If a Body Catch a Body Comin' Through The Rye, Please Sue Him…


J.D. Salinger's Number 2 fan, Ron Rosenbaum, reports on a pending lawsuit by the reclusive writer:

In the suit, the 90-year-old author seeks the "recall and destruction" (subtly oxymoronic?) of a novel that had been set to be published in the United Kingdom this summer and in the U.S. this fall. The book is 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye by a pseudonymous writer who calls himself John David California.

In the novel, as was first reported by the U.K. Telegraph and then the New York Post and other U.S. outlets, a 76-year-old man called "Mr. C" (who is said to be a stand-in for Salinger's Holden Caulfield character, the troubled and rebellious teenage protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye), escapes from a nursing home, encountering, as part of his travels, "a Salinger-like figure" as he seeks to retrace Holden's youthful steps.

Like a jerk, Salinger not only wants the book to be disappeared via preliminary injunction, he also wants cash (the gift that keeps on giving). And he wants to know, really, where do the ducks go?

Rosenbaum doesn't mention it, but this case bears more than a little passing resemblance to the 2001 flap over The Wind Done Gone, a sequel of sorts to Gone With The Wind that ran afoul of the Margaret Mitchell estate before being published to indifferent notices but certainly no damage to Gone With The Wind. The stakes in that case, as in the current one, ostensibly revolve around copyright, intellectual property, and a genuinely misguided idea that new work riffing off old somehow depletes the source material; it's zero-sum lit crit. After running through a list of takeoffs ranging from Nobel Prize winner J.M Coetzee's revision of Robinson Crusoe (called Foe) to Star Trek fan fiction, I argued:

None of these literary knock-offs, it is safe to say, has in any way weakened the audience or market for the works that inspired them. If anything, they have greatly expanded interest in the originals. On its page for Bored of the Rings, for instance, Amazon.com notes that "customers who bought this book also bought" The Lord of the Rings, The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth, and other Tolkein-related titles. Wide Sargasso Sea, a campus favorite for over a decade, is now routinely taught in conjunction with Jane Eyre, and has put Charlotte Bronte's mid-19th century novel smack at the center of contemporary academic debates over feminism and post- colonialism.

Similarly, if The Wind Done Gone sees print, the likely outcome will be a burst of new interest in Gone With the Wind (already one of the very best-selling books in history).

If The Wind Done Gone didn't kick off a new burst of interest in Gone With the Wind, well, it's because the original wasn't exactly hurting. Certainly, the new book had no negative effect on the old one. More to the point, there was no confusing the provenance of the two works, as there wouldn't be in the Salinger case. It's one thing to sow confusion in readers related to whether a product is sanctioned or not by a particular person or organization. If The Wind Done Gone, by design or by accident, created the impression that it was authorized by the Mitchell estate, that's as much of a problem as, say, a product claiming it has the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval or a UL listing when it doesn't. That's something that can and should be addressed.

But that wasn't the case with The Wind Done Gone and it would not be with 60 Years Later (which sounds genuinely rotten from Rosenbaum's description). In both cases, the real issue is less about market confusion and more about the claim to a sort of omnipotent psychic ownership of an entire fictional universe and all possible alternatives. What I said about The Wind Done Gone:

Randall's novel would indeed steal something from the text that inspired it. The very idea behind The Wind Done Gone inflicts a sort of psychic damage to what Judge Pannell characterized in his decision as the "romantic, but tragic, world" of Twelve Oaks and Tara. By re-imagining Gone With the Wind through a slave's eyes, The Wind Done Gone would help strip away whatever sympathy for Rhett Butler's South still exists in some readers; it would make it that much more difficult to obfuscate the brutality of a society predicated upon slavery with phrases such as the "calm dignity life can have when it's lived by gentle folks" and "the genial grace of days that are gone." Or, for that matter, by claiming the novel unfolds in a "romantic, but tragic, world."

That sort of "theft" shouldn't be actionable. Read "Tomorrow is Another Day in Court."

Back to Salinger and Rosenbaum: Rosenbaum, author of an interesting book on how Hitler is figured in culture and a 1,000 less-interesting articles about the obsessions of Ron Rosenbaum, goes on to reminisce about the time he wrote about stalking Salinger and the way Rosenbaum's own readers let him down, just like Mark David Chapman did Salinger:

I did offer one amusing factoid about Salinger in the story that I still think holds up in a way. A woman I know stood in line behind him at a grocery store and discovered he was buying … doughnut holes! Those round balls of sugary fried dough….

Anyway, I wrote the story as a tribute to the power of Salinger's emblematic resistance to the publicity-industrial complex (my coinage!). I called his silence, this repudiation of celebrity culture, "his most powerful, his most eloquent, perhaps his most lasting work of art." But a few dolts misread it in a simple-minded Mark David Chapman way because it did not fit their preconceived image of a celebrity profile. It was an anti-celebrity profile! The misreading made me understand Salinger's anger: Why put up with idiots when he could write as he pleased and let the misguided hacks hack away at him when he was dead? He had a vision and he had a right to pursue it his way.

I should point out that I was one of those folks who made fun of Rosenbaum's piece. I did it at Suck.com, writing that Rosenbaum's "willingness to read hidden meanings into the irascible novelist's words made him sound disturbingly like Salinger's most famous explicator, Mark David Chapman." Rosenbaum was genuinely excited by the (foiled!) prospect of a book-version reprint of a 1965 Salinger short story about a kid at summer camp, a literary non-event that took place around the long-awaited releases of a new Thomas Pynchon novel (snooze!) and William Gass' The Tunnel (why, Bill, why?). To my view, Rosenbaum's piece exemplified the desperation of critics for a "great" American writer, come hell or highwater. Or even the lack of basic writing to discuss.

The short answer to Rosenbaum's bleating about writerly anger at audience is, I think: You put up with "idiots" because that's all there is, pal. The world is filled with readers who will always disappoint you, either by not getting you at all or by lauding the stuff in your work that you absolutely hate. For Christ's sake, there's good-faith and bad-faith misreadings, but there really is only misreading. More to the point, literature, and journalism, and poetry, and casual conversation, and intense conversation, is all there is. And if you're not trying to connect with an audience (that is, people outside your own goddamned head, who might actually, you know, talk back or bring a different POV or ignore you altogether), well, then screw you. See you in hell, where you get to spend endless days in court with other literary refuseniks such as Harlan Ellison, who continues to alienate and attack the dwindling number of admirers who bother to keep talking about the guy's work.

Whole Slate piece here.

And for the comments (where misreading rules like Chavez in Venezuela or Stradlater in the locker room!), who else thinks that Catcher in the Rye is one of the most overrated books in U.S. literary history?