Saturday, June 14, 2014

Off-topic: Mid-century Male Writers, Salinger edition

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Apparently my reading for pleasure these days involves revisiting some of the twentieth-century writers, the Mid-Century Males, that I read back as an undergraduate. J. D. Salinger is one; isn't he for everyone at that age? Catcher in the Rye was okay, but in a short story class we read (and I reread many times) Nine Stories, later discovering on my own, like just about every late adolescent everywhere, Franny and Zooey, my favorite of his works. 
Recently, I saw the Salinger documentary and checked out of the digital library Kenneth Slawenski's Salinger: A Life, Joanna Rakoff's My Salinger Year, and, because the other sources mentioned it, Joyce Maynard's At Home in the World. Apparently I was the last person on earth to have read Joyce Maynard years ago without knowing about The Salinger Connection, so I wasn't influenced by that when I read her.
Slawenski's book made much of Salinger's horrific WWII experiences, which started on D-Day and ended 299 days later after he helped to liberate concentration camps, something that the documentary emphasizes with a whole lot of (deservedly, I suppose) portentous music. Rakoff's My Salinger Year is delightful. It's a memoir of her year in the mid-1990s working at The Agency (Harold Ober and Associates) and handling both Salinger's fan mail and her employers' charmingly eccentric terror about encroaching technology. It's 1996, but the IBM Selectric is still king of the office.
 Maynard's book is similar to the first two of hers that I read years ago (Baby Love, Looking Back).  She's a keen observer of her own life, but only of her own life, and only of herself as the primary person within it. As she says many times in At Home in the World, she's not a reader, and she doesn't seem to be able to make those connections except through pop culture, although she's very good at the specifics of that. When she reports incidents like threatening to cut off her long braided hair and her husband Steve saying, "It's your hair," the implication is that he's too stolid and isn't paying sufficient attention to her misery. Less sympathetic readers might think that she's being too dramatic. That doesn't prevent her from making some good observations, though.
The whole Salinger thing that she was pilloried for is only a part of the book, and apparently, in another interwebs development I totally missed, everyone is in a pro- or anti-Maynard camp: either "How dare you malign The Great Man?" or "How dare The Great Man have acted so cruelly toward women?"  Maynard's take on the relationship, in the new preface, is not so much "what was I thinking to quit Yale and move to New Hampshire with Jerry Salinger?" as "how could he violate my innocence by overpowering me with his adoration? Shouldn't we think of 18-year-olds as girls instead of women?" It's a fair question, but really, who could have stopped her or any of us at 18? That's not a hornet's nest I'm willing to wade into in this space.  
Salinger's writing advice--which is why I read the book--is actually sound. Salinger on writing: he writes every day, and by about 6.30 a.m. he's in his writing room, later apparently the famous writing bunker where he would stay for weeks at a time. He shows Maynard at least two manuscripts but says that writing for publication is all just ego and being of the world, which he condemns.  Given that Salinger seems to have had the biggest ego in the Western Hemisphere, this is a little disingenuous, but all right. The documentary says that there are books lined up to be published in 2015 and beyond.
Here's the thing that struck me, wanting as I did the details of the writing life: Maynard and Salinger eat their breakfast of thawed frozen peas and then both of them go off to their writing tasks.  Maynard never mentions that in the memoir; it only comes up in an interview in the past couple of years.  Two writers, living in a house together: that's the portrait that the interview gives and that she's trying to avoid. Yet elsewhere she describes her writing routine, and she's a remarkably disciplined and productive writer.
Instead, the memoir section about her life with Salinger is all about making herself small, about buying a sewing machine and cooking badly and leaving her stuff strewn around the house and feeling wounded and above all not writing the memoir she's been contracted to write. It's clear that she did feel diminished by his treatment, as who wouldn't? Yet by the end of the year, the memoir has magically been written, with an epilogue heavily influenced and partly written by Salinger himself because she wasn't being specific and honest enough about what she was writing.
That's the frustrating part of this memoir: it has the wrong focus, or maybe the right focus for Maynard but the wrong focus for someone who wants to read about writing. Even though the focus of any Maynard book is always going to be Maynard, front and center, she zeroes in on her father's alcoholism and her mother's weird obsession with her as defining, formative moments.  No doubt they were, but this makes the whole thing come off as another of innumerable recovery/abuse memoirs. She has had the experiences, though, and the talent to make more of the memoir than this. 
What I wanted to see more of was the narrative that's trying to emerge here and can't, of Salinger trying to teach her something about writing and the approach that writers have to take to make it mean something. It has to be honest and something you care about, he tells her; there's no glory in taking pot shots and writing snark about beauty contests and Pillsbury Bake-Offs, although she does.  Salinger warns her about this and about adopting her mother's voice as she has adopted her mother's methods of applying to contests, pitching stories, etc.

When she shows up at Salinger's door in 1997--which I think took a lot of courage, by the way--he tells her that she had the capacity to become something but has become nothing, or something like that. She's obviously made something of herself, having had a successful career,  and she is a survivor, but is there anything in what Salinger says? Or is this just another case of a powerful man falling in love with an image that he creates and trying to destroy the image when she turns out to have a voice of her own?

9 comments:

nicoleandmaggie said...

"isn't he for everyone at that age"

uh, no

undine said...

nicoleandmaggie--And here I thought I was being iconoclastic by admitting that I'd read _Catcher_ only once. Reading those books and seeing the documentary gives you the sense that everyone is a crazed Salinger fan. Bravo for your "uh, no."

nicoleandmaggie said...

Huh, I always thought he spoke to the immature whiny boy demographic.

Not to say that people don't love things as youth that they grow out of-- #2 was a huge Ayn Rand fan back in high school (she has since grown up). But, I suspect Salinger's popularity is heavily patriarchy influenced, as in, the people who would rather be reading say, Their Eyes Were Watching God (or, for that matter, Pride and Prejudice), don't get polled. The Great Gatsby similarly did not speak to me. And A Separate Peace was probably the worst book I was forced to read in school. Mid-century Male Writers and their predecessors are over-rated.

I suspect some of their over-ratedness is passive-aggressive fighting against the growing feminist movement. (And given their dominance of high school reading lists at least through the 90s if not later, they were winning a lot longer than they should have been. I'm having a hard time coming up with any women characters from our high school novel reading lists who weren't prostitutes or murder victims or both put there for the specific purpose of helping the male character come of age with the sole exception of those in Shakespeare's comedies! Oh, and Antigone, but she dies at the end too. And we also read Othello. No wonder I never liked English class.) But I speculate.

Shh, don't tell, but I also both understood Joyce (many of my classmates had no idea what was going on) and thought he was over-rated. I mean, I'm sure stream-of-consciousness writing gets some kind of points for originality and stuff, but ... Another reason I never went into English.

undine said...

nicoleandmaggie, I think you may have just invented a new Bechdel test: works of literature where the women don't die or aren't prostitutes or there for the purpose of male coming-of-age stories.

nicoleandmaggie said...

I think there's already a literature on woman as MacGuffin! (Aka, "saving the princess.")

nicoleandmaggie said...

#1: did you ever enjoy Salinger?
#2: well I have a copy of catcher in the rye, which means it probably spoke to me when I was a teenager... it certainly wasn't life-changing
#1: when I was in high school I thought it was what's that word that means jerking off... onanistic. I was all, someone should slap this loser.
#1 (cont): there was one part I liked though, where he's describing his teacher picking his nose. Trying to hide it, but he was getting the old thumbs in there. The image made me laugh and it's so true! The only worthwhile part of the book.
#2: I don't remember that part at ALL.
#1: It spoke to me.

undine said...

nicoleandmaggie-So much for "Salinger the voice of all adolescence," huh? I don't honestly remember even that much of Catcher.

I went through a stage of reading Ayn Rand, too.

nicoleandmaggie said...

"Salinger the voice of whiny over-privileged white cis male adolescence"

Fixed that for you!

nicoleandmaggie said...

Maybe that's why I liked Candide so much-- it was totally a caricature of most of the *other* stuff we had to read in high school English. Despite having been written 2 centuries previously(!) It's as if somehow Voltaire knew he'd be paired with Catcher and Gatsby and Separate Peace and Portrait. And noted that if these loser guys had been planting their own gardens, then maybe they wouldn't have had all that pointless angst.