Better to Fade Away than to Burn Out?

John Tremblay at Francesca Pia (Contemporary Art Daily)

“Writing, as such, takes an almost intolerable combination of hubris and naiveté. This has destroyed many a writer too soon, but not Salinger. Perhaps he wasn’t afraid of his own ambition or his failure, for that matter, but rather the ambitions of those he would inevitably become a loose signifier to: the critics.”

By Mary Borkowski

I burned all too enthusiastically at the opportunity to respond to a critique: Kevin Stevens’ review of In Search of J. D. Salinger by Ian Hamilton. But, as with any rigorous or expansive piece of criticism such as Stevens, I’m largely responding to a book review. In Latin rhetoric there’s a term, ‘praeteritio,’ which basically means chopping your head off before you begin. It’s a caveat, a defense, but also license to play with the ideas that can only be ignited by a strong piece of criticism. Stevens gets straight to the point so … So here I go.

Of course most writers pass their careers completely unnoticed by the general population, and many of those who toil anonymously welcome any attention that might sell a few books. But the inexorable advance of media technology continues to hone fame’s double-edged sword, to shorten the shelf-life of the work itself and to ensure that huge swathes of the public become familiar with the images and names of renowned authors they will never read. Those writers who refuse to fan the fire of celebrity are the first to be devoured by its flames.


Stevens, in the Dublin Review of Books, makes solid points about solitary, reclusive writers in a recent article (discovered through the delicious Arts & Letters Daily). Of late, the supreme interest is with the late J. D. Salinger. Considering most of us don’t even know what the man looked like after the age of 28 or so (correct me if I’m wrong), I am happy to chew into an article about that author and the monster of fame.

“[T]he media is agitated most by those who play hard to get,” Stevens writes, and his ensuing article seems to be an expression of his own agitation. He wants more out of Salinger. And his fixation has led to a probing of the private personality, only to repeatedly analyze the author in blasé psychoanalytical terms. Silly me, I thought that biographical criticism of fiction had fallen by the wayside, on account of its virtual irrelevance to what writers produce. The words are ideally interpreted outside of their authorship (a golden rule, albeit cognitive dissonance, in literary criticism). Even so, divorced from criticism of any school: Is it any secret that writers are self-conscious or that human beings are also equally timid?

It was a long time ago, but someone once forced Milan Kundera’s Immortality into my hands. And while much of its plot, content, and substance is largely lost to me, I will never forget a passage that to a great extent expresses the anxieties that pick away at the now anachronistic impulse to be an introvert:

From the moment she got married Agnes lost all the pleasure of solitude […] [T]he most important thing was that nobody looked at her. Yes, the most important thing was that nobody looked at her. Solitude: a sweet absence of looks. Once, both of her colleagues were off sick and she worked for two weeks all alone in the office. She was surprised to notice that she was far less tired at the end of the day. Since then she knew that looks were like weights that pressed her down to the ground, or like kisses that sucked her strength; that looks were needles that etched the wrinkles in her face. [..] (28)

The character of Agnes work might be exceptionally shy, but her extreme reaction to the behavior of others is not an alien emotion, even if it’s felt only on occasion by the less timid. Salinger may have been a bit brash, forward, even cheeky in his prose, but it’s strange to approach an author with the inherent critique being his remoteness and lack of accessibility. Once, I believe, wasn’t being private a virtue of sorts? Stevens doesn’t address the inherent right of any individual to be withdrawn, rather he approaches Salinger’s work through the reductive veil of an immature man-child:

In the end we have to ask if Salinger’s quest for privacy, his narrative choices and his long silence, did not spring from a single personal source: his Holden-like distrust of all adult behaviour and his ambiguous relationship with society. It was fate’s cruel joke to make the writer of The Catcher in the Rye the kind of person least able to deal with its success. A man who was frightened of his own ambition.

O! how dare anyone, let alone a writer, suffer from a fear of ambition! Is this really the case, that ol’ J.D. was afraid of his ambition? Or more likely was it a disappointment that he suffered from a lack of Mailer-esque pugilism and a sensational personal life? Hamilton, the author of In Search of J.D. Salinger, puts forth the facts of mild interpretation:

“He was, in any real-life sense, invisible, as good as dead, and yet for many he still held an active mythic force. He was famous for not wanting to be famous. He claimed to loathe any sort of public scrutiny and yet he had made it his practice to scatter just a few misleading clues.”

Stevens seems fueled by the frustration that a writer who obviously affected him did not provide, say, more Google-worthy anecdotes, images, or, even, an audio file of his reading. To live a life privately, once not such a transgression, now takes on the diagnosis of an inflated personality, intentionally trailing crumbs for the latent critic to sniff up after.

The ultimate confusion for me is why Salinger’s personal life—J.D. Salinger, the man with a Social Security number, medical problems, and probably a largely mundane (read: human) existence—is used as a tool of literary criticism by Stevens. As Susan Sontag wrote in 1964: “Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content, violates art. It makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories.” In this case Stevens does not even start with the content of the novels or short stories that Salinger became famous for, but rather uses the veil of an author’s seemingly arrogant hermitude to re-evaluate that author’s oeuvre. There are far more useful and interesting critiques of the man’s work to be found without bringing ol’ J.D. into it.

I just don’t get the point of this piece of writing. It’s like an elementary school teacher telling a child to smile more, it’ll help you in life. With what, exactly? Writers write; they need not be nice or social, for that matter. And I don’t mean to be that angry armchair critic of critics. My admiration of Salinger’s work is not ardent. I was deeply affected by his work the first time I read through most of it, distinctly because of some of the more obvious reasons that Stevens dismisses it (i.e. “Teddy” was not an obvious text to me at age 11. I had never heard of Buddhism or, more likely, I’d ignored any explanation or allusion to it around me until it was approached through a character who was mysterious, aloof, a bit impudent, but, to my mind, respectable).  But the point of an extended diatribe based largely on Salinger failing to live up to a more exciting persona, well I just don’t understand that. Salinger’s avoidance of publicity, people in general, and certainly critics seems warranted by the idiocy of critiques that aim at unsewing the human faults behind authorship. Fictional authors, I’d venture to say, but any writer, attempt to order life by omitting what isn’t only the story for them. Writing realized by great authors is an attempt to escape individual fragility by sharing quotidian observation: the trick being that what they write might capture what we all experience but are too dumbed down to commit to testimony. Writing, as such, takes an almost intolerable combination of hubris and naiveté. This has destroyed many a writer too soon, but not Salinger. Perhaps he wasn’t afraid of his own ambition or his failure, for that matter, but rather the ambitions of those he would inevitably become a loose signifier to: the critics.

As a reader re-reading a book like The Catcher in the Rye, I haven’t ever felt disappointed by the inevitable change my own person experienced to the contents of the book. That’s like deriding yourself for your best friend in second-grade (“she was really an asshole, I don’t know why I didn’t see it”). That you didn’t see or, rather, see through something, initially, is part of the magic of a novel or a story; of any experience, I’d say. The novel of adolescence is particularly vulnerable to criticism: these books are not meant to ‘hold-up’ especially if your lapse into adulthood has left you resentful of youth’s predictable, albeit compelling, struggles. (For sympathetic thoughts on the subject of youth & adolescence see Walter Benjamin on Experience; Randolph Bourne on Youth; or even T.s. Eliot in No. 2 of his ‘Four Quartets’: “Do not let me hear/?Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,/?Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,/?Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God. “)


Naiveté is a gift quickly derided by those who prize ‘growing up’ as youth’s virtuous antithesis. Just as all the fat girls hate the thin girls, this judgment is largely arbitrary and, ultimately, a reflection of the opposite’s own lack. The naive, as many platitudes attest to, are not disturbed by their disposition; it’s the overbearing and over-informed who fret. Teddy and Holden, along with the other characters set alive by Salinger, will continue to meet and greet both youth and adults alike, blissfully ignorant of their supposed critical underachievement.

And I’m surprised that Stevens not once acknowledges that perhaps the reclusive writer is just protecting an ordinary existence, from which we’ve all sprung, one that has inevitably made a person who they are. In the writer’s case, an existence from which they’ve always felt distinctively other or apart. As E.M. Cioran writes in his lyrical yet derisive essay “Some Blind Alleys: A Letter,” about the very profession he undertook so dramatically:

Penetrating the literary inferno, you will come to learn its artifices and its arsenic; shield from the immediate, that caricature of yourself, you will no longer have any but formal experiences, indirect experiences; you will vanish into the Word. […] To keep one’s secret is the most fruitful of activities. It torments, erodes, threatens you. Even when confession is addressed to God, it is an outrage against ourselves, against the mainspring of our being. The apprehension, shames, fears from which both religious and profane therapeutics would deliver us constitute a patrimony we should not allow ourselves to be dispossessed of, at any cost. (108-109, from The Temptation to Exist)

James Joyce once wrote, “Write it goddamit, what else are you good for?” And I don’t think the blind, verbally belligerent Irishman would have elaborated later that he was also good for press conferences, candid shots on the beach, press dates, and apologizing for the naiveté of his earlier works. But Stevens, like a child carrying on about the negligence of a father-figure he believed in, continues to nitpick:

… rereading the novel at several decades’ remove from my own teenaged earnestness, I am struck less by Holden’s naiveté than by Salinger’s. Knowing what we do of the author’s self-imposed isolation, it is hard not to read The Catcher in the Ryeas, in part, an expression of Salinger’s impatience with society and an extension of his own desire for escape. Holden’s hatred of phonies, his obsession with childhood innocence and his distrust of change condemn him to what Michael Greenberg calls “a hell of second-guessing” where “every motive is potentially corrupt” and purity “is impossible because it opposes the basic machinery of human nature”.

Oh come on. On your second rereading you saw the author rather than the narrator? That’s fine. We are wont to see through the naiveté of a character who perhaps spoke to us during adolescence, a time we’re all encouraged to grow up on out of as soon as possible. Being ‘childish,’ ‘immature’  or, worst of all, ‘maladjusted’ holds a particular potency in the Horatio Alger mythical carpet that lines America’s soddy floors. Stevens, via Hamilton, takes particular issue with the transparency of Salinger’s post-Catcher characters:

“Almost every story in the collection features children or childlike characters who embody innocence and vulnerability in contrast with the adult world, which is inevitably shallow and false, if not downright corrupt.”

The hermit author just can’t win: either Salinger dotes on the naiveté of children too much to satisfy adult readers or he is unmasked as some callow, life-long adolescent.

No wonder Salinger locked himself away. It is not the responsibility of an author to grow along with their readers, like some enlightened, narrative-loving parent or therapist. Salinger wrote what he wrote, you turned the pages. It’s criticism like this that gets a bit callow itself: why couldn’t you grow up along with me, it begs.

Salinger was no Philip Roth, but we don’t need more than one of Roth. Roth’s Roth. Salinger’s Salinger. Why is so much criticism (especially in its posthumous-praise or pity parade) focused on the discrepancies between different writers? Not to flog Sontag for all she’s worth but there’s resounding truth, not to mention peace, in the final words of her seminal essay “Against Interpretation”: “The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.” Or what it is not, I’d addend. But there are two kinds of critics: the celebrants and the satirists (or, in diluted form, just needlessly cruel).

I stand by the idea that if Salinger had been born a bit later, he’d be David Lynch, or his sidekick. By that I mean simply that he might have adopted a wry, playful attitude towards critical incision; playing along only because retreating, in the oversaturated celebrity ethos of all careerism today, spells obsolescence. As it stands, Salinger is not alive, and lived in the time he did, the existence he chose. I think it’s most respectful and enjoyable to not interpret too heavily or extrapolate away from the sentences, especially the moments that perhaps meant a great amount when they were first read. I think Salinger expresses all he needs to in defense of his, or any, solitude in his work that exists, timelessly, against interpretation:

You should’ve heard the crowd, though, when he was finished. You would’ve puked. They went mad. They were exactly the same morons that laugh like hyenas in the movies at stuff that isn’t funny. I swear to God, if I were a piano player or an actor or something and all those dopes thought I was terrific, I’d hate it. I wouldn’t even want them to clap for me. People always clap for the wrong things. If I were a piano player, I’d play it in the goddam closet.