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Salinger: Inadvertent PR man for an obscure author

Posted: Friday, June 26, 2009

J .D. Salinger, as you may have read over the last few weeks, is inveighing against "phonies" yet again. Fifty-eight years since the publication of "The Catcher in the Rye" - indeed, 44 years since he published anything - the famously reclusive and litigious author, now 90, recovering from hip surgery and totally deaf, has taken legal action to stop the U.S. publication of a Swedish novel called "Sixty Years Later: Coming Through Rye." Subtitled "An Unauthorized Fictional Examination of the Relationship Between J. D. Salinger and His Most Famous Character," the novel depicts a 76-year-old Holden Caulfield, who meets his author and revisits various locations and characters featured in the original book.

Salinger's lawsuit calls the book "a rip-off pure and simple." Lawyers representing "Sixty Years Later" claim the book engages in criticism and parody and therefore constitutes "fair use" of copyrighted material. A judge in New York, who agreed to temporarily block the book's publication in the United States (it's already been released in Sweden and Britain) is expected to make a final ruling in the next few days.

On certain levels, there's something heartening about Salinger's famous unwillingness to allow any derivations of his work - he has turned down film adaptation offers from Steven Spielberg, Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson, to name just a few, and has blocked a BBC stage production of "The Catcher in the Rye." By standing up for the integrity of his own material, Salinger also stands up for the notion that books and stories are fully integrated objects; that they are not a means to an end but the end itself. And in a culture in which books increasingly are thought of merely as source material, the idea of books as whole and finite entities is, sadly, a little bit radical.

But, as I am hardly the first to point out, Salinger's protectiveness of his work isn't just stand-up, it veers into the paranoid, mercurial and even delusional. What we've heard about Salinger in the last four decades has mostly to do with his eccentricities and cantankerousness. He's rumored to have experimented with many forms of spirituality and dietary philosophies (among them Zen Buddhism, Dianetics and - use your imagination - "urine therapy") while making efforts to block virtually any form of derivation or dissemination of his work.

It's not just movie adaptations he eschews. In 1986, Salinger stopped the author of an unauthorized biography from including in his book letters that Salinger had sent to friends and colleagues. A decade later, Salinger put the brakes on the release of his last published work, a novella that had appeared in The New Yorker but had not yet appeared in book form. Apparently put off by the inevitable tide of publicity, he asked his publisher, a small press in Virginia, to withdraw the book.

But the "Sixty Years Later" lawsuit, while not surprising, seems somehow sadder than the previous legal actions. There's a sense that Salinger might not have a grasp on exactly what he's objecting to and why. And I suspect a lot of people are asking the same question that I am: "Doesn't the great J.D. Salinger have bigger fish to fry?"

No offense to "Sixty Years Later's" author, 32-year-old Fredrik Colting (a.k.a. J.D. California - you can't make this stuff up), but I'm having a hard time believing this book could cause a lot of damage. Colting, who also happens to be the co-founder of Nicotext, the publisher that released "Sixty Years Later" in Sweden, is the author of two other books: "The Macho Man's (Bad) Joke Book" and "The 100 Best and Absolute Greatest Heavy Metal Bands in the World."

The Web site for Nicotext doesn't exactly suggest that Colting and his business partner, Carl-Johan Gadd, are engaged in a conspiracy to pilfer the intellectual property of legendary literary figures. Instead, it features a photograph of Colting and Gadd jumping in the air and grinning with mock exuberance. "While thumbing our collective nose at the literati," says the mission statement, "we have found our niche amongst the useless, the trivial and the potentially offensive." Additional titles include "The Porn Star Name Book" and "The Pet Cookbook," a humorous guide to cooking not for your pet but, shall we say, with your pet (parrot porridge, goldfish wrap, you get the idea).

Heard of any of these? I didn't think so. And my guess is that few people would have heard of "Sixty Years Later" - U.S. release or not - if not for the reflexive defensiveness of the Salinger camp. In fact, I'm getting the feeling that Nicotext's next title might be "The Lucky Lawsuit Book: How an Obscure Author Can Gain International Recognition by Being Sued by a Famous Author Who Really Should Have Better Things to Do."

Maybe Salinger is holding on to Holden a little too tightly. Either that, or he's secretly working as his opponents' publicist. In which case, perhaps he's had a decadeslong career as the greatest P.R. man who ever lived.

• Daum is an essayist and novelist in Los Angeles.



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