A somewhat snotty perspective of the life of the great JD Salinger, by John Sutherland on the Today programme, has been niggling away at me as I have read the more considered obituaries.
Sutherland, who once wrote a book on bestsellers, was scathing about Salinger’s decision not to play the publicity game in any form – indeed to retire comprehensively from the public life of a writer. If he were a young writer today, publishers would not put up with that sort of rubbish. They would insist, and insist contractually, that he commit to what is now an author’s most important role – promotion.
In fact, Salinger was a hero for putting the work first, even if he took reclusiveness rather further than most authors would choose to do. He represents an uncompromising literary seriousness which somehow we have lost along the way.
Here’s Cyril Connolly:
Popular success is a palace built for a writer by publishers, journalists, admirers, and professional reputation makers, in which a silent army of termites, rats, dry rot, and death-watch beetle are tunnelling away, till, at the very moment of completion, it is ready to fall down…. (The writer) must dismiss the builders and contractors, elude the fans with an assumed name and dark glasses, force his way off the moving staircase, subject everything he writes to a supreme critical court. Would it amuse Horace or Milton or Swift or Leopardi? Could it be read to Flaubert? Would it be chosen by the Infallible Worm, by the discriminating palates of the dead?
To refuse all publicity which does not arise from the quality of his work, to beware of giving his name to causes, to ration his public appearances, to consider his standards and the curve of development which he feels latent within him, yet not to indulge in gestures which are hostile to success when it comes, must be the aim of the writer.
More than any other author of modern times, JD Salinger represented that spirit.