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Category: Writing

“The Catcher in the Rye” – Why It Sucks

NOTE: This is a repost of an essay that appeared on my old “PaBlog” back in May of 2008, and was my most commented upon posting ever. My opinions have not changed in the intervening six years.

After re-reading portions of Rumpled Trenchcoats and Rubber Bullets while preparing this latest round of queries, I felt the need to revisit one of the most famous novels of modern time, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye. I didn’t like it when I read it before, but I decided to keep an open mind as I read it for the second time.

catcher-194x300I still don’t like it.

There are those who will say that Catcher is a classic. I will not dispute that. However, Childe Harold is also a classic. Lord Randal is a classic. Everyman is a classic. That does not mean that they are good. What they are, which is what makes them classics, is that they reflect the time in which they were written, took revolutionary (or, in some cases, evolutionary) jumps in style or form, and greatly influenced works that came after them. None of them, however, stand up well against the passage of time.

Sadly, a lot of what makes Catcher unbearable are the things that made it revolutionary and innovative 57 years ago:

Holden, the antihero: Antiheroes as protagonists were not as common prior to Catcher as they have been since. Holden is not heroic. He isn’t even likable. He’s annoying, petty, depressing (appropriately enough, as he’s depressed), and borders on stupid. It was the presence of such a well-crafted character with no redeeming characteristics that swept through the literary (and popular culture) world like a sirocco wind blowing in warm, fresh air. Today, however, this type of character has been done to death. Salinger didn’t invent the antihero (that honor goes to Apollonius of Rhodes), he perfected it. Doing so, however, invited an onslaught of imitators who through their copying diminished the original.

The prose style: Let’s face it, Catcher really is the quintessential first-person narrative in the style of an extended dramatic monologue. Salinger really is unparalleled as a writer when it comes to an ear for dialect and creating a believable voice for a character, except perhaps for Mark Twain. However, the narration of Catcher, like that of his rival for the dialogue crown in Huckleberry Finn, does not age well. It is too grounded in the 1940′s and early 50′s. Popular slang has drifted over the past half century, and those not familiar with a lot of the terms used by Holden will get lost easily. Also, Holden tends to ramble. This is understandable when you consider his other character traits, but Holden is not someone you go to for clear, concise, narration.

That fucking ending: I hate it when stories don’t end, but just stop. Catcher is the worst offender in this case. True, there’s the epilogue, but there’s so much time that’s passed between the carousel scene and the epilogue that one can’t help but feel cheated. There’s a lot of story chopped out of there, which I would like to see. What happened when Holden finally revealed himself to his parents? Why is he in California? Is he institutionalized? Is he insane? If Salinger had left out the last chapter, it would have been a better ending, but it’s still too abrupt, and doesn’t tie up any of the story. The epilogue, to me, reads like something an editor forced the author to write to answer some questions he or she still had.

Books in the 1940′s had happy endings, or they had sad endings. Catcher has no ending, which was innovative back then, but today is just grating.

The plot: Or, should I say, the lack of one. Catcher seems to be following the Campbellian model at first, but its hero never leaves the Underworld, is never transformed, and never returns with a boon for mankind. Holden has no goal, no desires, essentially no character arc. His misadventures in Manhattan do not destroy the boy that was to make room for the man that will be, they just bump him around and kick him when he is down. Holden never learns from his mistakes. He doesn’t even acknowledge that they are mistakes. The Holden we have at the end of the last sentence is the same exact boy we meet at the beginning of the first sentence. I liken this to watching a man continually getting shat upon by a large bird, who keeps wiping the offal from his face, but never thinks to change his seat or chase the bird away. This may be funny to sadists, or Tom Green fans, but it is not enjoyable for me.

And this brings me to my biggest gripe:

Holden does nothing.

Holden spends the entire length of the story walking around, with no needs and no desires. Maybe Salinger was drawing inspiration from the Lost Generation that followed World War I, and anticipating the self-absorbed Baby Boomers that were being born as he was writing the story, but surely that’s no excuse for telling us a story that is no story.

Take a look at some of the characters from more modern works that owe their existence to Holden. Tom Henderson from King Dork has goals: get to know some mystery girl, get to understand his dead father, and make it through high school. Dennis Cooverman from I Love You, Beth Cooper may be carried along by the unyielding stream of circumstance, but at least he stands up and takes matters in his own hands from time to time. DeeDee Truitt from The Opposite Of Sex wants to scam a family member. The refusenik kids of Like We Care actively rebel against popular culture by not buying anything. Holden walks around muttering to himself. The kid can’t even get laid by a prostitute for pete’s sake. Honestly, if Holden had mentioned thinking about calling Jane Gallagher one more time, I would have screamed “JUST PICK UP A PAY PHONE AND CALL HER, YOU DICK! DO SOMETHING!”

If you are reading this, Mr. Salinger, please take it in the manner I intend: loving criticism. You are perhaps the greatest living writer, much more talented than I could ever hope to be. You have a unique talent with words. There’s a reason thatFranny And Zooey was on the little bookshelf in the headboard of my bed all through my high school years. But what is commonly believed to be your greatest work just doesn’t push my buttons. It’s not aged well. In the end, what was innovative in the 1950′s is now old hat; it suffers from the curse of “it’s all been done before.” It’s the novel equivalent of reading an e.e. cummings poem: it was groundbreaking when it came out, but today you just want to smack the guy and show him where the SHIFT key is on the typewriter.

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On Puppies, Sad and Otherwise.

PuppyAs an author of what could be construed as science or speculative fiction, it’s been difficult to watch what’s been going on with the Hugo Awards and their hijacking by a group calling themselves the Sad Puppies.

The weeks following the Puppies’ attacks on the Hugos have led to a lot of interesting reactions. There have been criticisms, counter-criticisms, backlash, and some ingenious satire brought about by the whole controversy. And while it might have had the beneficial effect of drawing attention to the Hugo Awards nominating and voting process, that’s probably the only real benefit we writers have felt from the whole thing.

Now I have no real personal objections to any of the Sad Puppies or their anointed nominees, (except for John C. Wright, who is a notorious homophobic dick) and think that they should be allowed their opinions. As well as the freedom to express those opinions. (Even when, like famous homophobic dick John C. Wright, they try unsuccessfully to remove their dickery from the internet.) I question their tactic, however, of hijacking the most prominent awards given to writers of SF in order to advance their agenda.

But the real questions that should be raised by this whole mess have gotten lost in the accompanying shitstorm. The Puppies have concerns. Are they wrong?

Not entirely, but their arguments have sadly lost legitimacy.

The Future Has a Liberal Bias.

Yes, most SF leans toward what those on the right would construe as “liberal” beliefs. And it’s that way for a reason.

Without liberalism and progress, there wouldn’t be a “future.”

Consider the very nature of conservatism. By definition, conservatism prefers a lack of change in society. It thinks things are just fine as they are and that change for change’s sake is a risky thing. That’s a valid argument on their part, but it doesn’t make for good SF. Once again, by definition, science fiction requires major advancements in society and technology in the fictional worlds created by its authors. Using the other popular term for this genre, speculative fiction, you still require a world very unlike the present world which conservatives want to conserve. You need futuristic, fantastical, or supernatural elements that just don’t exist in today’s world.

If you fast forward, say, 300 years for a story and society is essentially the same as it is today (which, to grant them their due, is how conservatives would have it), the story is going to be fairly boring. Yeah, they might have rocket ships and laser guns and that sort of thing, but the most interesting things about future worlds are the way their societies differ from ours today.

Never mind that in just about any sci-fi world worth its salt you’re going to have an alien culture of some kind in it. How does society react to the aliens? How do we perceive their cultures, values, and mores? The only half-decent “right wing” sci-fi I’ve seen with an alien culture is Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, and when you get down to it, that novel is really about how humanity is xenophobic by nature, and we tend to react violently toward the not-we. And xenophobia is one of the driving forces of the extreme right wing.

George R.R. Martin put it best in his blog entry criticizing the puppies linked above: “we love to read about aliens and vampires and elves, are we really going to freak out about Asians and Native Americans?”

So sci-fi and spec-fi really can’t exist in a proper conservative sphere. To have a story, you have to have change. Otherwise you might as well set your stories in the here and now and save yourself the world-building.

While we’re on the subject, let me say a few things about dystopian sci-fi. The rise in popularity of dys over the past decade has rankled some on the right because of the perception that since the granddaddy of the genre (Orwell’s 1984 of course) was an anti-right wing screed that all dys has to be anti-right. Not so. The best dystopian novel of all time actually look place in a liberal utopia which was shown to be crushing the human spirit. Don’t know which one I’m talking about? Go read it for yourself.

But let’s move away from the big picture and zoom in a bit. The Puppies believe that in addition to the genre’s left leaning tendencies there is an active bias against white males in publishing today.

Scratch out the “white” part, and you’re closer to the truth.

No Boys Allowed

In my particular market (again, I don’t consider Young Adult to be a genre; it’s a market) there really is an active bias against males. Not so much male writers, however, but male readers.

Look at the Young Adult bookshelf in any bookstore. What do you see? Plucky heroines. Girls coming of age. Strong women fighting misogynistic dystopias. Plucky heroines coming of age in misogynistic dystopias.

Where are the books for boys?

There are plenty of writers (like myself) who are churning out books aimed at teen boys. There are brave publishers out there who are taking a chance on books aimed at teen boys. But you just can’t find them. It comes from a misguided belief that boys don’t read. Perhaps because boys buy fewer books than girls do. But a large part of that is because there are fewer books for boys to buy than there are aimed at girls. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So when it comes time for buyers for bookstores to order books, they have a subconscious bias against stocking books for boys. Books written for boys are either passed over, buried, or mis-stocked. Publicity people who are used to marketing books towards teen girls have no clue how to target boys and launch less-than-successful campaigns to sell books for boys.

The bias exists. It isn’t a deliberate one, but it’s there nonetheless. And it will be hard to overcome.

But the way writers like I are going to overcome it isn’t to stuff the ballot boxes for YA book awards, or demand that books aimed at girls be removed from preferential spaces and books for boys inserted. The way we are going to overcome it is by writing fiction for boys that is so compelling that it demands to be bought, shelved, and read.

That’s what the Puppies have to do. If you want to sell Boys’ Own, Action-packed, Right-Wing Oriented Sci-Fi, then you have to write BOAPRWOSF that is so good and so compelling that it demands to be read and can stand on its own in a crowded field.

It All Comes Back to Heinlein

Robert Heinlein was a racist, sexist, homophobic, fascist dick. His writing reflects that point of view.

And he won the “Best Novel” Hugo four times.

Four. Times. He holds the record. No one has yet surpassed him.

I hate everything Heinlein stood for, and yet Stranger In a Strange Land* is one of my all-time favorite novels. As is Job: A Comedy of Justice. He’s written some other stuff I like, too. He was a terrible human being but he was a great writer. And he still gets props for it.

The people who are doing most of the whining that “Heinlein couldn’t win a Hugo today” (never mind that the main reason that he couldn’t is because he is dead) because they can’t get their stuff nominated for awards overlook the fact that their writing is nowhere near as good as Heinlein’s. Nor is mine, but I admit it. I aspire to be that good but I am not there yet. But that’s not the fault of people who don’t nominate me for awards; it’s my own fault for not being good enough to compete with much better work.

And if you look at your own work objectively, maybe you’ll come to the same realization.

In Conclusion

Probably the worst thing about the whole Sad Puppies debacle is that in order to fight against the Social Justice Warriors (“SJW’s”) they so rightly despise is that they have adopted the exact same tactics as these SJW’s! They have resorted to blacklisting, ballot box stuffing, bullying, and threats. Rather than embracing the conservative belief in the free market, they have created a Stalinist situation where voters are allowed to vote for anyone they want, as long as it’s candidates approved by the oligarchy. Instead of producing work that is capable of winning awards on its own merits they have perverted the process to bestow now meaningless awards on substandard product.

Worse, they are pushing good writers who deserve the recognition to pull themselves out of contention because the tactics of the Puppies has forever tainted their nominations. And they may have just robbed the most prestigious awards for SF of all legitimacy in the future.

That, Puppies, is sad.


* By the way, if you ever want to see how Progressive Capitalism can work in sci-fi, and how rightist theories can lead to technological advancement, the world of Stranger is one to look at for a model.

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Lit Shaming

There’s an article on Slate.com today by Ruth Graham entitled “Against YA.” The subhead reads

Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.

I had considered just posting a link to the article on my Facebook page with the comment “screw you,” but decided that a more thoughtful response was required. Especially since Ms. Graham didn’t put much critical thought into her article, which meant that I would have to pull double duty logic-wise.

What seems to have rubbed Ms. Graham the wrong way is the fact that The Fault in our Stars is an amazingly successful book about to become a movie that makes a lot of money for just about everybody except the author whose book it is based upon if Hollywood operates the way it usually does. Ms. Graham did not like The Fault in our Stars, so Young Adult books are bad.

You Mad Bro?

Usually when I come across a hatchet job like this one, I tend to suspect an ulterior motive. Especially when the biography at the end of the article informs us that “Ruth Graham is a writer in New Hampshire.”

This should set alarm bells ringing. After all, which writer out there doesn’t feel jealous of other successful writers? I’ve said before that John Green haunts my dreams because he’s so successful and I’m not. I don’t begrudge him his success, though, because he’s earned it, but a week doesn’t go by that I wouldn’t love to have his reviews, let alone his sales figures. So is this article just an example of sour grapes from someone who hates an author who’s better than her?

On Amazon, the only living author listed named Ruth Graham is the daughter of evangelist Billy Graham and sister of hate preacher Franklin Graham. Since her works don’t really seem to be in the same category (they aren’t fiction, for one thing) I think we can decide that either the Ruth Graham who wrote the article is not the famous Ruth Graham, or that it’s not jealousy that drives her opinions. So I will give her the benefit of the doubt and take the piece as seriously as it deserves, which honestly is still not much.

De Re YA

Let’s first deal with one misconception about young adult literature (a term I hate) that seems to permeate Ms. Graham’s thinking. She treats YA as a genre.

I will admit that I introduce myself at panels and speaking engagements by saying “I’m Pab Sungenis, and I write books for boys.” But that doesn’t tell you what genre I write in. I’ve written urban fantasy (including two novels in the superhero subcategory), thrillers, and am currently in the middle of what I call a “bromantic comedy.” I’ve also written “cozy horror” but haven’t yet found a publisher for that one.

You see, what Ms. Graham doesn’t understand (which is also the case with a disturbing number of agents, publishers, and writers) is that YA is not a genre. YA is an audience. It’s a marketing construct. It’s a demographic shortcut.

I don’t write “young adult” books. I write books where young adults are the protagonists and people (mainly boys) from 13-21 are a targeted demographic.

YA authors, or at least those who are worth their salt, don’t write books for teenagers. They write books. Hopefully books that teenagers will like. One of the reasons that John Green is so ridiculously successful is that he doesn’t talk down to his readers. He doesn’t treat them as stupid. He gives them complex characters with real dilemmas who drive powerful plots. And he doesn’t soften up their rough edges (consider Takumi’s battle cry in Looking for Alaska for an example). This is also why adults often find his works so compelling; his characters are fascinating.

One agent actually told me five years ago that “no adult will read a book about teenagers.” I nearly choked on my glass of Coke as I reached for my copy of King Dork after hanging up on her. Too many people don’t understand that YA simply refers to the target demographic of a book, not its content.

The Fault in our Logic

Let’s move on to another problem with Ms. Graham’s cri de coeur (or is it more of a cri de rate since it seems to come from her spleen and not her heart?) and take a look at one reason she claims to look down on YA books.

Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction. These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future.

I think this was the point when I considered that Ms. Graham either didn’t read the book, or skimmed through it quickly. “Satisfying?” “Looking to the future?” What future? Excuse me, but

SPOILER ALERT

 

 

Augustus is dead. Isaac is blind. Hazel Grace is dying. The author she idolized and whose book she employed as an emotional crutch (a) is an asshole, (b) has disowned that book, (c) was a prick to her and Augustus, and (d) is having an emotional breakdown in front of her. That is not “satisfying” on any level. No character gets any kind of satisfaction or anything near what they want. There is no future to be looked to, and the only hand grasped is Isaac’s as he is haltingly led around.

 

END SPOILERS

 

But this kind of thing is part of what makes The Fault in our Stars so good. It doesn’t cop out. It doesn’t treat the reader as someone who needs a big fluffy pillow to land on when the story comes to a screeching halt. It is a gut punch right where readers need it the most. It’s a book targeting teenagers about death and dying that doesn’t sugar coat anything. If I knew any teenager who had a terminal illness I would immediately give them a copy of this book and Somebody Up There Hates You just because it will make them laugh where they need to without treating them like… well… children!

Yes, there is escapist YA (Graham cites Twilight and Divergent as examples) and there is a place for it. There’s escapist fare for adults, too. But there is so much more. I’ve seen The Hunger Games and Catching Fire compared to The Red Badge of Courage and All Quiet on the Western Front, both deservedly so. The Harry Potter series is designed to give children a love of reading and grow with them, and the last three books can especially be considered adult fare.

And I will admit that, at heart, Sidekick is probably best described as escapist, but in the two books I also touch on growing up, drifting apart from your friends, child abuse including sexual abuse, teenage fatherhood, homelessness, and other “heavy” stuff. And the 12 year olds I’ve talked to as I’ve moved along promoting the books seem to be able to grasp this “adult” material. And the 30 and 40 year olds I’ve talked to don’t feel ashamed that they’ve found characters that they’ve grown to love just because the characters are much younger than they are.

What the Dickens?

Another thing that really disturbs me is that Graham offers up Charles Dickens as an example of complex adult literature, compared to the “shameful” YA.

Has she ever read any Dickens?

Dickens is about as formulaic as the worst YA out there. You can tell who the bad guys are because they are all either ugly or have disgusting names like “Uriah Heep.” The Good Guys always win and the Bad Guys always lose (or are reformed in the case of Scrooge). Even Sydney Carton who….

…nah. It’s a Victorian novel. I’m not posting a spoiler warning. Sydney Carton who dies on the guillotine says in his final words “it is a far far better rest [he goes] to than [he] has ever known.” It’s a happy ending for him.

Dickens’ work is so formulaic that there is a 30 episode radio comedy just making fun of his tropes.

There is no thought required in a Dickens novel. There are few complexities. There are no deep motivations or convoluted schemes. It’s escapist fare cut and dried. Just like Shakespeare (who wrote for the groundlings more than he did the crowned heads) the only reason we tout Dickens as great is because the dirt of intervening centuries has covered over the flaws in his work like so much snow in a graveyard. Because it is old, we assume it’s art. Spoiler: it isn’t.

Conclusion

I can’t help but feel that perhaps I’m being a little defensive because I write YA, and that perhaps I’m taking her comments as insulting my work by association. But I really think it goes deeper than that.

The illiteracy rate in the county where I live is over 20%. One out of every five people around me cannot read. The rest of the country is not much better. I find it hard to criticize anyone who reads anything nowadays. And one should never be ashamed to read what they like.

There are different types of books for different people. There are tons of genres. And some of those books target teenagers. But I can honestly say that most of the YA books I’ve read in recent years have better and more complex characters than any of the “adult” fare I’ve read.

If Ms. Graham wants to see adults reading more books aimed at them… well… maybe she and the other “adult” authors ought to write better stuff for them to read.

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