Why Joyce Maynard Is Right About J.D. Salinger

Over the weekend, the New York Times ran an op-ed by the writer Joyce Maynard, she who is most famous for having lived with J.D. Salinger for a short period when she was in her late teens and he was… 53. I admit that I was on her side before even reading the first line of her editorial. I have what some might call a knee-jerk reaction to the kind of man who dates as far outside his age bracket as this. I cannot help but judge it. I actually think this is true of a lot of people, and that I am at most perhaps more honest about it than others. Other women, I mean.

It’s not that the conduct is illegal, or should be, but there is a lot of testimony from people who have gone through it that it involves a certain degree of abusiveness that needs to be acknowledged. Maynard puts it nicely, I think:

[W]e are talking about what happens when people in positions of power — mentors, priests, employers or simply those assigned an elevated status — use their power to lure much younger people into sexual and (in the case of Salinger) emotional relationships. Most typically, those who do this are men. And when they are done with the person they’ve drawn toward them, it can take that person years or decades to recover.

Claims like that make people uncomfortable. When Maynard’s book came out, in the early aughts, it set off a firestorm of criticism of Maynard herself. In a new introduction to her reissued memoir, she mentions at least one reading where a bunch of men got up and walked out of the room in symbolic protest when she began to speak. She was thought to have impinged on the privacy of a great writer; that she had been there and done those things too, and that they had shaped her life as well as his, was viewed as beyond the point. In their minds, Salinger being the genius, he should get to decide what she could disclose. And moreover, some critics argued at the time, all of this was irrelevant.

Thankfully, times have changed, somewhat. You can tell because there are very few voices piping up in full defense of Salinger these days. Maynard cites New York’s film critic, David Edelstein, as being particularly dismissive — in his review, he wrote, “He liked pretty young girls. Stop the presses” — but Edelstein was more the exception than the rule. Other critics were less flip, from Salon’s Laura Miller:

As both book and film amply document, the author was a terrible father and worse husband, a man who withdrew from public life and repudiated his fame, yet was not above using that fame (via creepily seductive letters) to court teenage girls from his redoubt in Cornish, N.H.

To Slate’s Dana Stevens:

The vision that emerges of Salinger’s relationships with women… is a bleak one, suggesting a man who spent his life fixated on a fantasy of youthful innocence while refusing to contend with the realities of day-to-day domestic love.

To the TimesA.O. Scott:

His behavior with them sheds a queasy light on his fiction, which often dwells on the precocity and half-innocence of characters perched on the brink of ruinous disillusionment.

I applaud this move in the culture, not least because as I said at the beginning, it strikes me as an honest one. We all know these relationships raise icky power imbalance questions; we know that people’s lives do, like it or not, inform their art, though the correlation is rarely if ever one-to-one. These are questions worth raising and discussing.

The discussion doesn’t mean, either, that the art has to be trashed. Most artists are, of course, not wonderful people where interpersonal relationships are concerned. It is not always a fundamental misanthropy that makes them so, either. The sheer amount of concentration it takes to produce a book or a painting or a film should not be underestimated. Any writer, even the humble one writing this blog post, can tell you that you’ll pay dearly in your attentiveness to friends and family if you undertake a field like this. (It makes the time commitment of my former field, lawyering, look like a lark.) There just isn’t time. So you make a sacrifice.

For years, that essential truth worked to the benefit of men because they bore some kind of patriarchal burden of Greatness, and could excuse their inattention by way of excuses that as men they needed to Fulfill Their Destiny (capitalization intentional). Now that we’ve cleared out some of those hackneyed old ideas, there really isn’t an excuse, per se. (Some) men have had trouble adjusting; they still think that the sacrifice should be enough to inspire admiration of them personally. Which just goes to show they didn’t understand the bargain well enough — great art’s a harsh enough mistress that she’ll  take away your whole claim to integrity. In other words, you can’t have your book and have your family eat their hearts out, too. Be a putz if you think it’ll make your book better, but be prepared for others to disagree.