LiteratEye #30: Can Holden Caulfield Come Out and Play? You'll Have to Ask the Judge

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Filed under: First Amendment Issues

Here’s the thirtieth installment of LiteratEye, a series found only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.


LiteratEye #30: Can Holden Caulfield Come Out and Play? You'll Have to Ask the Judge
By W.J. Elvin III
September 4, 2009

salingercatcher-200J.D. Salinger has been hiding out in the woods for the past fifty years or so, rarely heard from except when disputes have drawn him into legal battles. As has been widely reported, one such battle is going on right now, that being his suit against Fredrik Colting, a Swedish author.

There's no need to trouble you with a lot of detail since it's been in the news. The problem is Colting's new book, 60 Years Later.

You have to go to Amazon UK to have a look at the "sequel" to Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, since the courts have thus far blocked publication in the U.S..

Salinger's reclusive nature has sparked considerable media curiosity over the years. What's up with that guy? Most likely Salinger, now 90, simply had enough of life in the hustling, bustling outside world in his youth. Some of us, so it seems, just aren't wired for playing hardball in the fast lane.

Salinger certainly had a taste of the world beyond his front door. In the days prior to going into combat in World War II, he was seriously involved with Oona O'Neill, daughter of noted playwright Eugene O'Neill and later wife of Charlie Chaplin. Salinger was bitter about being left for the older man, though the marriage worked out well for Oona and Charlie.

Having experienced intense combat in major battles of World War II, Salinger faced more horrors in liberating concentration camps. Such was the impact that he was hospitalized for a time to recover from the stress of what he saw and sensed. He told his daughter that his nostrils never really cleared of the smell of burning human flesh.

Salinger had the makings of a hotshot celebrity and instead chose a reclusive, Zen Buddhist lifestyle. Wikipedia gives a very solid overview of his life and mentions numerous sources for further reading.

Salinger's greatest literary invention was, of course, the awkward and troubled adolescent Holden Caulfield. The new book propels Caulfield into today, depicted as a 76-year-old Mr. C, wandering the streets of New York after escaping from a nursing home.

The court battle is over property rights versus freedom of expression, although the matter of greatest concern to Salinger, according to his attorneys, is possible damage to his reputation. It's hard to imagine, though, that the controversy can do him great harm. Catcher in the Rye stands at a very impressive #177 in top selling books at Amazon at the moment. With all this fuss, it's got nowhere to go but up for a time to come.

The earlier decision upholding suppression of Colting's book seems to have rattled a lot of cages. Big names like the New York Times, the Associated Press, plus other major media and prominent library organizations, as well as freedom of expression advocacy groups, are supporting Colting in briefs filed with the court.

A similar case came up about ten years ago involving the re-telling of Vladimir Nabokov's libidinous novel, Lolita. In the newer version challenged by Nabokov's estate, the story is told from Lolita's quite jaded point of view. Reviews make abundantly clear that the new book is no match for Nabokov's. It covers the same lusty territory but lacks his literary mastery.

Nabokov's son, guardian of the copyright that runs to 2030, sued the Italian publisher and author Pia Pera to block U.S. publication. Farrar, Straus & Giroux was to have published the U.S. version but dropped it in response to the lawsuit.

The suit was settled in fairly bland fashion with Dimitri Nabokov permitted to write his own introduction to the challenged book, and Pera agreeing to donate half the author's share of royalties to a writers' organization. Another publisher picked up the U.S. rights, and it can now be had in hardcover on Amazon for four cents, or twenty-four cents for the paperback, plus postage.

Any serious reader of fiction might wonder what all the fuss is about since great characters in literature — think of Dracula, for instance, or Dr. Frankenstein's monster — take on a life of their own, migrating from the original story into many other stories. They become cultural celebrities, fair game for whoever wants to write about them, freed of royalty obligations to a copyright holder.

Consider Sherlock Holmes.

Amazon lists about 35,000 Holmes titles, by no means all unique. But suppose just one in every thousand is unique, that's still a lot of knock-offs. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle only wrote 4 novels and 56 short stories.

I collected around fifty Holmes "pastiches," as the knock-offs are called, before giving up the chase. I've seen a list of over 300 Holmes books written by authors other than Conan Doyle, and I don't imagine it's comprehensive. (By the way, if his family name is Doyle, why is he generally referred to as Conan Doyle? Prior to knighthood he was Dr. Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle. Did the third given name throw people off so they took it for part of his last name? A little mystery to solve some other time).

Wikipedia took a shot at creating a collection of public domain characters but apparently abandoned the effort. The rather brief list ranged from Alice, of Wonderland fame, to figures from Greek mythology to the Wizard of Oz. It was an intriguing idea but to do it any justice would require an incredible effort. Though that page was jettisoned into the archives, Wikipedia has another page under construction discussing fictional crossovers.

Lloyd L. Rich, an attorney with expertise in the area, explains that fictional characters need to be protected because "there may be a possibility to use the fictional character in book sequels, or for licensing the use of the fictional character for films, television programming, electronic or other media or merchandising. It is only by maintaining control and protection of the fictional character that revenue streams may be maximized for the creator/publisher of that character."

As Rich indicates, most often an author would take to the courts in an effort to preserve profits. Salinger is all the more interesting and unusual because he has refused further maximization of revenue streams, as Rich puts it, in regard to Holden Caulfield, turning down film offers.

There is one arena where artists and writers seem to be at liberty to play with even the latest in fictional characters as they wish, and that is fandom. I'm not sure why fans are exempt from the rules, though I suppose it isn't in the interests of an author or publisher to make trouble for fans of their product. I mention it to avoid suggestions that I have overlooked an important anomaly. Fandom is a separate reality and we'll have to save that discussion for a later date.

Personally, trying to be objective rather than sentimental, I think Salinger is fighting a battle in a war that's already over. Traditional literature is a twitching corpse. Books as we know them are destined, at their finest, to collection by antiquarians, or may serve as decorative objects in the homes of those wishing to appear cultured.

I'm not going to quit buying, reading and writing about books. But you'll note more and more institutions of higher learning are jettisoning books in favor of digital devices. "Books" will no longer be static; the roles of writer and reader will likely merge, as the book becomes an interactive process rather than a finished product. It should be one hell of a mess.

image: Boston Globe


(Copyright 2009 WJE, exclusive to The Art of the Prank, for reprint rights contact Literateye@gmail.com)


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