BOB GARFIELD: The death last week of famously reclusive author J.D. Salinger prompted remembrances and elegies from friends and critics in the literary world. That was last week. This week, critics have dried their eyes and are mostly occupied with a more prosaic question: Did Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey, write any more books? His last story was published nearly 50 years ago, but he claimed to have been writing up until his death. There’s no way of telling yet if he did write more books or if we'll ever get to see them. But we thought we'd call Slate columnist Ron Rosenbaum to see what he thinks. We last spoke to Rosenbaum in the fall, when the late Vladimir Nabokov’s unfinished novel was published. Rosenbaum had written about his own conflicted feelings about whether the novel, which the author had wanted destroyed, should be released. Ron, welcome back to OTM.
RON ROSENBAUM: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: At a minimum, Salinger was an eccentric man. Can you tell me some of the quirks that may have something to do with his absolute imposed exile from the literary world?
RON ROSENBAUM: I would say that in some way there’s been too much emphasis on him as a nutty, eccentric crank and not enough emphasis on the fact that his silence, his rejection of celebrity culture, of the whole media industrial publicity complex, was a kind of principled stand and deserves respect.
BOB GARFIELD: Media industrial industry complex. Very good, General Eisenhower. [LAUGHS]
[RON LAUGHS] But it wasn't just that he refused to participate in the celebrity culture. He also refused to participate in literature. That is to say, if he has been writing all along, he declined to send it to publishers, either magazine editors or book publishers.
RON ROSENBAUM: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: Does anyone know why that is?
RON ROSENBAUM: He has made a few statements on this to the effect that he doesn't care or enjoy the process of publishing and getting reviewed and all that sort of thing, and he’s in a position where he can write for his own pleasure, and presumably for posterity.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, as to whether he was writing for posterity, I guess we'll know once his literary executor or just plain executor reveals what has or has not been accumulated, lo, these past five decades.
RON ROSENBAUM: Right. But you never know with these things whether the estate will be contested, whether the children will have a say in it, whether he’s given specific instructions about his manuscripts. So, you know, we could begin to see things in six months, or, for all we know, it could be tied up in litigation for six years.
BOB GARFIELD: And not for no reason. As we've seen in the Nabokov episode, the children can absolutely disregard the author’s dying wishes. Now, we don't know what the will says to begin with but do you have any reason to think that there is a controversy a-brewing?
RON ROSENBAUM: Well, I wrote a Slate column about six months ago when Salinger was suing some guy who was writing a novel about Holden Caulfield in his 60s. Salinger was suing him because he owned Holden Caulfield. And my column was titled, well, Let’s Save the Salinger Archives because who knows, he could make a Nabokov-like move and say in his will, burn everything. It’s not like we could have faith in the stability of his judgment, at this point.
BOB GARFIELD: As you were in the case of the Nabokov manuscript or partial manuscript, you seem ambivalent about Salinger. On one hand you've written approvingly about his life decision to stay out of the glare of publicity. On the other hand, you wrote kind of approvingly of your pal - and WNYC music host – Jonathan Schwartz’s plan [LAUGHS] to break into Salinger’s house to steal the stuff, so that he couldn't destroy it before he died. What’s your feeling now that Salinger has, in fact, passed away?
RON ROSENBAUM: I would say that I, I think Jonathan and I, and a number of Salinger-ophiles, would often bat around the fantasy. I don't think we were about to commit the felony of breaking in and stealing his manuscripts. On the other hand, I found on Amazon some self-published book about a gang that breaks in and steals Salinger’s manuscripts, so it’s a common fantasy.
[BOB LAUGHS] And -
BOB GARFIELD: Ron, I'm sorry. I just have to say this: Having all of your teeth fall out, common nightmare.
RON ROSENBAUM: [LAUGHING]
BOB GARFIELD: Giving a book report with nothing on but your t-shirt -
RON ROSENBAUM: [LAUGHING]
BOB GARFIELD: - common. Breaking into J.D. Salinger’s home and stealing his life work, less common. I do not think two constitutes commonality — I'm just saying.
RON ROSENBAUM: I think that I phrased it “common fantasy among Salingerophiles,” so -
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Okay. So we've established that Salinger was publicity-averse in the extreme, but it created this mystique about him that has, among other things, I'm sure, helped the lasting interest in Catcher in the Rye and his short stories. I'm wondering why, apart from maybe Thomas Pynchon, other authors have not glommed onto the same [LAUGHS] gimmick, to at least fake media aversion, in order to actually cultivate it.
RON ROSENBAUM: Well, it’s a good suggestion, except that first you'd have to care enough about their work. And I think that’s what Catcher in the Rye did, is make people care about him. You know, one of the most interesting things said about Salinger’s hiddenness was by a sort of fellow reclusive novelist, Don DeLillo who, in his book Mao II, has a Salinger character. And he says, we're fascinated with reclusive authors because in some way they replicate the fact that God has hidden his face from us, that someone who has the answers is not going to reveal them to us.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, nonetheless, just in case The New York Times is listening [LAUGHS] you can call me all you want, but -
[RON LAUGHS] - I'm not going to grant any interviews about my book.
BOB GARFIELD: Just put it out of your mind.
RON ROSENBAUM: Good strategy.
BOB GARFIELD: Ron, as always, thank you very much.
RON ROSENBAUM: Thanks, Bob. I enjoyed it.
BOB GARFIELD: Ron Rosenbaum is a columnist for Slate, and author, most recently, of The Shakespeare Wars.