Saturday, January 4, 2014

On the Writing of "Salinger's Wishes"

An essay I originally wrote for this blog about the leaked J.D. Salinger stories recently appeared in The Millions literary magazine.  For those who haven’t heard, back in November, a manuscript entitled Three Stories by J.D. Salinger surfaced online and has been passed around widely since, in discordance with the author’s wishes that they (along with his other work) not be published until specific intervals after his death.  The essay proposes that Salinger kept the most polished of the three, “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” hidden because it tells an earlier version of Holden Caulfield’s brother’s death and focuses the tragedy for the reader less effectively than The Catcher in the Rye does.  The subject matter and timely nature of the essay seemed to make it worth submitting, and a few e-mails was all it took.  Writers like to pretend that submitting is an arcane, secretive process, but having never submitted a literary essay before, I found it surprisingly easy.  Click here for the link.

I don’t take a strong stance on Salinger’s strict, almost obsessive desire to keep his writing and personal life hidden.  If anything, I believe the man was entitled to his privacy, though I venture that his reclusive behavior probably did more to rouse attention (intentionally or unintentionally) about his life, writing, and personal relationships than a New York literary life would have.  Though we don’t know enough about Salinger to judge why he stopped publishing, the leaked stories provide some clues.  Two of them are rough drafts with crossouts, misspellings, and incomplete character relationships.  That Salinger chose not to polish them implies that he’d lost interest in them.  When I read “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” however, I saw a story that was ready for publication but showed three Caulfield brothers that were different than the ones in Catcher.  Because Salinger chose to change their relationships and the presentation of events in the story, we can infer that there’s something inherently unfinished about “Bowling Balls,” something that wasn’t what the writer wanted.  While Salinger’s reasons for guarding his later, finished writings may be shrouded in mystery (for a few more years, at least), his reworking of elements from "Bowling Balls" into Catcher provide more telling evidence.

I found myself drawn to Salinger’s process because, as a writer, I know it’s hard to get it right the first time.  This goes double for writers just starting out, as Salinger was in the 1940s.  While we can enjoy a novel or movie sequel safe in the knowledge that we can pick up our favorite characters where we last left them, readers of “Bowling Balls” must remember that its characters aren’t fully developed the way Salinger wanted them, and can't exist in the same world as Catcher.  Can we still enjoy stories like “Bowling Balls” with the understanding that they’re prototypes?  Of course.  But it requires extra effort to avoid being pulled out of the story, effort that isn’t required when we read Faulkner’s novels or watch Kevin Smith movies, and effort that’s harder for most casual readers to muster.  Salinger understood this, which is why he didn’t want “Bowling Balls” published but was fine with leaving it in the library for the scholars to read.

I expect, though, that as more of Salinger’s works are released and more facts revealed about his life, Salinger fans will understand more about his secrecy and his existing canon.  But we don’t have those answers yet, which is why people have made pilgrimages to his house or traveled to research libraries to read his early stories.  It’s natural to want to know more about the things you love, and frustrating when you can’t find the answers.  Nick Hornby writes about this in Juliet, Naked, where online myths and legends run amuck about a rock star who’s left the public eye, and when we find out how banal his life really is, the legends appear all the more ridiculous.

I’m not saying that people shouldn’t read the Three Stories manuscript, but I do think that, as I write in the essay’s final sentence, they should view the stories as experiments from an earlier time.

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