Self-Criticizing through Criticism

Today I was reminded of a little thing called criticism (of the literary variety), my old friend, well maybe not-quite-so old; it seems like ages since I discovered J.D. Salinger–so long in fact that I want to re-read Franny and Zooey. William Faulkner has stolen my life and I am currently making less progress than I’d like to be on The Sound and The Fury (update: I conquered it soon after composing the beginning of this post). I figured it’s apt to do a post on Salinger criticism before doing one on Faulkner because I read his work first. It’s my opinion that without criticism, some books lose their value. I know for a fact that I would be markedly less fond of The Catcher in The Rye if I hadn’t been turned onto criticism. Out of all of the criticism I’ve read of Salinger’s work, there were two essays that I liked best.

The first critical article that I found interesting is one by John Updike (who was also a writer I highly recommend A&P which has a Salinger-esque style to it) on Franny and Zooey. Updike asserts that are discontinuities in the two stories, not only in terms of the plot but in the character’s personalities, chiefly Franny’s. He praises Salinger as “a uniquely relevant literary artist,” but also chides Franny and Zooey for being “dangerously convoluted and static.” He classifies the Franny of “Franny” as a “pretty college girl passing through a plausible moment of disgust” which starkly contrast to his description of the Franny in “Zooey” as a former child prodigy who grew up reading all of the great religious works. He questions how a girl who grew up with two religiously indoctrinating brothers could possibly be shocked by The Way of the Pilgrim. He then criticizes Salinger for making the Glass family too intelligent, too good-looking, too perfect. Updike ends on a high note, however, calling Salinger an “adventurer” because of his willingness “to risk excess on behalf of one’s obsessions.”

I’ve probably read this article three times. The first time I was furious–how could Updike find all of these flaws in seemingly flawless Salinger. The second time I came around a little; I can see how the two stories are a little disjointed. The third time, and after getting a little space from Franny and Zooey, I’ve realized a lot of what he’s saying is right. I do have a few problems with his position, however. Firstly, I think it’s outlandish that he says there is an implication that Franny is pregnant at the end of “Franny.” It’s like the implication that just because a woman is irritable, she must be on her period. C’mon Updike. So, needless to say, I think that Franny is entitled to a breakdown once in a while without the question of pregnancy being brought up. That being said, I can see the issues that Updike has with Salinger’s characters. Yes, they are too perfect. Yes, they are static. But, isn’t that what you expect from Salinger? I think that he was throwing some low blows in his essay–I guess, after all, it is criticism–but he ends tactfully. Updike came off a little pretentious to me. I feel as though he is asserting that because Salinger didn’t stick to the literary norm of the time, that he wasn’t any good. I learned in my reading that it isn’t fair to assess a writer in such a manner. Reading Salinger requires not just a new tool to get what he’s saying, but a whole new tool box filled with tools to be used soley for Salinger’s work. In my opinion, Updike missed the boat on the genius that is Franny and Zooey.

Okay, moving on to the next critical essay, this one is about For Esme: With Love and Squalor. In this article, Robert Browne is responding to John Hermann’s position on Salinger’s story–which seems like a fairly common practice, it’s almost comical how these English types squabble over what the real meaning behind any given piece of writing is, as if there is one answer. Brown disputes Hermann’s claims by stating that Esme being a truth-lover doesn’t make her incapable of  loving people. He also emphasizes that Esme’s love of Sergeant X is non-romantic. He concedes that Esme does often take things too literally, but he excuses it because it’s endearing. Despite Esme’s self-assessment of being “terribly cold”, Browne states that Esme’s “willingness to try is enough to save her [from Dostoevsky’s hell of being unable to love.]” He leaves his most convincing text-based argument for last, when he point’s out Sergeant X tells Esme that she isn’t cold but rather “very much to the contrary.”

I’m compelled to be honest and say that I love this story, which affects my view of the essay. I did read Hermann’s article too and I couldn’t believe what he surmised from For Esme. It was shocking. At first, I was convinced that he must’ve read a different version of the story.Yet, I was wrong. I agree almost entirely with Browne’s view of the story, aside from one small point. Browne argues that Esme’s attempt to seem more grown up by using language she doesn’t understand, etc. is endearing, but I don’t think so. Other than that, I love every point he makes, especially the one about Esme’s attempt to love is enough to save her from a loveless hell. It’s hopeful. It’s–what I believe–Salinger is getting at in the story.

Criticism isn’t the first thing that a high school student reaches for. Normally, they go for the easier to read, more accessible, tried and true: Shmoop. It’s easy. I get it, but it’s much less rewarding. My experience in AP (all-passion that is) English has made me a much more careful and astute reader, partially due to criticism. I urge anyone out there who wants to really understand what they read to search out criticism. Criticism has made me love books that I otherwise would’ve hated, simply because I didn’t understand them. Moral of the story: read literature, read criticism about literature, and write about reading literature and its criticism.

Citations:

  1. Updike, John. “Franny and Zooey”. 1961. Studies in J.D. Salinger: Reviews, Essays, and Critiques     of The Catcher in the Rye, and Other Fiction. By Marvin Laser and Norman Fruman. New York: Odyssey, 1963. 227-31. Print.
  2. Browne, Robert M. “In Defense of Esme.” J.D. Salinger and the Critics. By William F. Belcher and James W. Lee. Belmont: Wadsworth, 1962. 149-50. Print.

 

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