J D Salinger And The Classic That Isn’t

Some books become classics in spite of themselves.

The most outstanding example of this strange phenomenon is without doubt Herman Melville’s Moby DickMoby Dick (let me spare you the trouble and the agony of reading it) is a very interesting short story about obsession.  But, for some reason, Melville decided it would be even better if it was sandwiched between a laughably obsolete encyclopaedia on whales and a very boring how-to guide to whaling.

The author of another classic-that-isn’t, J. D. Salinger, died this week.  He was 91.

Salinger is best known, of course, for The Catcher in the Rye, a book you’ve probably been forced to read at some time in your schooling.  The AFP called it a ‘seminal’ book, which ‘lent a voice to the angst and despair felt by generations of rebellious adolescents.’

To this I say: bollocks.

Since seminal means ‘containing or contributing to the seeds of later development’, I suppose we can let that one go, only pausing to mourn the fact that Catcher led to some sort of literary movement.  But ‘lent a voice to the angst and despair felt by generations of rebellious adolescents’?

I don’t know about you, but the last people on the planet I want to hear in full voice are angsty and rebellious adolescents.  Mostly because they all sound a lot like Holden Caulfield, the narrator of The Catcher in the Rye.  You’ve met them: they’re the ones alone in the corner at a party, muttering under their breath that ‘everyone’s shit, the music’s shit, the wine’s shit and… and it’s so lame having lollies at, like, a party, y’know.’

Here’s Catcher’s opening sentence, just to remind you of the tone, of the drudgery that is Holden Caulfield (and remember, he narrates the whole thing):

‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it.’

Oh, for a Jasper Fforde universe, a universe in which it is possible to interact with characters in books.  Picture it: you go up to Holden and just after he mumbles out ‘If you really want to hear about it…’ you place a fraternal hand on his shoulder, look deeply into his eyes and say: ‘Actually, Holden me ol’ cock, I don’t want to hear about it.  I can’t think of many things worse than hearing about it.  So if it’s all the same to you, why don’t you just save it for your shrink and for that charming diary of yours which I see you’ve decorated with a fetching skull-and-crossbones motif and filled to bursting with self-harm fantasies.  Hmmm?  Must rush.  So lovely talking to you.’

But alas, no such universe exists, and so Catcher just steams on for 200 pages: disaffection piled on disaffection, frustration upon frustration.  A monotonous whine punctuated by Holden’s disastrous attempts to shed his virginity.  Oh, and the delicious moment when he gets beaten up by a pimp: the only scene in the book that I’m convinced is too short.

In Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, the character Dorothy Lintott identifies Catcher as a classic example of the mistake teachers make when they impose a book that was important to them when they were young on the next generation.  Since The History Boys is set in the 80s, her comment makes perfect sense.

But you’d have to be a very venerable old stick to have been thrilled by Catcher within a decade of its publication and still be teaching in this day and age – and this makes its ubiquity in the current English and English Literature syllabi all the more puzzling.

I suspect that the problem with books like Catcher is that once a couple of critics and academics have heaped upon them fulsome praise, the rest of us have them rammed down our throats by mediocre teachers working out of study guides.  In other words, no-one’s really reading The Catcher in the Rye anymore.  We take it for granted that it’s a classic because it’s lasted 50-odd years and it’s still being taught at schools.

And the author?  Well,  Salinger was something of an odd case in and of himself.  From 1965 to the day of his death he published nothing.  Not a single thing.  He once said that ‘Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy.  I like to write.  I love to write.  But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.’

Right.  Let’s take a closer look at that…  Publishing was an invasion of his privacy?  Well, there’s a simple solution, I would have thought – refrain from publishing in the first place.  If he wanted to write for himself he should have done so and left the rest of us in peace.  Indeed, this seems to have been precisely what he did not so long after Catcher.  And whining about publishing success is simply bad manners when most writers can’t live on what they make from writing (the average income of an Australian author from their writing per year, for example, is under $10,000).

Now that his privacy can’t be invaded any more, I suppose we must brace ourselves for the posthumous publication of whatever Salinger was scribbling away at for the last half century.

We can only hope that he got better.


20 responses to “J D Salinger And The Classic That Isn’t

  1. Misha, the speed at which you’ve whipped this out is impressive. Great stuff.

    (PS You like Jasper Fforde? Bit of a one-trick pony, surely…?)

  2. Cheers, Jess!

    Fforde is more of a half-trick shetland, I think: great basic concept, can’t write for toffee.

  3. Excellent, glad to see we’re on the same page re all matter equine.

  4. Hi Misha, I probably don’t know much about books, but I know what I like, and Catcher is a book that I chose to read of my own free will at least two or three times outside of school, plus I was born post 1980 (for context sake).

    Contrary to you I was engrossed from Salinger’s first line. I for one did “really want to hear about it”, and the character therein was one of the most vivid I have ever experienced through reading. If you don’t “really want to hear about it”, here’s a suggestion, don’t keep reading.

    I can see why Salinger’s dominant sense of disillusionment and angst makes many an eye roll and mouth yawn. It seems to me to have become a sometimes celebrated cliche. However for me Catcher in the Rye was an honest and engrossing exploration of the human experience. Belive it or not, there are people out there that live lives much like Holden Caufield. And isn’t so much of the world’s great art about personal exploration, and expressions of peoples’ must tightly held feelings?

    Perhaps it’s because at times in my life I’ve felt just like Holden Caufield, searching for something, an experience, an answer. And I don’t ever want to loose that need to search for realities that lie at times just beyond reach.

    Let me try and summarise by saying, I think it’s fair to argue that if this book spoke to a person like me and made me feel better about myself, then there must be other people out there for whom the book was similarly ‘seminal’ in their own personal development. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone who’s anyone read this book, because for some people it may well hold nothing, or if anything provoke ridicule.

    I do agree with you that it probably shouldn’t be on school curriculms, but then, what should? Finally, I can see why Salinger saw publishing as a massive invasion of his privacy, people praise his work with out really appreciating it, while others rubbish it for a past time. Why even bother? For me, and countless others, it’s wonderful that he did.

    Thanks for listening


  5. Phew, Pat!

    I’d need a whole new post to respond to all of this…

    Many valid points, mate – we are talking taste here after all, and as I’ve often heard you say: de gustibus non est disputandum.

    Knowing something about books is not a prerequisite for commenting on these posts, by the way – so feel free to come in with the piss and vinegar from line one in future.

    Thanks for reading!

    • Sorry, this book happens to be close to my heart. No book is going to be loved by everyone. I actually really like the fact that you’ve opened I dialogue about this book, and other books, you actually made me go to my bookshelf to see if I could find it, I couldn’t, lost in the move here from Adelaide. It’s a funny coincidence that Lou happened to be talking to you at the exact same time as I discovered your post and tried to craft a response…hehe…until next we meet.

  6. mmm … Thanks Mischa I knew my instincts for literary crap were better than the experts would have me believe!

    I had managed to go through two years of high school Litereature and 8 years of university english without really delving into the so called classics .. so on my own I endeavoured to read them for my own edification and expansion of experience.

    One day bored our of my brains, I happened across a dishevelled copy of Catcher and I managed to wade through at least three pages before I was interrupted by some unmemorable something, I put the book in my bag with the intention of going on with it … I was never so bored again that I was forced to reopen said book and it just disappeared eventually … There was no feeling of great loss.

    It’s funny you should also mention Moby Dick … I had a similar experience with that book. In fact it was how I found the Guttenberg Project. In my mind the opening line is one of literature’s most memorable (of course that may just be because of my obession with names, Ishmael is of course a rather fascinating name). I don’t remember much more about it except that I put my throbbing head ache down to the fact I was trying to read it on a computer screen … In retrospect it could have been the extreme lack of interest I was trying to force my way through.

    A friend mentioned what an extreme tragedy Salinger’s death was – I was struck by the word usage – surely words as strong as tragedy should be reserved for events such as the catastrophic loss of life in Haiti or for genre classification of plays etc. But Salinger’s death? I was confused and thought I must have missed something, had he been quietly prolific in the last several decades and I had missed it? Certainly possible, but I didn’t think so. In fact I had assumed he had died already, so I was more shocked that to hear he had just died. It seems to me he had no more words of genius to leave the world, so where is the great tragedy.

    Your last quote from Salinger brought to mind the memorable words “I never read anything I did not write myself” uttered by that most venerable of Australian author’s Elle MacPherson. mmmm

  7. Cheers Kate!

    Great to know you enjoyed my thoughts. If you really want the key to my heart, though, my name is spelled without the ‘c’.

  8. Funnily enough I actually read Catcher in the Rye for the first time a few months ago. It had been resting on my book shelf for some time as one of those you-ought-to-read-this-cuz-everyone-else-has dusty “classics.” While I was reading it two primary thoughts kept bouncing around in my mind: 1) why this book regarded as a literary classic? and 2) why do I feel so compelled to keep reading? I went through a period of thinking WTF? Why is this book so celebrated? And then, well, it grew on me.

    While I think that its occupancy as a literary classic is over-stated, and I’m curious – but not overtly sceptical – why it’s still caught in class today, what your very entertaining post did not address (and what Patrick alluded to) is that there is something about Salinger’s writing here that really cuts through. Not in a Dan Brown sell-a-trillion-airport-novels way, but in something that connects quite strongly with a certain kind of reader.

    To be honest Holden Caufield gave me the shits. He really did. He totally killed me! He really did! (In case you didn’t pick it up those last three sentences, btw, were a lame nod to Holden’s way of “writing”….)

    I think the book works because Holden as a character/narrator provides such a strong voice. You may not like him (I didn’t) but his personality is there – it’s a strong character. The world is told through sometimes garbled language from his jaded but youthful perspective – and that sort of characterisation is memorable, for me at least.

    It’s an odd book; I can’t think of too many like it. I guess that deserves some kind of respect.

    Also, from what I have read, I have deduced that Salinger himself never wanted nor expected such as a strong reaction. The story plays a minor, slight narrative, nothing sensational about it – and ditto the writing. Salinger’s success surprised me. It killed me. It really did!

  9. Ta Bucko.

    I’ll try to think myself into the position of someone who digs what I’m slagging off next time (he lied).

    Try ‘Moby Dick’ next. You can have a copy. I’ve got two.

  10. Imagine Salinger sitting there pen in hand bitching and moaning for 200 pages+ for our reading pleasure. Joke is most definitely on us.

    Good read (ur post not the book)… i was led here by bucko…

  11. Thanks James!

    Glad you enjoyed it.

  12. my bad – I am a chronic bad speller! But now I have a brand new heartkey for my keychain – thanks Misha!

  13. All is forgiven, Kate!

  14. Nice of you to squeeze in a dig about Moby Dick. It truly is a terrible book. I struggled through half of it but by that stage they had only just gotten onto a ship and we were deep in the mire of the awful classification of whales that drags on for many pages. I feel sorry for those poor American kids who have it foisted upon them as part of their high school literature.

    And by the way, I really enjoyed ‘Catcher’, one of the few compulsory books from high school that I can honestly make that statement about.

  15. I applaud the first half of your statement without compunction, Spencer – you’re spot on concerning the American lads and lasses who will have to endure Melville.

    But you enjoyed ‘Catcher’?

    Que? Why? How?

    Do tell. I’m fascinated.

    And thanks for commenting, by the way!

  16. Perhaps it was in contrast to the other books we were set from the Victorian and Shakespearean era’s, but I found Catcher to be refreshing and open in its prose, and not a chore to read. And like Luke above I found it intriguing and compelling and while I didn’t feel I could directly relate to Holden, I honestly did feel I understood his motivation. Reading it as a teenager was a vicarious titillation. But it is a good question to ask whether it is really a literary classic, or simply a good read. I don’t think I would class it as anything timeless and universal in the way one might demand for a classic, the prose is simply not sufficiently outstanding. But the plot is fine.

    By the way, I think it is a bit superficial to harp on about the opening line of a book, and to seek to characterize the entire text by it. I understand that you were speaking somewhat tongue-in-cheek but it is a bit of a cheap shot that is too simplistic for you.

    Finally, you mention that you enjoy the beating up of the protagonist by a pimp (me too!). Have you ever had the chance to read ‘Pimp’ by Iceberg Slim? Plenty of that stuff in there!

  17. Cheap shot?! SUPERFICIAL!?

    You wound me Spencer, you wound me…

    I was being quite serious about it actually – try reading the sentence aloud and pay attention to where the commas are. You can hear the defeatist ‘whatEVER’ attitude in the cadence. While this is, of course, quite appropriate to Holden’s character, I found it an exhausting experience to read 200 pages of it: and I really don’t think the tone changes. Third person narration would have spared me a lot of pain.

    If I ever get my hands on one of your publications you’d better just watch out, pal…

    And speaking of things that are unworthy of someone’s high intelligence, I’m putting on my apostrophe police uniform and booking you for ‘era’s’. There: that’s a balm for my bruised pride…

  18. You got me…

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