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Do Writers Have An Obligation to the Public to Write?

January 30, 2010

After Salinger’s death this week, all the controversies that had already surrounded the man resurfaced. After all, Salinger was a sort of pariah of the writing community. He didn’t want to interact with his public, didn’t want to bask in the glory of praise–he simply wanted to be left alone. The New Yorker has an interesting article written by a longtime friend of Salinger that you should read and which detailed some of his sentiments on this topic. But here’s my question: is it okay for a writer to deny his public? Do writers have an obligation to the public that overrides their personal comfort?

I was checking out Pimp My Novel’s Weekly Round Up, where of course Salinger was mentioned, and I couldn’t help but get heated (not in a bad way, but in a fervent, passionate way) about one of the comments that seemed to relate to this unique dilemma:

SM Schmidt said…It’s hard to imagine Salinger gone, he just sued someone in Europe last year for trying to publish a “sequel” to Catcher in the Rye. I’m guessing he’s one of the last handful of authors around who shunned the public. Horrible pessimist that I am, all I can think is how soon Catcher will become a movie even though Salinger hated the idea. 

This was my response:

writingyourfeelings said…

@SMSchmiddt: I agree. Especially as a writer I hate the idea of my work not being mine anymore–of it being fashioned in some way separate from my idea and without my knowledge or control. I think it was almost selfish that Salinger wrote stories and didn’t publish them, and yet, the very idea that he’d be required to write stories to simply satisfy the public seems like something he would detest.

Then again, it seems that Salinger did not necessarily shun the world so much as realize that he could not handle the world. After all, he prepared his books to be published upon his death.

I suppose Salinger was just an old-time writer living in a modern era: apt to be reclusive, live simply, garner little attention especially for a book he deemed not as good as the rest (reminiscent of Anthony Burgess and his Clockwork Orange) as if he lived in the 19th Century. But contemporary culture demands a certain amount of publicity, a desire for attention and ability to cater to the public. I wouldn’t say Salinger was revolutionary, or that he was better for shunning this aspect of the writing world, but Salinger realized his own limitations. That’s something I can respect…

Can you respect Salinger for his decision to remain a recluse? Should it be a writer’s duty to his readers to publish and publicize his works? And…how to you feel about posthumous works/novels?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. da_euphinator permalink
    January 31, 2010 1:21 am

    Funny that you wrote that you “hate the idea of [your] work not being [yours] anymore” when you were very enthusiastic about the publishing of Nabokov’s The Original of Laura. Only okay when it’s being done to others, eh?

    If Salinger could support himself monetarily without publishing more, he should be able to. A better example, to my mind, would be Douglas Adams, who I will now put in here in place of Salinger mostly because I fucking hated the Catcher in the Rye and never read anything else by him. He published very little, but what he did publish was utterly brilliant. If he wished to rest on his laurels, and was fiscally able to do so, more power to him. Just because you have written something doesn’t mean you necessarily believe it to be on par with your previous work. A cult success can be a frightening thing — how do you know what really caused so many people to connect with it? These cult icons are a convergence of a myriad of weird and random and unintentional components. (Less so with Adams than Salinger; with Adams you can more or less say, “Well, I like it because it’s funny, no shit.” With Salinger is becomes trickier. Why do so many people identify with Holden? Why is it such an important, iconic book? Is it a secret cultural passion for red hunting hats? For hookers? For New York City? Well, obviously the last one.)

    Finally, on creative control: it should be complete. A writer has no larger cultural obligation to expose every shred of themselves to public ridicule. If a writer wants something to be burned after they die, it should be burned. If a writer doesn’t want to see their book made into a movie, it shouldn’t be made into a movie. If a writer wants their book published in only 34 point Comic Sans, it should be published in only 34 point Comic Sans, although really, dick move.

    • January 31, 2010 10:15 am

      As a writer, I hate the idea of my work not being mine anymore. But as a writer, I also want to know Nabokov’s process; I need to know that he is human, that his work isn’t some miracle from the heavens. I never said it wasn’t a selfish, hypocritical feeling.

      You should read some of Salinger’s other works. A lot of people like his other stuff better. “A Perfect Day For Bananafish” is a general favorite. I’m a big fan of “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes.”

      Something that attracts a ‘cult following’…sometimes I think people are attracted to something for the wrong reasons. Not all the time, but…I wrote this comment on someone’s blog yesterday: “I think most people have something against Catcher in the Rye because most people either worship it or hate that so many people worship it. That misses the point of the story and Salinger would dislike both extremes.” I feel with this book especially people have a very superficial attraction to it, loving it simply because there are curse words and acts of rebellion, hating it because everyone else loves it. Personally I feel it means something that the book can incite such passion and fervor–people rarely have a neutral position; they have an emotional connection, positive or negative, with the book.

      And what about Kafka? Should his work have not been published because he wanted his works to be burned? Of course if I wrote something, didn’t want it published, and died, I’d hope as hell that someone would burn it but (assuming this work of mine would even be publishable), I’m willing to make that sacrifice in order to condone the publishing of someone else’s posthumous book. I mean, the guy’s dead. It’s one thing when you’re alive–do whatever the hell you want. But terrible things are done all the time for the sake of humanity’s betterment (oh god, the utilitarian side of me is taking over), so why not get a little Kafka out of it?

      Never read anything by Adams, sadly, nor anything in 34 point Comic Sans, luckily.

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