This was on the cusp of being an entirely different post, but then the news of J. D. Salinger’s death popped up on Twitter.
I must confess to not being a true Salinger fanatic. I’ve read and enjoyed the novel and most of the stories (A Perfect Day for a Banana Fish made a strong impression on me—maybe the first short story to do so). But I don’t generally feel compelled to reread them regularly (now I will). That being said, I know many brilliant people in this business for whom Catcher and Salinger are enormously important personally. And wherever you stand on his books, he permeates this wonderful world of YA we’re all occupying. An agent friend and I were exchanging emails about our Bologna Children’s Book Fair travel plans, and quite naturally, he referred to Holden (suitcases). I don’t hear “like Holden Caufield…” in queries much, but I think that’s mainly because everyone thinks it’s too obvious a comparison and/or it’s too presumptuous. And I have also been the bearer of bad news to authors frequently in this form: “I’m sorry, but Salinger never grants permission to use any part of his work. You’ll have to write out this quote.” I did it yesterday, in fact.
I don’t actually think it’s true that Catcher is the father of all YA. I don’t think that’s how influence works. This doesn’t diminish, though, how important Salinger is to writing about teens. Catcher isn’t a template; it’s a shared experience, a set of semi-secret passwords for the genre. I think Frank Portman sums it very well in his King Dork:
So this has been my dad’s copy of The Catcher in the Rye when he was (doing the math), um, twelve. My God, I thought: my dad had been one of those people who carried Catcher with him everywhere when he was a kid. He had been a member of the Catcher Cult.
We who work in YA are most of us initiated into the “Holden Caufield Mysteries,” as Portman’s narrator calls them.
Whether Catcher fans are a gnostic cult or not, the shadow of Salinger’s work is long. And, in this era of hyper-available authors (especially in YA), his model of his authorship stands as an uncompromised specimen of a path not taken. Over on Facebook, David Levithan put it well in in a status update: “David Levithan is glad J.D. Salinger eluded us ’til the end.” Truly.
PS: Carolrhoda author Steve Brezenoff has a good appreciation and raises an uncomfortable cinematic specter for a post-Salinger world.