caught my fancy without regard to such considerations.

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