It’s not that I’m against this kind of thing per se, it’s just that it’s extremely, extremely rare to find any writing of this sort that is worth sticking up for because it’s just plain dull. It’s also disappointing because this sort of thing takes away from a discussion of the books, which, if we’re talking about an author, is almost guaranteed to be the most original and interesting aspect of a life. By contrast, these older-man/younger-woman stories always make the same points, and they’re not terribly interesting points at that. For instance,
To a stunning degree, for a period of over half a century, Salinger managed to convince a significant portion of the reading population that his words and actions should be exempt from scrutiny for the simple reason that he wrote those nine stories, and “The Catcher in the Rye.” And because he said so.
Now the story well known to me is known to the world, though there are voices raised up still, decrying the violation of Salinger’s legendary privacy. But while this recent burst of disclosure might seem to demystify the man (or call his role as sage into question), a troubling phenomenon has surfaced along with the news.
It is the quiet acceptance, apparently alive and well in our culture, of the notion that genius justifies cruel or abusive treatment of those who serve the artist and his art. Richard Schickel, writing of Salinger’s activities, expresses the view that despite the disclosures about Salinger’s pursuit of young women he lived “a ‘normal’ life.” . . .
One of these girls, 14 when Salinger first pursued her long ago, described him in terms usually reserved for deities, and spoke of feeling privileged to have served as inspiration and muse to a great writer — though she also reports that he severed their relationship the day after their one and only sexual encounter.
First of all, the fact that Salinger took advantage of young women has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the validity of his writing or the characters he created. None. It’s simply not an interesting way to look at the work at all.
So, if this sort of thing can’t give us any interesting new insights into Salinger’s writing, then the only way it can justify its existence is if the story itslf is inherently interesting. But that would seem not to be the case, as Joyce Maynard herself admits, “Sadly, this is not an uncommon story, and has been played out by many besides Salinger.” So I don’t really see any reason why anyone should care about this sort of thing, other than as a quick bit of gossip you share around the dinner table and then instantly forget.
Look, I find it pretty pathetic when an old dude needs to prop up his ego by winning the admiration of a teenager, but this is low-hanging fruit. Honestly, I don’t know where people like Maynard have been spending their time, but it’s not uncommon at all for successful old men to hit on young women. We can argue about how distasteful we find this, why this happens, what are the consequences, etc, but the fact of the matter is pretty mundane. And even if you find this sort of behavior vile and offensive, chances are it’s not the most interesting part of a person’s life, and in the case of an author it’s almost certain to be irrelevant to the writing.
As to the Salinger film treating this stuff too thinly—frankly, if you’re compressing an entire life down to 2 hours, you’re going to have to cut out a whole lot of stuff. You only get to keep the stuff that’s most relevant to your story you’re trying to tell, which should be about the most instructive and most unique parts of the subject’s life. I don’t see why any of this stuff would be in the Salinger film, much less as the focus of said film, except because of our strange obsession with the—yes, screwy and inappropriate but entirely mundane—matter of older men who pick on young women.
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