The Breakfast Table

How To Read Tyrannically

Dear Martha,

This may surprise you, but I’m not happy to see Salter walk away a free man. I mean, is he now your favorite living writer again, just like that? Are you going to start urgently pressing his memoir on friends, like it’s the new Speak, Memory? I’ll take Judge Jackson’s stoutness over your leniency any day.

See, I think you were really onto something there, about how we react to the glints we get of an artist’s character. No, as we now agree, a memoirist doesn’t have to be perfectly honest with us. And judging a writer is a purely subjective, inherently squishy activity.

(We don’t really know Salter, do we? We just know this persona he’s created. In fact, since that’s not even his real name, I wonder how real a person he is. A delightful salt-of-the-earth fellow named James Horowitz may have been working all these years to create a somewhat shifty individual named “James Salter” for our amusement and instruction. Your reaction could be just what he intended. I know this is farfetched, but I’m having fun spinning it out.)

My point is, you’re the emperor of your own reading world. It’s one of the only worlds where we all enjoy absolute power, and we should luxuriate in it. If, for the multiple reasons you now cite, “James Salter” turned you off, then I say banish him to your own private Siberia. You are the law, my dear.

Speaking of living writers, let me move on to the late Ted Hughes. My last message yesterday had a riff about the poet and his equally late wife, Sylvia Plath. I said that when I read Plath, I tend to cut her a lot of slack, that I don’t let her alleged real-life character flaws intrude much on the work—because she’s dead. But I said Hughes doesn’t get the same treatment, because he “is still walking the earth.”  

Well, now the world knows how closely I follow the British poetry scene. Ted Hughes died last October. Within what seemed to be moments of my message’s posting, a startling missive appeared in “The Fray” (have you gone there yet? We’re super-unpopular. In fact, you’re now the Luvvy Howell of American journalism, thanks to your Olympian embrace of that sweet homemade Denver newspaper). A reader named MBianchi informed me, with excellent dryness, that Hughes is dead so I can now cut him some slack. MBianchi also forwarded a Hughes obit. Slate instantly cut the Plath/Hughes passage.

I love MBianchi for this. And I love that we live in a world where the obits of poets are flying through the air all day.

Since this is probably my last message, I want to say I’ve also loved being here with you, and with all the MBianchis who were kind enough to join us. I hope we were decent company.