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J.D. Salinger: a voice in search of a story

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Salinger_with_Erik_Ross.jpgThe mystique of J.D. Salinger's isolation, and the enduring popularity of The Catcher in the Rye - along with the consequent public fascination with his freakishness and super-success - often eclipse Salinger's writing itself.  

Perhaps the man intended some such result.  As Lillian Ross recalls in The New Yorker:

Over the years, Salinger told me about . . . trying to stay away from everything that was written about him. He didn't care about reviews, he said, but "the side effects" bothered him. "There are no writers anymore," he said once. "Only book-selling louts and big mouths."
Plainly, the less examination of his writing, the better.

Salinger stopped publishing a short while after the critics turned on him.  As Janet Maslin recounts in The New York Review of Books, "[b]y the late Fifties, . . . Salinger was no longer the universally beloved author of The Catcher in the Rye; he was now the seriously annoying creator of the Glass family."  

Maslin goes on to rehabilitate Salinger from the condemnations of John Updike, Joan Didion and Mary McCarthy among others:

Today "Zooey" does not seem too long, and is arguably Salinger's masterpiece.  Rereading it and its companion piece "Franny" is no less rewarding than rereading The Great Gatsby. It remains brilliant and is in no essential sense dated.  It is the contemporary criticism that has dated . . . [and] now seems magnificently misguided.
And, in the aftermath of Salinger's recent death, many - including Michiko Kakutani, Adam Gopnik, and Charles McGrath - have published laudatory assessments of his talent and work: 

  • Kakutani in The New York Times:  What really knocked readers out about "The Catcher in the Rye" was the wonderfully immediate voice that J. D. Salinger fashioned for Holden Caulfield - a voice that enabled him to channel an alienated 16-year-old's thoughts and anxieties and frustrations, a voice that skeptically appraised the world and denounced its phonies and hypocrites and bores.
  • Gopnick in The New Yorker: Has any writer ever had a better ear for American talk?
  • Charles McGrath in The New York Times:  [Nine Stories] were remarkable for their sharp social observation, their pitch-perfect dialogue . . . and the way they demolished whatever was left of the traditional architecture of the short story - the old structure of beginning, middle, end - for an architecture of emotion, in which a story could turn on a tiny alteration of mood or irony.
But the recent reversal in critical opinion misses one big, valid critique: Salinger couldn't tell a story.  

That he had an authorial voice, that he had an ear for dialogue, that he had an eye for detail - all these talents are undisputed.  But as John Updike observed in a 1961 New York Times review of "Franny and Zooey," plot escaped Salinger:

Few writers since Joyce would risk such a wealth of words upon events that are purely internal and deeds that are purely talk. . . . As Hemingway sought the words for things in motion, Salinger seeks the words for things transmuted into human subjectivity. His fiction . . . pays the price . . . of becoming dangerously convoluted and static. A sense of composition is not among Salinger's strengths.
Indeed, time and again, reviewers use terms like "prose-poem" (Updike), "fables of otherness," "fairy tales," "Greek myths" and "Bible stories" (Maslin), and "stories within stories" (Kakutani) to describe the praise-worthy in Salinger's writing.  Notably present in all these descriptions is the absence of a modern storytelling form.  Catcher affirms these descriptions with its episodic, "mythic journey"-like structure; its narrative is presciently suited to a series of blog posts about a rough weekend - but not to a novel.

Coincidentally, reading Jim Windolf's review of Last Words, by George Carlin with Tony Hendra, I stumbled on a description that described Salinger perfectly:

Although Carlin spent roughly five decades performing with nothing but his brain, his mouth and a microphone, he was never much of a storyteller.  Unlike Pryor and Bill Cosby, who made their names as yarn spinners, he did his best work as a secular preacher.
"A secular preacher" he was: Salinger perennially preached the message, aptly summarized by Gopnik,

that, amid the malice and falseness of social life, redemption rises from clear speech and childlike enchantment, from all the forms of unself-conscious innocence that still surround us (with the hovering unease that one might mistake emptiness for innocence).
Given the superficial, sentimental nature of this bit of "good news," my bet is that Salinger will not be remembered for his agenda.  But Salinger should be remembered for his literary innovation, a point on which Maslin dwells.  Apropos of Salinger's fall from grace with the critics of the 1950's and 60's, Maslin posits that:

negative contemporary criticism of a masterpiece can be helpful to later critics, acting as a kind of radar that picks up the ping of the work's originality. The "mistakes" and "excesses" that early critics complain of are often precisely the innovations that have given the work its power.
She then goes on to identify Salinger's innovation as the creation of "offensive" characters whose negative reception by the audience hammers home the point that the characters are unable "to live comfortably in the world."  

Here I must part ways with Maslin.  Although I agree that Salinger is innovative, I think Maslin is missing the true nature his innovation.  Her resistance to criticism that highlights Salinger's inability to plot (she mocks Maxwell Geismar's assessment of "Zooey" as "interminable," as well as George Steiner's critique that it was "shapeless") simultaneously deprives her of the ability to name his accomplishment: using oral story-telling traditions and techniques to tell modern stories in which plot was replaced by shifts in psychological states.

"Fables," "fairy tales," "Greek myths," "Bible stories" - epic poems (prose or verse) and "stories within stories" - are all forms originating in oral, pre-literate societies.  Episodic, rambling, redundant - indeed "shapeless" and "interminable" - are all adjectives applicable to the genre.  However, the content of these stories often features extensive action and explicit violence - events that create stark mental pictures for the audience of listeners.   Transmuting "words . . . into human subjectivity" is not a strong point of these types of stories.  Even the idea of "human subjectivity" was different in oral, pre-literate societies, all of which were communal.  Their subconscious was "collective" (according to Jung), and their stories distilled the "archetypal," not the "individual."

Salinger, whether intentionally or otherwise, used ancient forms as a vehicle for modern content.  To the extent that he innovated, this combination is his contribution. 

And, like other innovations of a certain type - the cigarette filter made from cheese comes to mind - its primary function is cautionary: it doesn't work.  Modern plot structures provide a much better framework for telling stories involving individual psychological development (as well as balancing the story with action and ensuring sustained interest over the length of the tale). 

Devotees of Salinger don't read him because he redefined the way modern stories are told.  Rather, fans flock to the Salinger tent for the same reasons that any traveling preacher attracts crowds: because his voice resonates with them, and because they are predisposed to his sappy message.

(Photo of J.D. Salinger with Erik Ross from The New Yorker)    

More Rye wrangling

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Whatever one might think about the continuing utility of meat space libraries and tangible newspapers, these entities sure write decent amicus briefs.  NYT, AP, Tribune, Gannett, along with the American Library Association, have weighed in on Fredrik Colting's appeal of Judge Batts' order banning his book, 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, which uses J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye as a point of departure. 

The amicus briefs are great reading - you can download them both here - if you enjoy watching a judge get spanked in a figurative, verbose and decidedly legalistic way.  "What was Judge Batts thinking?" is all you can wonder when you finish all 89 pages of the two briefs.  "Boy, she really messed up the law on this one," you say, rolling your eyes. 

The persuasive and passionate fervor of these amicus briefs may relate to the wellsprings of empathy their authors ought to have for Colting - depths of personal engagement analagous to Thurgood Marshall's personal connection to Brown v. Board, or Sarah Weddington's personal stake in Roe v.  Wade - or the rogue's sympathy for the hanged man. 

Quite simply, the differences between writing a legal brief and an unauthorized sequel (or parody, or whatever Colting's work is) are less significant than one might imagine.  Both use pre-existing works - in Colting's case, Catcher; in the attorneys' cases, caselaw - from which they borrow, to a greater or lesser extent, in order to fashion a story line that positions the original in the service of the author's agenda.  What else, in the end, is a legal brief, but a pastiche, a collage, a derivative work? 

Colting's misfortune is that his original work is protected by copyright law; the attorneys, on the other hand, owe their children's college tuition to the exemption from copyright of caselaw - and other works written by the US government.  But does that circumstance change the moral valence of the activity?  Colting engaged in fundamentally the identical process as the attorneys who wrote the amicus briefs - just using a different source material.  Does that make Colting bad?  (And before you interject that anything lawyers do can't be "good," think whether Judge Batts' decision should've been different - as it would have had to have been - if Colting had parodied a work that wasn't protected by copyright - 60 Years Later: Another Midsummer Night's Dream, for example.)

The process of active engagement with texts - arguing with them, bowlderizing them, cutting them up and reconfiguring them, reimagining them, twisting their meaning or amplifying their subtext - is a side-effect of being a thinking animal.  The law, in its wisdom, recognizes such behavior as "fair use."  Limiting the texts with which we can engage as thinking beings is both unwise and unfair - it's also impractical.

Of course, lack of awareness can stymie any insight, and active engagement with texts doesn't necessarily put one on the side of the angels on this issue: after all, J.D. Salinger's attorneys will use the same process to write an opposing brief.  Let's hope the Second Circuit Court of Appeals doesn't sympathize with the devil.

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the The Catcher in the Rye category.

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