There are many weird things about living in New York, and chief among them are strangers on the subway who feel compelled to come up to you and bestow their unsolicited opinions upon your ears. It's enough to make you want to pick up and move to one of the Dakotas.
A few months ago I was on the 1 train, on my way to work and reading a republished copy of Joyce Maynard's At Home in the World, a book that, among other things, recounts the details of an 18-year-old Maynard's affair with a 53-year-old J. D. Salinger.
"I hate that book," said a voice across from me. I said nothing. He continued: "I just think it's shitty what she did. To Salinger, I mean." I opened my mouth to respond, but the train had already arrived at my station. All I got the chance to say was "Well, I disagree."
The opinions expressed by Nameless Boy on the 1 Train are anything but new. At Home in the World was first released in 1998 and met with similar reviews. Entertainment Weekly gave the book a grade of C-, citing that it — and Maynard — "aren't nice." Maureen Dowd wrote a column for the Times in which she compared Maynard and Monica Lewinsky, calling them both "leech women.” A few months after the book was released, Maynard was invited to speak at a literary event, but as she took the stage, an entire row of people exited the hall in protest. She recounts this story in the preface of a reissued version of At Home.
Maynard's reactions to her negative reviews take up the majority of the preface. She writes:
After At Home in the World was published, many people expressed the view that because my story involved that of a great man who demanded not to be spoken of, I owed him my silence. The attacks — not only on my memoir, but also on my character — were brutal, intensely personal, and relentless. I was called an exploiter, a predator. I lost count of the time I was described as “shameless.”
I am not interested in analyzing the literary skill of Joyce Maynard. There are plenty of book reviews that attempt that, and none of them provide a concrete answer regarding her writing abilities. After all, one man's cloying is another man's refreshing honesty.
What I am interested in is deliberating the category of writers that Maynard, at least with At Home in the World, has fallen into. It's a category that includes a broad range of work, with everything from Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters, his book of poems about Sylvia Plath, published 35 years after her death; to Chris Kraus's I Love Dick, a record of Kraus's romantic obsession with the British structuralist critic Dick Hebdige; to Marie Calloway's what purpose did i serve in your life, a title which alludes to a question Maynard asked Salinger upon their last meeting and includes many prominent figures in the literary community. This is a category that includes writers with brows both high and low, and audiences both cult and mainstream. It’s not even unique to the literary community: Consider Taylor Swift naming John Mayer in her song “Dear John,” or Fiona Apple naming her once-boyfriend Jonathan Ames in a song aptly titled, “Jonathan.”
These people and these works do not simply provide a candid and introspective look into life. They are not just memoirs. They are not even just memoirs that include well-known names in the way that, say, Mary Karr's Lit does with David Foster Wallace or Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking does with John Gregory Dunne. No, what these people do is call somebody out. They name names in an effort to tell their side of the story and, in doing so, attempt to reclaim their narrative. At best, this kind of work is seen as an important attempt at honesty; at worst, it's seen as sleazy, narcissistic, hysterical and, perhaps worst of all, as capitalizing on the legacy of a famous person. So which is it?
The most interesting part of At Home in the World is not the memoir itself, but the preface. The book, if it’s worth anything, is not just a book about Salinger. In terms of page numbers, most of the book is dedicated to the relationship between Maynard and her mother, yet At Home has still managed to become "that book about Salinger."
Twelve years after the first publication, Maynard is able to reflect on why exactly she sat down to write such a book. Why not just write a memoir about her mother? In the aforementioned preface, Maynard discusses how she spent a large chunk of her life feeling that she owed Salinger — Jerry, as she refers to him — her silence. By speaking (or, rather, writing), she was finally able to take ownership of what happened to her so many years ago. This is what nearly everybody who names names has in common: They were a prominent player in a murky situation and they remained silent, and when they finally spoke, it was to tell their side of the story. It was not to point fingers.
In the preface of At Home, Maynard recounts how at least once a week over the 12 years since the publication of her book, somebody has come up to her and said, “Oh, you’re the one who wrote the book about Salinger.” “No,” she tells them. “I wrote a book about me.” In I Love Dick, Kraus tells Dick Hebdige, “Don’t you see? Everything that’s happened here has only happened because I’ve willed it.” The majority of critics agreed that the publication of Hughes’s Birthday Letter was, as The Literary Review put it, Hughes finally “owning the facts of his life.” Naming names is a way to shift power back to oneself.
Whatever your opinion on this issue might be, it must be one based in logic, not fandom. Somebody who disapproves of At Home in the World — that stranger on the subway, my old college roommate who had a Catcher in the Rye poster hanging on her side of the room, thousands of people who I have never and will never meet — certainly can dislike the book, but not because they love Salinger; it should be because they fundamentally disagree with the practice of naming names in an effort to take back yourself as your own material. When we disapprove of this genre of writing just because we really, really, really like the work that the person being called out produced, we're left "arguments" that really just boil down to "Well, I like the books Salinger wrote” (or the poems Plath wrote or, to point to recent headlines, the movies Woody Allen produced), so I find this firsthand account about this particular person to be offensive.”
There's something to be said for honest writing, and ironically, it was Salinger who taught Maynard her first lesson about how important it is for a writer to be forthcoming in their work, telling her:
Some day, Joyce, there will be a story you want to tell for no better reason that becomes it matters to you more than any other. You’ll give up this business of delivering what everybody tells you to do. You’ll stop looking over your shoulder to make sure you’re keeping everybody happy, and you’ll simply write what’s real and true. Honest writing always makes people nervous, and they’ll think of all kinds of ways to make your life hell. One day a long time from now you’ll cease to care anymore whom you please or what anybody has to say about you. That’s when you’ll finally produce the work you’re capable of.
The question remains: Is At Home in the World honest writing? And Birthday Letters and I Love Dick and any other work in this genre — are they honest, vulnerable pieces of works or are they just calculated polemics? There is, of course, no way to absolutely gauge the intents of an author, though I do think critical reading can provide clues. The reason the tone of At Home often gets critiqued as maudlin is because it’s dripping in sincerity. The reason what purpose did i serve your life was met mostly with reviews that ranged from “meh” to negative has to do with its often insincere, onanistic tone. For the most part, sincerity reads as sincerity, and insincerity reads as insincerity.
As long as there are famous people, there will be non-famous people who want to learn about them. This principle is why UsWeekly.com has a monthly readership of 40 million and why People magazine has a circulation of over 3 million people; it's why fashion magazines stopped putting supermodels on the cover and started putting Jennifer Aniston on it. This principle is not, however, why all contemporary writers feel compelled to name names. In calling out a household name, these writers are able to tell their side of that story, which might not be part of the household understanding. It’s their way to affirm the reality that they experienced.
Michelle King grew up in South Florida and now lives in Brooklyn. Her contributions have appeared on BULLETT, Refinery29, xoJane and The Huffington Post. Harriet M. Welsch is still her role model and probably always will be.
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