May 25, 2013

J. D. Salinger and the Cult of Celebrity

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200px-Rye_catcher-190x300 (1)Did you know that once upon a time, books were published without an author biography or photo? Why do you suppose? The straightforward answer is that the work – the book – was intended to stand on its own. What the author wrote about, and the way it was written, was sufficient. We, the readers, appreciated – or rejected – a book for what it was, not who the author was, or how much of the author’s real life played a role in the story. The character was a character, and the author was the author.

Of course, that’s all changed. Now, in many cases, a large number of people care more about the author’s personal life than what’s in the books they write. The exception being if it’s an autobiography or a memoir. If an author wants to reveal all kinds of personal information in one of the latter, then more power to ’em.

That was not the case with J. D. Salinger, who wrote The Catcher in the Rye and other notable fiction in the 1950s. He never wanted a lick of publicity. That’s why he left New York City for rural Vermont, where only a handful of people even knew where he was.

I read recently that a film director named Shane Salerno, whose oeuvre focuses on action movies, is releasing a documentary about Salinger this fall. He and the producer promise it will reveal secrets which, we can assume, Salinger would have wished to keep to himself. And so the most famous of author-recluses is now going to be outed by someone who hopes to make a bunch of money with a salacious documentary film.

These days, it’s hard to write a novel and not have people ask if it’s autobiographical. I know this to be a fact. I also know that whether I answer yes, no, or perhaps a little, it won’t matter. Those people will read my novel and think it’s about my life. I think that’s too bad. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the story’s the thing. If it’s a good tale, who cares if it’s about the author or not? If it’s well-written, it stands on its own. The rest doesn’t matter.

I think Salinger would agree with me.

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