Leech and Let Leech

“There are those” wrote Maureen Dowd in a column last month on Joyce Maynard, Monica Lewinsky, and the phenomenon of the leech woman, “who say that these women are victims of older men, and so have a right to revenge. But experiencing the ordinary brutality of love does not make one a victim. It makes one an adult. Or it should.” There are also those (Culturebox, for one) who think that being a columnist for the New York Times should make you think twice about passing along the description of Lewinsky’s recent late-night comedy forum as “Slutterday Night Live.” Or it should. And there are those (still Culturebox) who think that being the object yourself of sexist invective, as Dowd has been–one repulsive recent critique repeated an unsupported suggestion that she had an affair with a powerful married editor and implied that she was a frustrated spinster–should make you disinclined to apply similar epithets to others.

Finally, there are those who last week posted letters to the Times objecting to Dowd’s column, darkly hinting at the possibility of a libel suit, and asking for an equal-space reply, on (That would be Joyce Maynard.) Just in case there are those who have not had a chance to check in with recently, Maynard first came to the attention of the world at large in 1972, when her essay “An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back at Life” was the cover story of the New York Times Magazine. J.D. Salinger, then 53 and one of the older men to whom Dowd refers, wrote to Maynard, and within a few months, she dropped out of Yale and moved in with him. The relationship ended in less than a year. Salinger continued whatever reclusive existence it is that he leads, and Maynard, according to her book about the affair, last year’s At Home in the World, had a full-scale breakdown. She later married, had three children, and divorced, and has over the years written a syndicated column about her marriage and family, reviewed books for Mademoiselle, and contributed articles on a number of topics–as she notes in her letter “on subjects as diverse as nuclear waste dumps, bluegrass music, and pie-baking”–to a number of publications, including the Times. Last month, she put her letters from Salinger up for auction at Sotheby’s, a decision that was the immediate occasion for Dowd’s column.

Culturebox vividly remembers reading “An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back on Life” as a 12-year-old back in central New Jersey, whence she came, and thinking that Joyce Maynard was a big old drag. (She also vividly remembers rereading it yesterday; it is available on Maynard’s Web site.) In a way, it speaks well of the essay, which seeks to define the youth of the day as “the generation of unfulfilled expectations,” that it is so memorable, although in this case the specific thing remembered, along with a general disdain for how out-of-it Maynard’s take on youth culture was, is that Maynard said she cheated on SRA, a system of teaching reading comprehension whereby the student checked his or her own answers. As a snotty young adolescent, Culturebox did not know how to accommodate the idea that someone who needed to cheat on something as unchallenging as SRA was going to Yale and writing for the Times. (From her present perspective as a member of the media elite, this makes a little more sense, but even still, it seems like a weird thing to have done, sort of like cheating yourself in solitaire.)

Maynard objects to Dowd’s characterization primarily on the grounds that she has not defined herself by her association with Salinger, but been so defined by others. “In the twenty-seven years I have supported myself and my family as a writer, I have published eight books, including three novels, a collection of my syndicated newspaper columns about family life, and two children’s books,” she writes. “I have been a monthly columnist on parenting, a book reviewer, an essayist for National Public Radio, a commentator for CBS radio, and have published more magazine and newspaper articles than I can begin to count, all without ever referring to Salinger.”

Culturebox can certainly see why being called a “sexual climber,” “parasite,” and “predator” would bother Maynard. In her work, she comes across as needy, vain, exhibitionistic, and weirdly uncomprehending. In her autobiographical writing, she has, by her own admission, often been dishonest. But she preys on her own experience, not that of others. One of the things that makes At Home in the World so dull is that its author shows so little understanding that any of the people in her life are autonomous beings, with valid, non-Joyce-Maynard-related identities of their own.

The publication of At Home in the World was widely viewed as a betrayal of Salinger’s notoriously well-defended privacy, but it seems obvious that Maynard is entitled to write about her own experience however she wants. Likewise, the letters from Salinger are hers to dispose of in any manner she chooses. However, it is not strictly true that she never referred to Salinger in her work prior to At Home in the World. Her first novel, 1978’s Baby Love, contains a fictionalized but very recognizable version of the affair. Culturebox reread this the other day after reading At Home in the World, and thus armed with biographical information, was struck by the number of small, private references the novel makes–a peripheral character is named for one of Salinger’s pseudonyms, for example–that, at the time of writing, would have been meaningful only to Salinger himself. This poignant testimony to romantic obsession is, Culturebox feels, touching almost to the point of painful–all the more so for being more effective both as a writing technique and as a means of gaining the reader’s sympathy than anything Maynard seems capable of when she’s trying.

Contemplating all this, there are those who feel that Maynard should have got rid of those letters a long time ago, for her own sake, and who congratulate her for doing so now. And there are those who feel that those who make their living writing about the famous should basically leech and let leech.