In his memoir, Burning the Days (1997), James Salter tells a story about an encounter between William Faulkner and an officer from the local airbase in Greenville, Mississippi in the early 1950s. They talk of the excitement of flying, and Faulkner drunkenly reminisces about his days as a pilot in France during the First World War. He then offers to write a story about the Air Force in exchange for being allowed a ride in a jet. The officer puts this proposal to his base commander who barks back: 'Who's Faulkner?' Another writer might have made more of the fact that Faulkner was lying (he was still training in Canada when the war ended), but Salter generously concludes that Faulkner had related his imaginary war exploits so often that he had come to believe in them. In choosing to emphasise instead the commander's ignorance, Salter turns the story into a wry reflection on writerly fame. His own output (slight by Faulknerian standards) of six novels, one short-story collection and a memoir has earned him much more praise than celebrity: he is called a 'writer's writer', which means that writers whose books sell better than his publicly deplore his comparative obscurity. James Wolcott has described him as 'our most underrated underrated writer'.
LRB 5 February 2004 | PDF Download