J.D. Salinger is dead. Well, yeah, that happened a couple of weeks ago, and in blogging terms this is way out of date, but....
Most of us had to read Catcher in the Rye in High School. I escaped the requirement, but I read it later, maybe in my early 20s. I know it was supposed to be brilliant, and highly controversial for its time, but my reaction was "Meh, big deal." Of course, that was my reaction to most of the stuff we were supposed to be reading in High School*; yet another reason I should never have been an English Major.
I did not like the protagonist, maybe I didn't understand him. I couldn't relate, although I'd known a bunch of Caulfields; kids looking to reject their privileged backgrounds, putting on this tough-guy, hate the world, trust no-one over 30, facade. This included a guy I'd worked with in the bookstore who wanted to be addressed not as John, his given name, but as Andrujar (how did that just come to me after nearly 20 years?), in an attempt to convey some mysterious ethnicity he did not possess. I laughed at him.
That's not to say that I didn't have my own armor; my own facade. I certainly did. And I still have a problem with authority. But to me, from maybe the third grade on, the world of my peers wasn't any less phony or threatening than the adult world. I had more of a Lord of the Flies kind of experience, I guess. And at the same time, I never really got what the punk rockers were so darn angry about.
If I didn't always enjoy what I was reading, I did like learning about the life and times of many of these authors (should have been a History major). And while I've generally ignored Salinger since my first, failed, attempt to appreciate him; his death has caused a lot of that "life and times" information to come bubbling to the surface.
In amongst the hero worship were several, often disparaging, references to one Joyce Maynard, of whom I had never heard. A little research showed her to be the author of a book with the same name as this blog. I'll admit, right up front, that predisposed me to sympathy with her.
It turns out that in that book, she first revealed the story of a relationship she had with Salinger when she was 18 and he was 53. Their period together, ultimately abusive, began in correspondence, but it was he who wrote to her first.
Of course she was, and still is, castigated for violating the privacy of the hermit genius. As if she had no right to her side of the story.
Elsewhere she is labeled medicore, a "chronic oversharer" and "The Woman who Mistook Herself for Someone Interesting." Her work is not the stuff of the Great American Novel, most of it is not even fiction, but most of the criticism leveled at her is not always about the quality of her writing, but the fact that she writes about herself and her personal experiences.
Reading this sounds so awfully familiar. A few years ago, when hundreds of women, many of them mothers, first took to the Internet to chronicle their experiences, there were so many voices in the mainstream media, often male, calling for them to shut up and go away. As a new mother I quickly discovered that there was a significant element of society who believed that families should be isolated from the rest of the world and not be allowed to intrude on the lives of the busy, the important, the childless. When the women in these families attempted to make their voices heard, they were often scorned, trivialized, and judged. A man, writing about fatherhood, on the other hand, might be greeted as novel, insightful.
In the afterword to At Home in the World, Maynard writes:
It appeared that to many of my critics the sole significant event of my life had been sleeping with a great man. This was disheartening not just personally, but for what that portrayal of me and my story indicated about those writers’ perceptions of women. One day I hope some feminist scholar will examine the way in which a woman’s recounting of her history is so often ridiculed as self-absorbed and fundamentally unimportant. (So often, our stories deal with such topics as relationships, our bodies, the formation of a sexual identity, giving birth, making a home, the deaths of loved ones, the disintegration of a marriage, raising children.) I believe it is a measure of the hostility towards women still deeply woven into the texture of our culture that when a female writer gives voice to the struggles that are the stuff of women’s lives, she is so often dismissed as emotional, self-indulgent, and trivial. One need not look far for examples of male writers who have written freely and with no small measure of self-absorption about the territory of personal experience, who are praised for their courage and searing honesty.
Whether working in fiction or non-fiction, all writers mine their experiences for the purpose of storytelling. When something happens and we are told not to tell the story, a red flag goes up. What purpose does that silence serve? Who benefits?
So I'm a little disturbed when people, particularly other women, suggest that Maynard should not have broken her silence regarding Salinger. One of the consistent values of the mother/blogger community is those myriad other voices who, upon reading a particularly personal experience laid bare, come out of hiding and say "yeah, me too." Maynard, as it turns out, had her fair share of those as well.
At some point, I will actually have to read her book. I'm not going to be able to resist it now. When the time comes, I will let you know what I thought of it, though I am no book critic. As it happens, Maynard herself just became the mother of two internationally adopted, older children; girls from Ethiopia. Best wishes to her and her new family.
*Except Shakespeare. I LOVED Shakespeare from the word go. Still do. Amazing when you think that the first Shakespeare I was expected to read was not Romeo and Juliet, or even Much Ado, but Julius Caesar.