Text Messages | Writing for real readers

JD Salinger was a prolific writer though much of his work remains unpublished. But as with Harper Lee, the literary world has not been content to accept the status quo.

“Write one must; what one needn’t do is publish,” wrote Italo Zvevo, one of the 20th century’s greatest novelists. Zvevo wrote much and published little, and that out of his own pocket. His days as a self-publisher were to end, however, when James Joyce received a copy of La coscienza di Zeno, published by Cappelli of Bologna in May 1923, although still at Zvevo’s expense.

Why Joyce? The Irishman had lived in the Italian city of Trieste, Zvevo’s homeplace, from March 1906 until the outbreak of World War I, and had given English lessons to boost his precarious finances. Among his pupils was one Ettore Schmitz, Zvevo’s birthname. Joyce, shortly after receiving his copy of La coscienza di Zeno (Zeno’s Conscience, though much translated as Confessions of Zeno), wrote to Schmitz/Zvevo on 24 January 1924, saying: “I am reading it with great pleasure. Why be discouraged? You must know it is by far your best work.”

Joyce then proceeded to publicise and market the book in the highest literary circles in Paris. Zvevo was on the map, his name established. Not many authors have an angel as eminent and influential as Joyce. And some authors, who have made it on their own, shun the literary establishment and just get on with writing – most importantly, for themselves and their readers (often referred to as “their real readers”). Two such are (“were” in the biological sense, as they are dead, but “are” in the literary sense of living on in perpetuity through their work) the Americans Harper Lee and JD Salinger.

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Lee is the greatest one-hit phenomenon in publishing and literary history. Her brilliant novel about racism in the American South, To Kill a Mockingbird, had sold more than 30 million copies at the time of its 50th anniversary in 2010. That year was also, coincidentally but aptly, the one in which Salinger died, at the age of 91 on 27 January (26 days after his birthday on 1 January).

Lee lived on until 2016, when she died 10 weeks short of what would have been her 90th birthday on 28 April of that year. In the year before her death, she had done what she had always sworn not to do: publish another book. Go Set a Watchman revisited some of the characters from Mockingbird in later life. Readers were shocked, appalled, scandalised when the saintly, nonracist Atticus Finch, who in Mockingbird defended a black man accused of raping a white woman, expressed some distinctly racist views in Watchman. But a close and proper reading of the later novel shows that it is a workout for the earlier book; indeed, what readers have is an author’s early drafts and working notes for the Mockingbird story and its characters, rather than a whole new novel or “sequel”.

It’s easy to see why Lee didn’t want it to be published. Weakened by age and, allegedly, by a tyrannical overseer of her literary works and finances, she was persuaded – bulldozed would be the better word – to publish a manuscript that had lain untouched, at the bottom of the bottommost drawer of her desk, for half a century.

Salinger’s work has also remained unpublished, deliberately at the author’s wishes. After the enormous success of The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Salinger published fragments of fiction, most notably the interlocking short stories Franny and Zooey in 1955 and 1957, first in The New Yorker, and Hapworth 16, 1924, also in The New Yorker, in 1964 – his last published work.

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The rest was silence, though not from legions of his clamouring fans and a media that hounded him relentlessly, invading his privacy and almost demanding new work. But now the silence is about to be broken by the publication, within a few years or so, of the whole mass of the Salinger literary holdings.

Salinger’s son Matthew, in an exclusive interview with The Guardian on 2 February this year, revealed that he and Salinger’s widow, Colleen O’Neill (not Matthew’s mother), joint executors of the Salinger literary estate, are working on a project with the promise that “all of what he wrote will at some point be shared”.

Notably, Matthew Salinger told Lidija Haas in the interview that the new material “will definitely disappoint people that he wouldn’t care about, but for real readers … they will be affected in the way every reader hopes to be affected when they open a book. Not changed, necessarily, but something that rubs off that can lead to change.”

That is a wonderful prospect when one remembers the countless readers who were affected, changed and led toward change by The Catcher in the Rye. Here are its remarkable opening words.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield crap, but I don’t feel like going into it.

The words of Holden Caulfield, one of the great protagonists and narrators of literature in English, ventriloquising the voice of JD Salinger, one of the greatest writers in that language.

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