Monday, September 3, 2007

Living Under The Radar

Scott Timberg, a Los Angeles Times’ staff writer, addresses a number of authors in Sunday’s Arts & Music Calendar section, September 2, 2007 ( who have remained under the radar over the course of their careers. Many of these writers are also widely read in high school, and have stimulated intense interest over the years.

Timberg discusses J.D. Salinger, who has not published much new work since his novel Catcher In The Rye, Thomas Pynchon, who will not allow himself to be photographed, Cormac McCarthy, who until a recent Oprah Winfrey interview, refused to make public appearances, and probably the best example of reluctance to embrace her status, Harper Lee, who hasn’t allegedly written anything since To Kill A Mockingbird.

At my school, Salinger and Lee, and their reluctance to publish, are well known. The students read both novels as part of the ninth and eleventh grade curricula. This year, we added Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road, to the Advanced Placement Language and Composition course on the eleventh grade level.

Timberg discusses similar writers who have followed in these great ones’ footsteps, like Denis Johnson, author of Tree of Smoke, and even artists in other fields, such as Syd Barrett, founder of the rock group Pink Floyd, and actress Greta Garbo.

In his article, Timberg delves into the reasons writers disappear, or refuse to write more, or live a life of seclusion. He also discusses how this disappearing act plays into literary criticism. He quotes French critic Roland Barthes, who argues that a writer’s biography has nothing whatsoever to do with the value of the work of literature. Timberg states that “because there are so few real facts to go on, withdrawal [by the author] both confirms and distorts the way we see each writer.”

It is a common debate among critics whether or not an author’s biography means anything to the criticism of the work. Works of literature, indeed works of art, are not created in a vacuum. They are created in response to the world, to what the author undergoes as part of every day living. One cannot avoid at least considering what possible impact current events and the author’s experience might have had on his writing.

I usually show a film to at least one of my classes that illustrates some reasons why an author might turn reclusive. Timberg mentions the film, Finding Forrester, starring Sean Connery, in the article. Supposedly, Gus Van Sant, the film’s director, based Connery’s character on aspects of Salinger. In the film, Connery’s reclusive writer, living in an ancient apartment in the Bronx, avoids contact with the outside world because of personal tragedies that occurred after his book was published. But the writer has not given up creativity. He writes, but as is rumored about Salinger, he keeps all of his work locked up in file cabinets. His decision to release a manuscript posthumously through a young writer he coaches is a major plot point in the movie.

Timberg also quotes New Republic critic Lee Siegel. “The poet maudit was the precursor to the recluse. He can’t deal with any kind of success, so he goes out, like Rimbaud, and destroys everything. It keeps alive this idea of a ‘holy curse’ on the writer, who has to keep away from humankind. It’s kind of romantic.” Timberg illustrates clearly the mystique that follows the reputation of the writers discussed in the article. Timberg adds the newer, less reclusive authors, Don DeLillo and Philip Roth, to the list.

In the end, the question must be asked: does a writer’s reluctance to submit to public identification, or her refusal to prolifically publish, add to or detract from her popularity? In short, would Catcher In The Rye have the kind of panache it does if Salinger made the rounds of late night talk shows? Probably not. But in his case, what adds more fuel to the fire is that his novel has been found in the possession of a number of high profile murderers. For publicity and intrigue, that is the kind of detail a publicist dreams of, even in the face of tragedy.

The whole phenomenon of the book tour, the author appearance on a talk show, and publicity a writer must do to sell his book developed recently. Writing used to be much more anonymous. Today, writers simply cannot escape the very public arena we expect anyone who writes to participate in fully. Warhol’s idea that everyone is eligible for fifteen minutes of fame now applies to even the solitary creative life of a writer.

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