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Dan at Yet Another Unitarian Universalist has responded to J. D. Salinger’s death with a spirited grumble. Or was it Mr. Crankypants writing? Anyway, my response was getting into long-and-hijacky territory and I thought I should just post here instead. I hope I am following proper blog etiquette in carrying on a dialogue with another blogger that way, though I acknowledge that by disallowing comments, I’m not playing fair. But that can’t be helped.

Dan was saying that since Salinger’s last published work (“Hapworth 16, 1924”) was “unreadable crap,” most of what he’s written since would be better off burnt unread. I dispute the logic though not the premise. My reaction to his death, along with a pang of sadness (though it was no tragedy–not because he was a cranky old coot but because he’d lived for 91 years) was that it bears a long-awaited silver lining: I’ll finally get a peek at the books he’s reportedly been writing. I fervently hope he ordered them published, not destroyed.

“Hapworth” was crap, but all of Salinger’s crap has jewels in it. And I choose that disgusting metaphor deliberately, because I am definitely willing to dissect the crap for those sparkly sentences inside. Even those who aren’t fans of most of his work (and there are plenty who have no interest in anything not starring Holden Caulfield) can hope that another [insert your favorite Salinger] will now appear. In 35 years’ worth of socked-away manuscripts, there is very likely to be another “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” or “Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters.” I’m glad I’m alive to read it.

Dan wrote: “he was not some immortal writer, he was just an ordinary nutty old man.” I would say he was most likely something in between: a very fine writer (probably immortal for as long as the world produces teenagers, but I won’t quibble on that point). Many artists I admire sound like people I wouldn’t want to live with (Bob Dylan, now that’s a nutty old man. But ordinary? No more than Salinger). We didn’t have to live with Salinger, lucky us. We just get to read his books, putting them down if we don’t like them, and if we do, who cares whether we’d want to hang out with the author. It’s a variation on the theme I struck last month re: Keillor. Writers are as complicated as anyone, and though celebrity culture likes to promote the idea that only good people produce heavenly art, I’ve never noticed a correlation. The value of the work is in the work.

I have strong feelings about fame and privacy. Maybe Dan’s contention that Salinger goosed book sales by foraying into lawsuits is fair; I haven’t paid attention to the trends of Salinger book sales. That would indeed be irritating, but not surprising. If he wasn’t one to fret about his sales and/or status, he’d have published and said be damned to the reviews and reactions. But I think writers are entitled to privacy. If someone were trying to publish my private letters, I’d sue them too. Don’t even get me started on the oft-repeated (not by Dan) idea that artists owe their public something other than their art.

A writer I like at least as much as Salinger, Lawrence Block, has a very funny, cutting, loving take on Salinger, The Burglar in the Rye. Its gist: leave the man alone. Privacy is his due as a human being, and gratitude is his due as someone who wrote a book that changed our lives (for me, it would be Franny and Zooey, not Catcher). Block also got some serious digs in at kiss-and-tell girlfriends. Salinger didn’t sue him.


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