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Monday, January 21, 2002

Rethinking J. D. Salinger

Neumu's Michael Goldberg writes: If you're anything like me, at some point you read J. D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye" and "Nine Stories" and felt that here was a writer who "got it." Reading Salinger, especially those two books, it was easy to feel that he had written with me (you too) in mind. The writing was so seemingly conversational, so inclusive of the reader, so "us vs. them." I think it was 1967 or perhaps '68 when I first read Salinger. Wow, I thought at the time, here was a writer who understand that the "establishment" (not to mention the grownups) was all fucked up — before the '60s.

For some reason, even though I possess the handful of books Salinger wrote (including two unauthorized collections of early short stories), I frequently check the Salinger section in the bookstores I wander into — I guess on the off chance that, one day, I'll be surprised to find something new there. Naturally I never do. But recently, when I looked for Salinger in a bookstore I rarely visit, I found a new book, not by Salinger, but of interest nonetheless, titled: "With Love and Squalor." ("For Esme — With Love and Squalor" is the name of one of Salinger's "nine stories.")

Published last year, "With Love and Squalor" is a collection of essays by 14 contemporary writers, mostly authors of fiction. It was edited by book agent Kip Kotzen and novelist Thomas Beller ("The Sleep-Over Artist"). Beller, who has been published in the New Yorker and profiled Oasis and Stephen Malkmus for Spin, wrote a quite personal piece about his experiences with Oasis for me a few years ago when I was running SonicNet editorial. Ever since I've been interested in his various projects, which also include the online literary site mrbellersneighborhood.com.

"With Love and Squalor" is one of those can't-put-it-down books, if you're as obsessed with Salinger's writing as I am. I mean, I've read "Nine Stories" so many times I've lost count. I would have to say that "De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period" and "The Laughing Man" are two of the best short stories ever written (although I'm suspect as a judge of short stories, as it's not as if I've read thousands and picked these two after years of research). Still, I bet that if one were to do all that research, those two would still end up in the list of the100 best short stories ever written. And, in any case, they are at the top of my list of greatest short stories, so there.

One of the good things about "With Love and Squalor" is that it's not a valentine to Salinger. Most of the writers — even the writers that dig Salinger — have some problems with his work. Quite a few talk about falling in love with Salinger as a kid, but then, upon reading him as an adult, discovering that the love affair is over. "So how did it happen? When did I start to fall out of love with Holden?" writes novelist Jane Mendelsohn (author of "Innocence" and "I Was Amelia Earhart"). Yet near the end of her piece she writes, "I mention all of this death stuff not as a way of saying that there should have been more teen hotlines in the 1940s, but to describe how completely different the experience of reading 'The Catcher in the Rye' was for me after so many years. It was like running into an old boyfriend and realizing that not only has he lost all his hair or gained fifty pounds, but that he was always bald or overweight or depressed or hostile or just plain crazy, although you had no idea at the time. It was, frankly, a little unnerving, but humbling as well. I didn't actually love 'The Catcher in the Rye' any less; I just wasn't in love with Holden anymore."

Beller himself writes: "Just because you love something at one point in your life doesn't mean you will love it with the same intensity forever."

Some of these writers — the contributors include Emma Forest, Walter Kirn, Aimee Bender, John McNally and Amy Sohn (plus seven others) — talk about being influenced by Salinger, or being called the new Salinger, or being inspired to find their own voice because of Salinger. "Even though it took him nine years or something to write, it feels like Salinger wrote 'The Catcher in the Rye' in a day, and that incredible feeling of ease inspires writing," wrote Aimee Bender. "Inspires the pursuit of voice. Not his voice. My voice. Your voice."

If you're not a writer, it's probably hard to understand this, but maybe not. Writers look for inspiration. Bender nails it exactly. There is something about Salinger's writing — especially "The Catcher in the Rye" and the short stories collected in "Nine Stories" — that inspires. That makes a writer want to write.

The InsiderOne Daily Report appears on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 9 AM PST, except when it doesn't.




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