Imagine a slightly unpleasant man who returns from war with post traumatic stress disorder and wants to stay inside most of the time. You would probably have no problem leaving him alone. But once you establish yourself as a genius worth listening to, you do not get off that easy.
As many people know, J.D. Salinger did not relish fame but rather tried to escape it. A deep-digging biography of a decisively enigmatic man sounds thrilling, but how much of that thrill is lost when the biographers appear to be intruding on privacy rather than elucidating mystery? Such is the disappointing case in the much anticipated new publication from David Shields and Shane Salerno Salinger.
Upon its release last month, Salinger was greeted with a slew of negative criticisms for its clumsy use of a cut-and-splice format and its simplistic interpretation of the interaction between the work of the writer and the life of the man.
Indeed, the authors take the uninspired analytical approach. The apparent driving objective is to dig up real life parallels to characters and events from the Salinger stories and designate them as direct causes or subjects of the fiction.
This attitude is inherently flawed in that it does a two-pronged disservice—to Salinger as an artist, by simplifying his creative process, and to Salinger the man, by advancing the notion that his private life might be directly accessible in his fiction.
A biography of an artist has an innate inclination to interest itself in the relationship between life and work, but a respectful and intellectually successful biography observes the relationship rather than making a crude science out of it.
One hopes to use biographical context to enhance appreciation or even understanding of a text—for these authors, it is used as explanation. In a chapter called “The Origin of Esme,” for example, Shields claims that Salinger “reproduced” interactions with young women in his life to construct some of his most important narratives.
However much reality was transposed onto his fiction, to call his process a simple copy seems inherently ignorant, and an assumption of authority over an artist’s creative method that ought not be found in the voice relaying his legacy to the world.
Salinger was released alongside a corresponding documentary film of the same name, and the book itself is structured documentary-style. Rather than using the form of narrative prose, these authors sought to capture the essence of Salinger in a compilation of interviews, text borrowed from other publications and a liberal scatter of interjections from the authors.
If a biographer is going to make a strong stylistic move like this one, it seems necessary that it should in itself be a conscious tribute to its subject. These authors and their mode of composition do not ostensibly reflect that kind of appreciation.
My most sympathetic analysis would be this: Salinger navigates an incoherent string of interviews and biographical events in the same way Holden Caulfield navigates disconnected experiences in New York, or it records a series of perspectives on a common theme as Salinger does in his “Nine Stories.” The authors cannot really be saved by this defense, however, because a Salinger text comes together as something larger than the sum of its parts, and that something is, in broad terms, a meaning worth understanding. This biography does not culminate in an evoked essence of J.D. Salinger—rather it offers a detached assembly of perceptions that floated around his character rather than sees into it.
If we want to get some value out of this book, it might be necessary to embrace its fragmented nature. This means denying it the linear attention we might devote to a story and treating it more like a book of trivia or quotes—something that you might leave on a coffee table or in the bathroom.
Like it or not, it is a simple fact that this volume does include unseen material from Salinger’s life, which some of us may be painfully curious about, and anecdotes whose content or narrator might strike our interest. It is just unfortunate that we have to sift through a confusing alternation of presumptuous commentary, unqualified contributions and borrowed material from ambiguous sources, before we get to the good stuff.
It is certainly a surprising disappointment that a 600-page investment in the identity of such a beloved literary figure would result in a book that is a poorly edited collection of interesting material at best and a grave misrepresentation at worst. We expect a certain respect for Salinger from those who devote themselves to telling his story, and that respect is not demonstrated by these authors.
Where a better biographer might work from a place of compassion or at least sympathy to convey a message from his subject, these biographers seem motivated by a desire to expose what Salinger might have been hiding. Such is one of the main perplexities surrounding this publication.
Risking a hypocritical generalization, I submit that Salinger does not seem to like Salinger. Anyone has the right to publish an unflattering story with an important figure as their subject, no matter how popular the person is. But at least call it something other than “Salinger” as if his legacy is yours to manhandle, and at least do it well.