Monday, February 1, 2010

A Glitterary Brunch


My good friend Sheila Williams, the editor of Asimov's, was in town Friday for a talk at the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, and since she overnighted in Philly, Marianne and I threw a literary brunch for her the next morning, before her train trek back to NYC.

A gathering of old friends around a tableful of good food for hours upon hours of laughter and conversation -- what could be more gemutlich?  I, for one, enjoyed it immensely.

Above, l-r:  Tom Purdom, Sheila WIlliams, Susan Casper, Gardner Dozois, Marianne Porter, and Greg Frost.  You'll note that Marianne is the only person present whose hands are unsullied by science fiction.

And I promised to say a few words about J. D. Salinger . . .

So I will.  Most of the postmortem analysis made a big deal about Salinger being a "recluse" because he wouldn't talk to the press.  But he traveled frequently to New York City for theatrical events and for many years the wit and comic novelist Peter De Vries made it a habit to come to Salinger's house for Sunday dinner.

I fail to see how you can be a recluse under those conditions.

Yeah, Salinger was probably a pretty odd duck.  So are most of us -- and I'm not just talking about writers here.  He didn't much like strangers pressing their noses against his window.  But this is a trait shared by most of humanity.  And he did withdraw from publishing.  For which there are two possible explanations.

One is that he simply ran out of the ability to write, which happens, and didn't want to admit to it, which is understandable.

The second is that he kept on writing, but had enough money that he could avoid the critical attention that comes with publishing.  If you want to understand why he would feel this way, you have only to look up a book called Salinger:  A Critical and Personal Portrait.  Editor Henry Anatole Grunwald commissioned more than 20 of the most acclaimed writers and critics of his era to write essays on Salinger, thinking the result would be almost unqualified praise.

Hoo boy, was he wrong!  With only a few exceptions, the essayists seized the opportunity to take Salinger down.  To point out what a minor writer he was, how deficient in all the literary graces, how overpraised, and how pig-ignorant about what Buddhism was really all about.  "I had no idea that New York intellectuals were so religious," I murmured upon closing this book.  John Updike (this was back in his partisan days; in old age his literary criticism mellowed admirably) turned the man's own words on him by writing "Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them."

A little literary blood-letting is always invigorating.  I found the bulk of the book so mean-spirited that it depressed the hell out of me.  God only knows what Salinger made of it.

But we can make a shrewd guess from the fact that he never published anything more in his life.

I'm not saying it was that book in particular that drove him out of the public arena.  Just that it was symptomatic of the stunning critical hostility that Salinger had to endure.

His books were successful enough that he could drop out.  So he did.

In the decades since, there have been persistent rumors that Salinger was writing all the while, and depositing novel upon novel in a huge fire safe to be published after his death.  I'd like that to be true, and I guess that pretty soon we'll know, one way or the other.

But no, I don't think he was crazy.  Thin-skinned, yes, he was that.

But then, so are a lot of us.

And the contest continues . . .

I actually came up with two entries myself which, fleetingly, seemed good and which I then ditched.  One was inwit, but the Joycian associations were far too strong.  The other was invert.  But there would be people familiar with the old clinical meaning of that, so that would cause confusion and give offense as well.

What would I have done if I'd won my own contest?  Used the word and then given the autographed book to whoever came up with the next-best suggestion.  Not that that looks likely to happen.



Oz said...

Oh, I don't know about 'unsullied.' Isn't Marianne in charge of the Porter Foundation that gives grants to worthy science fiction writers? :D


Keith Ferrell said...

Probably too confusing since you already have savants, but how about


or, in light of their nature:


Andrew said...

In the spirit of your preferred prefix:


Julio Velasquez said...

My suggestions:

Pasivos (Spanish of the above.)
Sonámbulos (Sleepwalkers.)