Tuesday, February 2, 2010

J.D. Salinger's Publicity Secret

Was J.D. Salinger really a recluse because he detested publishing his work or the process of publishing? Of course not. Don’t even believe he shunned the media because he wanted to just write for himself, as he has repeatedly said. If that were indeed the case, he never would have published any of his work.

If it weren’t for the publication of Catcher, Salinger would probably be broke and living in his car. Instead, he has enjoyed the security of income that the book has provided him since its publication in 1951, to the tune of one million books a year today, thanks to the public school system. Worth about 250k a year to Salinger. Who in their right mind would complain about that?

The fact is that just as Harper Lee had done after the success of Mockingbird, Salinger also went into seclusion after the success of Catcher. Before that, he had no problems publishing his short stories. Some people like their privacy and just don’t want to be bothered. Much like Cormac McCarthy. He too is among the recluse writers that avoid “the media” for the same reasons.

J.D. Salinger Quoted in The Onion: June 8, 2009


"I believe that a writer's privacy is among his most precious possessions, in that personal information about him distracts readers from what is most important: the work itself."

This entire excerpt is priceless and a must read. It’s so outrageous I thought it was a hoax. But it goes to prove how right Salinger was about avoiding the media, and we can clearly see why by this encounter with reporters in Cornish, New Hampshire, outside a movie theater. His comments destroy the mystery behind his most popular story. A mystique which he had managed to keep under wraps for so long. He sounds a bit like Holden Caulfield and that’s really unfortunate.

QUOTE Aug 4, 1961

From the dustjacket of Franny and Zooey:

"It is my rather subversive opinion, that a writer's feelings of anonymity-obscurity are the second most valuable property on loan to him during his working years."

But let’s get to the other reason I believe Salinger continued to despise publicity for so many years. Yes, he was a private man. We all like our privacy and don’t appreciate being stalked, let alone for over 50 years. Things like that do get annoying, and eventually Salinger had the tendency to despise it, but he also had the power to avoid it—except when he needed it most.

It all started in 1939 when his writing teacher at Columbia University, Whit Burnett, discovered Salinger. Burnett took notice of Salinger’s talent and made sure that his magazine, the popular Story, would be the first to publish Salinger’s short story, The Young Folks in the 1940 April issue. Because of Burnett’s magazine, Salinger eventually broke through to mass-circulation magazines like Collier’s, Esquire, and The New Yorker; that was the magazine he wanted so badly to appear in--a publication that would validate him not just as a professional but also as an artistic writer. The New Yorker also was the only magazine to publish everything that Salinger had to say, including the very popular The Catcher in the Rye. Everything, except this:

"There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure."

(J.D. Salinger to the New York Times, 1974)

Obviously, he would not have made that statement in 1940 at the beginning of his writing career when he needed to get published and noticed. Salinger was a very astute man with keen marketing sensibilities. He knew that the more you denied someone a particular thing, the more they were going to want it and the more controversy would grow as a result of his defiance. It’s pretty simple. Refusal to share something is grounds for gossip, particularly in the eyes of the controversy-centered media.

You mean the author of the wildly popular Catcher in the Rye doesn’t want to give interviews? He refuses to discuss his novel? He slams his door on reporters? Please, if all this isn’t fodder for the media, I don’t know what is. On top of that, he simply enjoyed and relished refusing media attention. That gave him power, authority, and above all, pleasure. Plus, and more importantly to Salinger, it kept the author and his characters in two separate worlds.

Just imagine the opposite. What if a reporter showed up at Salinger’s door and Salinger greeted him with open arms and invited him in for coffee and batches of Ladyfingers. Where’s the story? In fact, this just makes us want to hurl. There is no story. And had Salinger divulged stories about his personal life, well we can only imagine how that would feel. And that’s the whole point.

Salinger knew how to create publicity and he capitalized on his power to deny the media what they wanted, and what his readers hungered for. He was in a very good position to do so, and he did it with gusto.

He also knew that exposing his personal life, like an open book to the public at large, would be detrimental to his stories. It’s a lot like actors who avoid interviews for fear of diminishing their on-screen characters. (I touched on this in my review of Robert James Waller’s novel, High Plains Tango, where I mention Salinger.)

I certainly agree with Salinger. The less an author or an actor divulges about their personal life, the more intriguing and believable their characters become, and remain. It’s just good business.

Good for him, because in the process he has also created an unprecedented demand for his book and all his work, published or not, for generations to come.

Salinger’s reclusiveness has not made him a footnote in the world of literature. It has made him an icon.

Thank you for sharing your story, J.D. Salinger, wherever you are. You have enriched us because of it.

Godspeed dear friend. Holden Caulfield has caught another child in the endless fields of rye.

Want a similar take about Salinger? Check out Slate for more.

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Coming up for next Monday's Post: What X-Rated movie was novelized in 1973?

Hint: It was a foreign film, starring an American actor. Another Pavlovian Post. These revealing shots and the before and after pix of this unforgettable actress will speak for themselves. Shameful.


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