Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Wearing a red hunting hat

This is my column today.
(February 14 erratum: A professor from Ateneo, Jonathan Chua, emailed to point out an oversight in this column. He is right, of course. Jose Garcia Villa was one of the first to be proclaimed National Artist).

I have a confession to make. More than two decades ago when the Internet was still incomprehensible to most people, when geeks and nerds still had absolute dominion over cyberspace, and when access to the net still meant having a telephone and a dial-up connection, I spent inordinate amounts of time lurking in Internet chat rooms.

My initial handle or nick was Salinger, after Jerome David Salinger, the novelist. Back then, no one asked about who Salinger was and why it was my handle; which was probably a reflection of the demographic profile of the people who lurked in chat rooms then—people who knew JD Salinger and what he represented to those belonging to a certain generation.

I tried logging on to a chat room the other weekend using Salinger as my nick. Most of the chatters didn’t have the faintest idea what my nick represented despite the fact that news about the death JD Salinger was one of the top stories in the net. It’s either of two things: Kids today really don’t read books anymore or their notion of what is “cool” and “hip” is completely different from what it was during my youth. I read somewhere that in a survey conducted among today’s young, the few who have read Catcher In The Rye found the plot simplistic and Holden Caulfield, the main character in the novel, “whiny.”

At no other time has the generation gap become more real to me. Reading JD Salinger was a rite of passage for my generation; everyone I knew in college had read Catcher in the Rye. It was almost inconceivable for anyone to have gone through college without at least knowing who Holden Caulfield was. How could kids today not know who JD Salinger is? And how could kids today find Catcher simplistic and Caulfield shallow?

Catcher In The Rye was the book people carried around during my college days like it was the ultimate badge of coolness in much the same way classmates in high school lugged around copies of The Little Prince like it was a barometer of intellectual prowess. No, I didn’t think people fancied themselves as brown Marc David Chapmans who shot John Lennon supposedly to draw attention to Catcher In The Rye; we simply identified with the teenage angst and sense of alienation. (As an irrelevant digression, I should also point out that certain male members of my class, for reasons I cannot go into in this piece, also lugged around Harold Robbins and those pronoun books—He, She, You, They, Him, Her—that listed Anonymous as author).

The death of JD Salinger the other week represented the passing of an era for me and for my friends. We felt like having our own memorial for the reclusive novelist. I finally understood why a favorite professor in college took the day off when Ayn Rand died. (I also read Ayn Rand but didn’t feel any connection probably because I read Atlas Shrugged first before I read The Fountainhead. Atlas Shrugged just didn’t sit well with my political sensibilities at that time).

I am not sure if JD Salinger is still required reading in literature courses today the way it was during my college days. You know how it is when something is forced upon you—you tend to look at the material with some measure of disdain regardless of all the praised heaped upon it. It didn’t help that the professor who made it required reading had plunged deep in my estimation after she encouraged me to read Sidney Sheldon’s Rage of Angels, all the time raving about how it was supposedly the best novel ever written (not!). I procrastinated on reading Catcher In The Rye and settled down to read the darn thing only when the deadline for the paper was almost up. I finished it in one sitting and quickly lapped up all the other JD Salinger books available, which, unfortunately one could count with the fingers in one hand.

Salinger’s portfolio is rather slim. Aside from Catcher, he published only three other books: Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. However, there is absolutely no doubt that those four books achieved so much more in terms of influencing a generation and in provoking spirited discussion and analysis.

My fascination with JD Salinger has not just been on account of the fact that he wrote great books or that he published only a few of them. I’ve always been in awe of what he represented as a writer.

He debunked many paradigms about what makes a great writer. He proved that one does not need to have a large body of work to prove one’s mettle. He exemplified what I’ve always thought was extreme dedication or devotion to writing as a craft. And he wrote mainly for himself.

Salinger’s reclusiveness and his manic obsession with privacy may have served as fodder for the gossip mill but they also sparked philosophical discussions on writing, publishing, and the job description of writers and authors in general.

Most writers aspire to be published. The prevailing paradigm is that someone can only claim full-fledged status as a writer if one has published his or her work or works. Moreover, one’s worth as a writer is largely measured by how prolific one is. In fact, the rather thin canon of noted Filipino writer Jose Garcia Villa is seen as the major reason why he has not been bestowed the title of National Artist despite his brilliance.

Salinger, however, shunned public recognition and looked at being published as a major invasion of one’s privacy. Salinger thus prompted the philosophical, perhaps even existential questions that writers wrestle with: Is public recognition relevant in determining writing talent? Does one need to be published for him or her to be considered a writer? Should a writer write for others or should a writer write mainly for one’s self? Are writers defined mainly by their writing?

By isolating himself from the rest of the world and by refusing to be published, Salinger showcased an alternative point of view; perhaps one that is unpopular or unconventional. But when we come to think about it, writing is a creative process that is intensely personal and the demands and pressures we place on writers are often unfair. I often cringe when I come across people who complain that Ninotchka Rosca or Mo Yan do not produce as many books as say, John Grisham or Jeffrey Archer. We often expect writers to be spokespersons for this and that cause, to be the mouthpiece of our innermost thoughts, to be the voice of the everyday man. We forget that the choice—what to or not to say publicly—is primarily that of the writer’s and nobody else’s.

And oh, in case you haven’t read Catcher In The Rye and are therefore unable to see what the title of this piece has to do with the rest of it, Holden Caulfield’s red hunting hat is one of the symbols that appear frequently in the book. It represents his need for individuality and security, while also representing a lot of mixed emotions.

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