Some books become classics in spite of themselves.
The most outstanding example of this strange phenomenon is without doubt Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Moby 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.