Monday, February 8, 2010

Salinger the Ingrate?

If I'm claiming this is a literary blog then it would probably be remiss of me not to address J.D. Salinger's recent passing. I let David Foster Wallace's death last year come and go without a peep, though that was easier to justify -- I have only read one essay of Wallace's, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but to a slow and tormented reader such as myself his flagship novel Infinite Jest is too thick, scattered and daunting to merit more than forty minutes of my attention and suppressed judgment (which is what I gave it) much less the year-or-more commitment it would take to actually finish the damn thing. Sorry David.

But Catcher in the Rye did make something of an impact at the time I read it, around my sophomore or junior year in high school. Up to that point it was only the second classic I'd ever read that I didn't hate (Lord of the Flies was the first), and if I'd previously identified with a literary character as strongly as I did with Holden Caufield, I can't remember who it was.

I don't recall the specifics of my reaction at the time, but I know I wasn't swept up to the degree that many of his devotees were. Even so, at the time I was reading Michael Crichton and Stephen King almost exclusively, and I have to imagine that Catcher opened my eyes to some of the other magical feats great literature can accomplish besides unraveling an intricate, thrilling tale. Great fiction can bring characters like Holden Caufield to such vivid life, make them so identifiable in their quirks and vulnerabilities, that they seem more human than most of the humans you know in real life.

For helping me finally scratch the surface of literary fiction, J.D., you have my gratitude.

There are obviously thousands of pieces being posted about the man right now, but this article from Slate was an interesting read, and uniquely personal. If Jerome David Salinger the reclusive author of Catcher is the story behind the story, then perhaps this might be called the (or a) story orbiting the story behind the story.

"Dear Jerry, You Old Bastard: My adventures answering J.D. Salinger's mail."

Rakoff is (or was at the time) decidedly not among Salinger's devoted fans who, for all of their interesting stories, could more accurately be described as orbiting Catcher more than they orbited Salinger, because answering his fan mail is as close as anyone got to the author unless you were his agent, editor, one of his young wives or his gardener.

Like most, I too am fascinated by Salinger's secluded lifestyle. It strikes me as antithetic to one of the essential forces that drive me to write in the first place. Art is expression, and expression implies there is some point (or intended point) of reception for that which is expressed, or else what is there to make the expression, the art, more than just some arbitrary behavior?

Art is about connection. Granted, the connection could be spiritual -- the artist might be connecting to something otherworldly, a higher power, or even some other aspect of the self, as of some kind of feedback loop. Consider the musician, for instance, who only plays privately, only "for myself."

I get that. Even with my own writing, I do experience that spiritual connection to some degree.  But I also wish, I yearn, for my expression to resonate with others. I want my work to inspire. Moreover, though it may be a sign of inhibiting insecurity, I want evidence that I'm inspiring people. In short, I thrive on praise, sincere and heartfelt praise. It validates. "Validation," it seems to me, is a word that has become inextricably associated with "insecurity," but really, why shouldn't an artist require some validation? What's wrong with getting a little, natural encouragement to keep doing this thing that, though you may love to do it, pays little, is mentally and emotionally exhausting and frequently disheartening? In my life, I swear to you, I know of no greater reward than impassioned, positive feedback from someone who is moved by my work.

My point is, how was Salinger able to shun so absolutely the effusive praise he earned? As Rakoff observes, based on the fan mail she read, we're not talking here about some superficial and transient infatuation -- these are not teeny-boppers salivating over the next in a series of boy bands. These notes were as thoughtful, personal, and carefully crafted as one could hope for. To me, such letters would be worth a thousand times their weight in hundred dollar bills. Of course, too much of any good thing can get tiresome and even overwhelming, but to refuse, for decades, a single piece of fan mail??? Was there never a day he felt down on himself, enough that he might have been compelled to contact his publisher and say, "I need a pick-me-up. Send me the best three you got." Who was this man? And -- if not for the audience that connected so deeply with him -- who was he writing for?

There's always the chance this was merely marketing savvy on his part, something like "scroll appeal" to the highest degree. His seclusion surely increased his fame and impact.  But I doubt that was his motivation, even though it probably motivated his publisher to support and even encourage his isolation.

I'm sure that deep down he had legitimate, if perhaps misguided, reasons that he needed to remove himself in this way, and that it had little to do with any lack of gratitude (I hope not). But it remains a dark mystery to me. I bet that if I were to pick up and read Catcher in the Rye right now I would still identify strongly with Mr. Caufield. But I can't say I identify much with Mr. Salinger, what select details I know of him.

I'll never forget attending a reading and book signing with Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk years ago, and the sheer joy in his face at being able to talk with, and read to, his fans. This was a man who had a dark side, but here in this red velvet Depression-era movie theater, among two hundred excited readers and writing aspirants, ranging from teenage to middle-age, and from clean cut and prim to bodies covered in tats and piercings, Chuck was home. He was happy. That joy in that face gave me the courage to write at a time I desperately needed it. I wanted what he had, and now I knew it was possible.

Substitute for that formative moment an encounter with Salinger, one that offers me a directly intimate view of this isolated, searching and (it seems to me) discontented man, I suspect I might not have any blog or novel to speak of.


Anonymous said...

Wow, that was truly a fantastic post. For those of us who may have been less touched by Salinger than some of our friend, and yet thank him for opening up their eyes, thanks.

Jim C. said...

And thank YOU, whoever you are (and I wish I knew). You've made my day.