J.D. Salinger, E-Book Holdout, Joins the Digital Revolution

In the five decades since J. D. Salinger published his final short story, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” his small, revered body of work has stayed static, practically suspended in amber.

Even as publishers and consumers adopted e-books and digital audio, Salinger’s books remained defiantly offline, a consequence of the writer’s distaste for computers and technology. And while Salinger kept writing until his death nearly 10 years ago, not a word has been published since 1965.

That is partly because of his son, Matt Salinger, who helps run the J. D. Salinger Literary Trust and is a vigilant guardian of his father’s legacy and privacy.

But now, in an effort to keep his father’s books in front of a new generation of readers, the younger Mr. Salinger is beginning to ease up, gradually lifting a cloud of secrecy that has obscured the life and work of one of America’s most influential and enigmatic writers.

This week, in the first step of a broader revival that could reshape the world’s understanding of Salinger and his writing, Little, Brown is publishing digital editions of his four books, making him perhaps the last 20th-century literary icon to surrender to the digital revolution.

Then this fall, with Mr. Salinger’s help, the New York Public Library will host the first public exhibition from Salinger’s personal archives, which will feature letters, family photographs and the typescript for “The Catcher in the Rye” with the author’s handwritten edits, along with about 160 other items.

And before long, decades worth of Salinger’s unpublished writing will be released, a project Mr. Salinger estimated will take another five to seven years to complete.

Combing through his father’s manuscripts and letters has been both enlightening and emotionally taxing, Mr. Salinger said in an interview to promote the new digital editions.

“It’s kept him very much alive for me,” he said during an interview at the New York Public Library. “It’s been fascinating and joyful and moving and sad.”

It’s also put him in the awkward position of becoming a de facto public face for an author who detested publicity and once told an interviewer that “publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy.”

“It’s weird, because I’ve spent my whole life protecting him and not talking about him,” Mr. Salinger said.

The question of what Salinger left behind when he died in 2010 at the age of 91 remains one of the most tantalizing mysteries in American literature. His son has the answers but is not revealing much for now, apart from the fact that there is more writing — a lot of it — and that he is preparing to release it. He doesn’t want to inflate expectations for Salinger fans by describing the contents, beyond confirming that his father did continue to write about the Glass family, among other subjects.

“He would want people to come to it with no preconceptions,” Mr. Salinger said. “I wanted people to know that, yes, he did keep writing, there’s a lot of material, and yes, it will be published.”

A film producer and actor who played Captain America in a 1990 action film that was never released in U.S. theaters, Mr. Salinger, 59, is to some degree an unlikely representative for a reclusive literary icon. He now has to fend off people his father called “wanters” — fans and journalists who hounded Salinger for an interview, an autograph, a photo, another book. These days, the wanters come to the author’s son, seeking permission for film adaptations, plays, Salinger tote bags. (Mr. Salinger said he is firmly opposed to screen adaptations and nixed the tote-bag idea.)

He has agonized over some of these new initiatives, torn between wanting to honor his father’s desire for privacy and control, and wanting the books to reach a wider audience.

There are signs that Salinger’s profound influence on generations of American writers and readers may be waning. In an essay published in The Guardian earlier this month, the novelist Dana Czapnik wrote of students and teachers who aren’t as enamored of Holden Caulfield, the phony-hating protagonist of “The Catcher in the Rye,” as previous generations, and an Electric Literature article published last year suggested “alternatives and supplements” to the book by female and nonwhite authors.

While he rarely gives interviews, Mr. Salinger has opened up more about his father recently. He felt compelled, he said, to counter the claims in a 2013 documentary and a tie-in book by David Shields and Shane Salerno, which caused a stir with the revelation that Salinger had left behind five unpublished works, along with instructions to publish them between 2015 and 2020. “So much in that book and that movie were utter fiction, and bad fiction,” said Mr. Salinger, who noted that his father “encouraged us to take our time” and didn’t give a timeline for publication.

Mr. Salerno said that the book and film were based on nearly a decade of research, and were legally vetted. He added that he felt vindicated by Mr. Salinger’s recent statements that the writer’s unpublished works will be released in coming years. “Matt Salinger finally confirmed to the world that what I wrote back in 2013 was true, and that more than 40 years of his father’s writing would be published,” Mr. Salerno said in a statement to The New York Times.

For now, the contents of J. D. Salinger’s archives remain a closely held secret. His unpublished work sits in a secure storage facility between his son’s home in Connecticut and the New Hampshire home of the Salinger Trust’s other trustee, Salinger’s widow, Colleen Salinger. (She declined to comment for this article.)

Matt Salinger has been preparing the unreleased work for publication since 2012. He sometimes found himself getting lost in the files, entranced by his father’s voice. “Everything’s a rabbit hole,” he said. Creating digital files has been daunting, he said, because he hasn’t been able to find reliable optical-recognition software to convert the handwritten pages into electronic text, so he manually types in the material himself.

The Salinger estate was among the most stubborn holdouts against digitization, and the arrival of his e-books will fill a major gap in the digital library.

“This is the last chip to fall in terms of the classic works,” said Terry Adams, vice president, digital and paperback publisher of Little, Brown. “All of the other estates of major 20th century writers have made the move to e-books, but Matt has been very cautious.”

Matt Salinger resisted requests to issue e-books for years, knowing his father’s aversion to the internet. He once tried to explain Facebook to him and remembers he was “horrified” by the notion of digital oversharing.

“I hear his voice really clearly in my head, and there’s no doubt in my mind about 96 percent of the decisions I have to make, because I know what he would have wanted,” Mr. Salinger said. “Things like e-books and audiobooks are tough, because he clearly didn’t want them.”

Mr. Salinger began to consider releasing e-books around 2014, after a woman in Michigan wrote to him, saying she had a disability that made it difficult for her to read printed books. Then, during a trip to China earlier this year, he realized that many young people overseas read exclusively on phones and digital devices, and that e-books were the only way to get his father’s writing in front of them.

He finally acquiesced to digital editions of Salinger’s four books — ”The Catcher in the Rye,” “Nine Stories,” “Franny and Zooey,” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour—An Introduction.”

He has also explored the possibility of releasing audiobook editions but said his father abhorred the idea of his books being performed or interpreted in any way in another medium.

His father “was leery of many things, but he had a profound love for his readers,” Mr. Salinger said. “He wouldn’t want people to not be able to read his stuff.”

When it comes to releasing unpublished material, Mr. Salinger feels less ambivalent. His father always made it clear that he intended to publish more one day, but didn’t want to deal with the media storm, he said.

“He’d say, ‘This is the year, I’m getting things together,’ and then when it came time to do it, he just couldn’t do it,” he said. “It took too much out of him, the attention was too great.”

Mr. Salinger plans to proceed cautiously but feels the weight of his father’s legacy, the expectations that his many fans have. A woman in her 80s wrote to him, begging him to release his father’s writing so that she can read it before she dies, he said. It pains him to think of her, and that he might let her and other readers down by taking too long.

“That is a kind of pressure,” he said. He thought of his father again, adding, “He would have been moved by letters like that, too.”

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