The Book Club

Mediocrity and Snobbery

Dear Cynthia,

I didn’t feel hostile yesterday, but I can see that I may have come across that way. I’m not used to this format–waiting a day for your entry, then laying out all my responses to you boom boom boom in an hour. If it’s bringing out the Ken Starr in me, I apologize.

Yes indeed, we come from different generations, and to some extent this affects our points of view. But we already know the rough contours of this divide. And this is a dialogue, after all. I’m looking for a place where we would presume to include each other. I’d like to find some common ground–or at least, if we’re going to disagree, a common set of concerns to disagree about. This may be idealistic, but so be it.

On the Salinger front, I’ve read a lot of his work (not all), but I haven’t picked him up in quite a while. I tried dipping into Catcher in the Rye last week, but didn’t get too far. I can definitely see how all the informal “kiddo” slang would have felt new and thrilling when the book came out, but it sounds overdone to me today. The amazing care Salinger put into his writing–this I admire a lot. Every mean thing he says about Maynard’s youthful journalism is on the mark. He’s a genius, it’s true. But his vision is restricted to soulful neurotics on the verge of a breakdown. He goes too far in sentimentalizing despair, and he’s not very nice to women. I’m bothered by his snobbery, not out of political correctness but because it seems limited. Life is so short, and there’s so much else to read, you know what I mean?

You’re right, obviously, that Salinger would have loved it if a bunch of pot-smoking, meditating girls showed up at his house to play. But that has to do with hormones and bad habits. On a more general level, he despised the way young people in the 60s and 70s invoked him to deny authority. And this isn’t just because he was a 50s man. It came from his conviction–again, admirable if not carried to snobby excess–that people should work things out for themselves. He may have wanted to play with the girls, but when the fun was over he would decide they were mediocrities, not smart or developed enough to withstand the slogans of the day.

I can’t make any great claims for Maynard. What I think she almost pulled off was a decent book, honest and filled with really interesting details and not badly written–a serious attempt to rise above her own mediocrity, which if you think about is kind of heroic. She didn’t make it–in the end she’s too needy to see straight, as you point out–but still, it’s better than most reviewers have allowed. It’ll probably come as no surprise to you if I name Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss as the kind of memoir I haven’t liked recently. But it’s not very nice of me to say so, since I tried reading it found it over-written and suffocating and never got to the end.

I wonder if our generation gap isn’t such a big deal. Where we really seem to diverge is the way we read books. When I fall for a writer I may feel like I’ve invented him or her for a while. I’m sure I project all sorts of weird personal stuff onto what I read. But the writers I really care about outlast this puppy love. Once the bloom is off I’m more interested in appreciating and understanding the work, maybe circling back to it every once in a while and seeing if it still holds up. What about you? Do your really read as if you were a pope? Tell me, what does this mean?