Writers and Readers, A Love Story (Or, How I Really Feel About J.D. Salinger)

 

I always thought J.D. Salinger was kind of a jerk.

Salinger ostensibly wasn’t interested in the fame that came with writing one of the 20th century’s bestselling novels. Living as a recluse for most of his life, he shunned being viewed by or interacting with the general public. Though I gather he enjoyed the affections of women much younger than himself—some of whom came from famous families or had their own fame—and loved to know movie stars. (How do I know this? Wikipedia of course. Link below. I love Wikipedia for trivia, and even give them money from time to time. Now you know.)

I find this quote from his 1974 New York Times interview interesting: “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing … I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”

Really? Do you think that’s true? I’m skeptical. He said it many years after he became an international bestselling writer. So, at that point, he could write all he wanted and stuff it all away in drawers if he cared to. What a lovely thing to be a working writer and have such a choice.

Of course, none of this technically defines him as a jerk. That’s my own opinion.

Salinger came up for me today because I read an AFP article (link below) about artists and writers who enjoy their success, but shun the fame. Among the examples were Salinger, Elena Ferrante, the mysterious (Italian?) writer whose family drama novels are so popular with the literati right now, and the British artist, Banksy. All of these people have (or had) the good fortune to shun the spotlight because they are successful enough to let fame be a non-issue.

There is no question, in my mind, that contemporary access to celebrities and would-be celebrities is way out of control. Actors and musicians and royalty and Kardashians and FOKs (friends of Kardashians) are hounded and hunted like animals by paparazzi, and they all live in the long, sad shadow of the ultimate paparazzi victim, Princess Diana. One could argue that many of these people only have success because they play their lives out in such a way that their accessibility and fame are symbiotic.

Funny how writers mostly escape that circus.

Still. Current publishing wisdom demands that a new writer (again, there are exceptions if the writer is already a celebrity or has written THE BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR) show up with Twitter followers, Facebook friends, Instagram fans, a website, and, hopefully, a face for television. It wasn’t all such a big deal when my first novel came out in 2007. My fellow debut writers and I were considered forward-thinking with badass custom websites (weren’t they all custom then?), and rockin’ MySpace accounts. But now the vast majority of writers are under enormous pressure to take responsibility for making their own books a success without much support from their publishers. If the book is a sales flop, it’s usually considered the writer’s fault. From where I sit it appears as if a writer must pimp herself out in every available outlet because no one knows if social media exposure sells books or not. But publishers call that particular tune, and writers do the dance just in case.

I digress—the topic of social media, writer presence, and book marketing (or not) by publishers is too big to take on in this post. But I would love to know how Salinger’s and Ferrante’s books were first marketed, given that they were/are not out pimping them themselves.

Two of my favorite writers who embrace publicity and interaction on social media are Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates. While neither seems to be a classic extravert, they are very active when it comes to making appearances for their books and chatting on Twitter or other platforms. They take a lot of risks. Offer opinions—often unpopular opinions. I like that about them, and thousands of other fans seem to like it, too. The point is that they’re out there, interacting with readers. They engage people by talking about things besides their own books. Egad, writers are boring when they talk about their own books. Talk process, talk origins, talk why you wrote something, talk football, talk recipes. But books should speak for themselves.

Back to Salinger. First, I think that writers who refuse to engage with readers at all are arrogant. Privacy is one thing, but arrogance is rude. Every writer has a choice, and certainly has the right to put her work out there and then disappear back into her writing cave to churn out the next one, or just enjoy her royalties. People who churn out book after book or even just a masterpiece or two are extraordinary beings. They spend a lot of time with the voices in their heads and are not necessarily social animals. But writing and reading are—like Kim and the paparazzi—symbiotic. Writers need readers. And of course readers are curious about writers. Fortunately, writers are in a unique position—they can choose what they want readers to know about them because they can write about themselves. In popular parlance, they can, to some degree, control the narrative. Salinger would surely not give a flying fart about whether I consider him rude or not. But from what I’ve read about him, I don’t think I would like him a bit, either. Neither did I care much for The Catcher In the Rye. There. I’ve said it.

Now, my definition of rude may not be your definition of rude. And rudeness is not against the law, and is certainly accepted as a matter of course. We all have the right to be left alone, and that includes writers and artists.

The other Salinger thing: I rarely believe writers when they say they write for themselves alone. Every writer has an intended audience, or she’s simply engaged in repeated acts of mental masturbation. Show me a writer who writes for herself alone, and I’ll show you a writer who can’t prove that she’s a writer because she’s never shown her work to anyone. [Update: My favorite English prof/lover mentions both Kafka, who wrote only for his friends and wanted to have his work destroyed after his death, and Emily Dickinson, who published very few poems, but left hundreds. I would say they were both people who sincerely rejected both fame and success and primarily worked to practice their own art. Artists and craftspeople of all types often do just practice for their own edification. Which leads to the falling tree in the forest question…If no one but the artist sees the artist’s work, can it properly be called art? Is another’s opinion or evaluation required for something to be deemed art? Or is it automatically assumed to be that person’s private hobby?]

Salinger may have said that he wrote just for himself and his own pleasure, but then he left instructions in his will for work to be released after his death. The writer who truly writes “just” for his own pleasure would surely arrange to have all his manuscripts to be burned or buried with him, yes?

Here are the links I mentioned above:

J.D. Salinger page on Wikipedia

AFP article on Banksy, Ferrante, etc.

A comprehensive list of social media platforms and their uses called “Your Online Presence” from Margaret Atwood’s website—written with her characteristic wit.

Canva.com is my design playground. In fact, that’s where I worked on the upcoming changes for my website. Love that place.

Have a great weekend!

It snowed on the roses today.

 

January 5 Words

Journal:  520 words

Long fiction: 389 words

Short fiction: 0

Non-fiction: 0 words

Blogging: 1134 words

Exercise: 30 minutes Zumba–the deer looking in my living room windows were most entertained

6 thoughts on “Writers and Readers, A Love Story (Or, How I Really Feel About J.D. Salinger)”

  1. skyecaitlin says:

    Dear Laura, I was going to respond to this later, but I felt compelled to write now. Working from the bottom of your blog journal, I adore your snow rose and think it would make a wonderful book coverlet; there is something enigmatic and paradoxical about it, and it is quite lovely, too. I agree with your assessment of J.D. Salinger, and I never cared for A Catcher in the Rye, although beloved among many. I’m uncertain, however, that he is arrogant, and I believe some writers may write for themselves, with no need of an audience; I think, just my opinion, that Virginia Wolf was one of those writers. I adore Margaret Atwood, and believe she is a modern-day pioneer, and Joyce Carol Oates is simply sensational as well as outrageous, too. She once taught writing at a local college nearby; her topics are incredibly unusual and she takes inordinate rhetorical risks with her subject matter. She also writes under the pen name of Rosamond Smith about bizarre characters and grisly crimes.
    The matter of social media, however, has me in the middle ages, I’m afraid. I do not have Facebook or Twitter, et al, and that is by choice, and it is based from my personal reactions to students before I retired, and the things that had been exposed on their profiles. I am relatively anonymous, but I can both the advantages and disadvantages of present day communications. Great musings, Laura.

    1. Laura Benedict says:

      Hi, Skye. My judgment on Salinger (and I know it’s a judgment) comes mostly from the fact that he apparently was happy to pal around with people of his own class, and other famous people like movie stars. But he didn’t seem to be at all interested in spending time or energy with readers at large. I confess that nearly everything I’ve read about him could be apocryphal–I haven’t read a biography. But that’s my impression of him.

      I could definitely see where Virginia Wolfe might be added alongside Kafka and Dickinson. Also, I love JCO’s Rosamond Smith novels. I read them all when I was learning to write suspense. And seeing one of her stories in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine back in 2000 motivated me to write a story to submit to them–and they bought it. You can count me as a big fan.

      1. skyecaitlin says:

        Ahhh, Laura, Emily is my favorite poet ( among American poets); she is extraordinary and when I was reading a former blog entry ( the one about your inability to sleep), I was reminded of ‘circadian sleep rhythms, and I also suffer) but evidently Dickinson understood this only too well, and she writes…’ in a certain slant of light.’ Her life was as unusual as her poetry. I am thrilled you read the Rosamond Smith novels.

  2. skyecaitlin says:

    Correction near the end; both ‘see’ the advantages..’

  3. J.T. Ellison says:

    You raise such an interesting point here — there are definitely modern artists who shun the spotlight, but are also seeking it. You know exactly of whom I speak, I think.

    1. Laura Benedict says:

      At least two. #humblebraggarts

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