Questioning hoopla over new documentary, book on J.D. Salinger

A rarely seen photo shows J.D. Salinger at home in Cornish, N.H., with Emily Maxwell, the wife of William Maxwell, a close friend and Salinger’s editor at the New Yorker. The photo is part of a new documentary and book, both coming out this week.

Associated Press

A rarely seen photo shows J.D. Salinger at home in Cornish, N.H., with Emily Maxwell, the wife of William Maxwell, a close friend and Salinger’s editor at the New Yorker. The photo is part of a new documentary and book, both coming out this week.

It was the biggest literary news since, well, since Elmore Leonard died the previous week. But this story has legs: According to Associated Press and New York Times reports, director Shane Salerno's new documentary film Salinger and the accompanying book The Private War of J.D. Salinger, co-written by Salerno and David Shields, will reveal more than the juicy stuff about the reclusive Salinger's life after he withdrew from the world in 1965.

The big news apparently — according to two sources Salerno and Shields don't identify — is that when he died in 2010, the Catcher in the Rye author left five more finished books, with instructions to his heirs to begin publishing them in 2015.

The Private War of J.D. Salinger will be published by Simon and Schuster on Tuesday; the film debuts Friday and will appear next year on the PBS series American Masters.

I haven't yet seen either one — no advance copies of the book were sent to reviewers — but for several reasons, I'm taking all the hoopla with a large grain of salt.

There have already been several biographies of Salinger (although he went to court to block one of them). Neither man has been known previously as a biographer or Salinger scholar, although Salerno (screenwriter of Armageddon, among other movies) has said he interviewed more than 200 people over eight years to make the documentary.

Shields is an interesting choice for co-writer, if not a reassuring one. A writer, critic and teacher, he is known for works that cross or erase genre lines and move toward new literary forms. His 2010 book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, is an extended argument for "a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction."

To that end, only about half of Reality Hunger consists of Shields' own writing; it is combined seamlessly with what he calls "appropriations" — quotes from other writers used without attribution, identification or even quotation marks. (The quaint term for this is "plagiarism.") Only under pressure from publisher Random House's lawyers did he consent to a few pages of notes at the back of the book identifying the appropriated passages and their sources — and he recommended readers tear those pages out.

Reality Hunger is an interesting, challenging and infuriating book, a legitimate look at the future of literature. But it gives me pause about how that "blurring" between fiction and nonfiction might apply in a biography, especially one of a figure as mythologized and problematical as Salinger.

The trailer for the film (available on the Internet Movie Data Base website, imdb.com) didn't set my mind at rest, either. It seems more melodrama than documentary; Salerno said in a recent interview that the film is not a literary biography but "a mystery thriller."

The trailer opens with a photographer talking about a 1979 assignment. The scene is all jerky cuts and odd closeups and ominous, booming music until suddenly we see — Salinger picking up his mail!

The scary music continues over a passel of people talking about Salinger: actors Edward Norton, John Cusack, Martin Sheen and Danny DeVito, and writers A. Scott Berg, Tom Wolfe and Joyce Maynard. Fine folk all, but except for Maynard, who lived with him for a while when she was 18, I don't think any of them knew Salinger.

Then we get quick shots (more scary music) noting that Mark Chapman (who killed John Lennon), John Hinckley Jr. (who shot President Ronald Reagan) and Robert John Bardo (who stalked and murdered actor Rebecca Schaeffer) all were fans of Catcher in the Rye. By the time we get past a few more fast cuts of women's faces and to the last booming bars of music and a sinister voice saying, "He had demons," I was afraid the big reveal would be that Salinger was Jack the Ripper, at least.

Perhaps both book and film will give us a believable portrait of the man, even though he was determined to resist such exposure. And perhaps those anonymous sources are right, and starting in 2015 we'll have five more books to enjoy by one of the 20th century's most beloved and cantankerous authors.

I certainly hope so. But I'm not building a new bookshelf for them just yet.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435.

Questioning hoopla over new documentary, book on J.D. Salinger 08/28/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 28, 2013 2:55pm]

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