Friday, September 06, 2013

The J. D. Salinger "industry" cares mostly about the celebrity that the author couldn't escape -- fortunately, we still have the work


Salinger appeared on the cover of Time for Sept. 15, 1961.

by Ken

One thing I don't know about the level of public interest in the Case of J. D. Salinger is whether younger people share the fascination bordering on obsession -- wait, what "bordering on"? -- that we older folks do. The fact that it's still possible to sell new supposed revelations about the life-and-work (but mostly the life), like the new book and movie by whatever-their-names-are (I'm really not all that eager to hop on their promotional bandwagon) suggests: maybe so. But I'm inclined to think that the fascination is still skewed toward people old enough to at least know who the heck the guy was.

Among whom are a certain hard core of partisans who know his work, and treasure it. I'm not sure it's even necessary to attempt a distinction between those who know his work and those who love it. Because there is, alas, so little of it, it has become possible, perhaps even inevitable, to know it at least superficially a little too well, and to start to take it for granted, and the thing I like best about the post Adam Gopnik has put up on ("Who Was J. D. Salinger?" -- though the title line on the Web page is more descriptive: "Cutting and Pasting J. D. Salinger") is that it takes us back squarely to the writing, and reinforces everything that's so cherishable about it.

I'm going to jump to Gopnik's conclusion:
[I]f you want to grasp why silence is so appealing to artists whose audience has grown too loud -- John Lennon himself withdrew for many years, then tried peeking out again, with the tragic results we know -- here it is. Indeed, the great advantage of the whole new episode is this: from now on, if you want to understand why the young J. D. Salinger fled New York publishing, fanatic readers, eager biographers, disingenuous interpreters, character assassination in the guise of "scholarship," and the literary world generally, you need only open this book.
It is, apparently, unfair of me to suggest that the authors are merely out to sensationalize Salinger's life, especially the longer part of it when he wasn't writing, or at least writing for publication (the part of his life that has come to dominate the Case of J. D. Salinger). Apparently they also have some theories about the writing. For example, that Mark David Chapman, the murderer of John Lennon, who claimed to have derived his motive for the crime from Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, was in fact responding to a streak of violence in that ubiquitous teen classic. And more generally, Salinger's work grows out of P.T.S.D. from his service in France in WWII. Gopnik disposes of these notions pretty easily, for the simple reason that there's hardly anything to them. He draws the obvious conclusion from the fact that these authors take the Salinger-Chapman connection seriously, before going on to make the point that --
Salinger as writer, or craftsman, or just listener -- with a perfect ear for the sound of American mid-century speech -- is invisible throughout. The subject of the book and documentary is not Salinger the writer but Salinger the star: exactly the identity he spent the last fifty years of his life trying to shed. Cast entirely in terms of celebrity culture and its discontents, every act of Salinger's is weighed as though its primary purpose was to push or somehow extend his "reputation" -- careerism is simply assumed as the only motive a writer might have. If he withdraws from the world, well, what could be more of a come on? If it turns out that he hasn't entirely withdrawn from the world but has actually participated in it happily enough on his own terms: well, didn't we tell you the whole recluse thing was an act? This kind of scrutiny might possibly say something about a writer like Mailer, whose loudest energies (if not his best ones) were spent playing in the public square, not to mention Macy's windows. But it couldn't be worse suited to a writer like Salinger, the spell of whose work is cast, after all, entirely by the micro-structure of each sentence -- on choosing to italicize this word, rather than that; on describing a widower's left rather than right hand; on the ear for dialogue and the feeling for detail; above all, on the jokes. (Salinger, as Wilfrid Sheed long ago pointed out in the best thing ever written about his style, was first of all a humorist, trained on other humorists. The two writers who meant the most to Salinger, Ring Lardner and Scott Fitzgerald, seem left largely, if not completely, out of the book's discussion -- though Hemingway, the celebrity writer whom he briefly courted but never imitated, is made much of. A book about J. D. Salinger with no Ring Lardner in it, one can say with certainty, is a book about something other than J. D. Salinger.)
I'm embarrassed to say, as a Lardner compulsive, that the connection never occurred to me, I guess because the Lardner legacy was applied in such a different way. But this is unquestionably interesting.

What we're left with is an alleged book that's really a cut-and-paste job of things other people have written about Salinger -- some more sensible than others, but with whatever sense there was left out of the authors' "chop shop" method. Gopnik goes on:
Shields, of course, has written an entire testament, the manifesto-like book called "Reality Hunger," in defense of the chop-shop approach to prose, with a high-minded po-mo appeal to the constant recycling of other people's words as itself a kind of originality. Like many other capitalist ventures, though, this involves taking intricate handiwork done by other people, breaking it up, and selling it off again without permission, not to mention payment. If you have persuaded yourself that invention and recycling are the same thing, then you can't begin to make sense of someone who would spend seven or eight hours a day laboring over a single line. This puts you in terrible shape with a writer like Salinger, who feels his entire life at stake over a semi-colon. What can he be doing all day in his "bunker" except stewing over his obsessions?

Throughout book and film both, the focus is leeringly on Salinger's presumed oddities, the authors of this book seeming never to have met any others. That the writer who can be contagiously charming on the page might be actually rather ornery and difficult to live with is a revelation only to one who has never spoken to a writer's spouse. And an urge to escape from the world, far from being an aberrant impulse driven by neurosis, or shame at an anatomical oddity, is just part of what American writers have always been up to. E. B. White, as Sheed points out, beat Salinger to the north country by a decade, for similar reasons, while Thomas Merton became a major literary figure in those same fifties by going into a honest-to-God monastery and publishing his stuff from there.

What is true is that Salinger, through no fault or even an act of his own, save publishing a book whose reception no one could have anticipated, became the victim/beneficiary of the kind of hyper-fame that usually gets reserved for singers and actors. Seen that way, there is little that's peculiar or pathological about Salinger's retreat, though much in it that's sad. A book about a week in the life of a sensitive, observant kid -- affectionately viewed by the author, as one might a teen-age son or a younger brother, but hardly idolized -- became a bible to a whole generation. (The ironies could not have eluded the author, since the one thing that a loner like Holden doesn't want to be is the voice of a generation -- his contemporaries being the very thing he has most contempt for.)

That the book gave Salinger the real, mind-bending, freak-out kind of fame early on was a blessing in certain respects -- one important reason that he didn't publish was because he didn't have to. It was a curse in most others, however, since it created the circumstance in which a parade of random stalkers felt free to come up to his driveway and ask him to tell them how to run their lives. His trouble was that the writing was him, or seemed to be, in the sense that the stories gave an impression, however misleading, of being personal sources of wisdom, judgment, or good advice. Most people who get this treatment retreat to a Graceland or Neverland. Salinger retreated to New Hampshire. (Philip Roth got the treatment for a period after "Portnoy," and it was so disconcerting -- success on such a scale being "as baffling as misfortune" -- that he wrote a couple of novels just about what it felt like.) For what it's worth, the movie suggests that Salinger responded to most of the stalkers with surprising generosity, trying to explain to them that he was a fiction writer, not a guru. It didn't help him, either.
There's not much we can do about the parasitic industry that has built up around Salinger. And if we've absorbed the disappointment, at this remove from his death, that there would turn out to be a buried treasure trove of unpublished Salinger work, that doesn't change the fact that we still have the existing body of precious work.


For a "Sunday Classics" fix anytime, visit the stand-alone "Sunday Classics with Ken."

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