Why no writer can match Salinger’s voice

Why no writer can match Salinger’s voice

Jerome David Salinger, who died last month at age 91, would approve. He, along with Ayn Rand, inspires hyperbole and cultish devotion. Their books achieve the troika that every aspiring author longs for: original, long-lasting best-sellers. Best of all, not only are their books and characters unforgettable (remember Howard Roark?), they are immensely readable. How many of us have finished Moby Dick beyond that most memorable of first lines: “Call me Ishmael"? How many of us, even those who cop to the literati label, have read Proust, Tolstoy, Tagore, or Hemingway—not the abstracts or reviews but the books? Generations of college students on the other hand read Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Rand’s Atlas Shrugged from cover to cover. Former US Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan converted from being a “logical positivist" to Rand’s “objectivist" philosophy. Would it be a reach to say that Greenspan’s Rand-inspired belief in the infallibility of free markets caused the slowdown?

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Salinger doesn’t have such high-profile followers perhaps because his books didn’t espouse such shrill philosophies but they were an adolescent rite of passage. Holden Caulfield’s abhorrence of “phoniness" is part of teenage, and adult angst. Not to go overboard with the superlatives but J.D. Salinger also happens to be my favourite author of all time. I would cut off both my hands to be able to write like him, which, one could argue, defeats the purpose. Instead, here’s a riff on his style.

The first thing you’ll probably want to know is why I love Salinger so much, and what my lousy literary failures were like, and how my English professor father caused this blind adoration, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. What I will tell you if you happen to be a college student reading dumb romantic novels where the heroine rips off her bodice or even dumber westerns which show “some hotshot guy on a horse jumping over a fence" is to say: Get a copy of Nine Stories or The Catcher in the Rye pronto. Read it and weep.

As startling and sudden as Salinger’s literary success was, what he did after he achieved fame and glory was even more unusual. In 1953, at the height of his prowess, he moved to Cornish, New Hampshire and became a recluse. He gave no interviews, avoided attention, and even sued to keep his works from the public. When the influential Iranian film-maker Dariush Mehrju’i adopted Salinger’s book Franny and Zooey into a movie called Pari, Salinger had his lawyers block a planned screening at no less a venue than Lincoln Center. How weird is that? It is as if Satyajit Ray suddenly decided to block the screening of his Apu trilogy in Kolkata; or A.R. Rahman filed a lawsuit to prevent the Madras Music Academy from hosting a performance of Jai Ho; as if Subodh Gupta created his sculptures and then put them away in a warehouse away from public view.

Cult quotient: At the height of his fame, Salinger retreated from the literary marketplace to write for pleasure. Amy Sancetta / AP

This perhaps is why Salinger fascinates anyone who likes books. At a time when book tours and media interviews are the norm, he gave none. At a time when even the most literary authors salivate after commercial success, Salinger achieved such success and then eschewed it. Even after The New Yorker, that pinnacle of magazine journalism, dedicated almost an entire issue to a single Salinger story, he wrote fewer pieces for the magazine, not more. Although he supposedly wrote for a few hours a day, Salinger didn’t publish a thing after his 1961 book, Franny and Zooey. For anyone artistically inclined, there is a certain purity in this pursuit. As Salinger said himself in a rare interview to The New York Times, “There is a marvellous peace in not publishing…. I like to write; I love to write. But I write for my own pleasure."

For the market-loving capitalist, the notion of retreating from commercial success would be contrarian, even quixotic. Success for many writers translates into royalty cheques, awards, and number of books sold. But even the most commercial artist, musician or author can relate to Salinger’s notion of writing for one’s own pleasure and turning away from the commercial marketplace. The reason is this: The most valuable thing a writer has is not only plot, narrative or characters. It is the authorial voice—unique and unmistakable. It is the reason Richard Powers or Philip Roth have not attained a wider audience even though they are revered by the literary establishment. Salinger, on the other hand, was all voice. He understood that markets influence the creative voice. Success taints creativity—Gauguin ran away to Tahiti to escape it. To stomach success and come out unscathed takes the strength of a Picasso. Salinger retreated from the world to preserve his authorial voice. Supposedly, he has a whole body of work for publication after his death. What a way to die!

Shoba Narayan also likes that other author with an initialled first name. Her name is Joanne. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com