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Literary Fascism at The New York Times

by Jules Siegel

The right to use her own life in her work
Editor's note: Probably the most debated literary topic of 1998 was the publication of Joyce Maynard's memoir, "At Home in the World." Reviewers split on whether Maynard had the right to describe in detail her intimate 9-month relationship with reclusive J. D. Salinger, an author famous for guarding his privacy. In the New York Times review, it was cast as the betrayal of a disciple. Siegel, who reviewed Maynard's book for the San Francisco Chronicle, took a less absolute position. It was, he pointed out, a writer's autobiography -- which naturally included the episode of the famous 53-year-old man seducing her at 18, convincing her to drop out of Yale and move in with him.

(Siegel, by the way, is uniquely qualified to write about reclusive writers and affairs; his own book "Lineland" about Thomas Pynchon describes his wife's affair with the secretive Pynchon.)

The Maynard-Salinger controversy continued this month when Maynard placed letters from Salinger up for auction. Again The Times spared no venom against her, presenting an unbalanced story. Quoted was author and critic Cynthia Ozick: "What we have is two celebrities, one who was once upon a time a real writer of substance and an artist, and one who has never been an artist and has no real substance and has attached herself to the real artist in order to suck out his celebrity."

Siegel countered with a letter to The Times which was drastically edited. Among his points omitted, Siegel noted that "...Ms. Ozick's use of the phrase 'suck out' is especially unfortunate, as it appears that Mr. Salinger essentially used Ms. Maynard as an oral sex provider." Nor was the 18 year-old Maynard a person of no real substance. Wrote Siegel, "...Salinger attempted to talk her out of cooperating in the promotion of a book that Doubleday contracted her to write. Taking this advice would have effectively kept her from escaping his control. After nine months, during which he encouraged her to believe they would have a child, he abruptly discarded her as if she were a worn-out toy, precipitating a blinding depression and a long-lasting unrequited obsession that she confronted at last in writing 'At Home in the World.'" Moreover, Siegel wrote, the sale of the letters does not infringe on Salinger's privacy in any real sense. The publication rights remain his. All that changes is their physical possession.

The Times swiped at Maynard yet again on May 19, as columnist Maureen Dowd opined Leech Women in Love:

There is the Leech Woman of the boomer generation, the indefatigably exhibitionistic Joyce Maynard, who has asked Sotheby's to auction 14 romantic letters that J. D. Salinger wrote to her in 1972 and '73. The publicity-phobic writer has been the object of Ms. Maynard's leech for quite awhile.

Then there is the Gen-X Leech Woman, the indefatigably exhibitionistic Monica Lewinsky, who insists, all her alleged humiliation notwithstanding, on not going away. The object of her leech, which will likely also last quite awhile, is the privacy-phobic President.

These two highly skilled predators keep trying to extract celebrity from old love affairs that were not only brief and puerile but sexually tortured. They want to gain immortality -- and big bucks -- by feeding off the detritus of their triste trysts with older, famous men.


To this attack on Maynard, Siegel responds:

Maureen Dowd's sneering column comparing Joyce Mayard with Monica Lewinsky surely ranks among our time's more tortured attempts at linking incongruous situations in order to be unfair to both.

Ms. Dowd refers to Monica and Joyce as "Leech Women" because they are supposedly feeding off the blood of old lovers. "These two highly skilled predators keep trying to extract celebrity from old love affairs that were not only brief and puerile but sexually tortured," she writes. "The world's most confessional woman says she has to betray the world's most unconfessional man because she needs money to pay for college for her children," she sums up Joyce Maynard. "Malarkey," says Maureen Dowd. By this I guess she means that Ms. Maynard doesn't need the money or that her children don't have to go to college.

"There are those who say that these women were victims of older men, and so have a right to revenge," columnist Dowd sums up. "But experiencing the ordinary brutality of love does not make one a victim. It makes one an adult. Or it should."

Ms. Dowd would deny Ms. Maynard the right to use her own life in her work because it might infringe on Salinger's right to privacy. He knew that she was a writer, didn't he? Did he make her sign a non-disclosure agreement? When he wrote her the letters he knew that there might come a time when she might choose to sell them. According to Ms. Dowd's side-of-the-mouth talking tough kind of ethics, he made the very grave error of taking that risk. It's about the same as if he had given her jewelry (which he didn't as far as I know, or any other gift). Once you give people a gift it belongs to them and it is theirs to do with as they please. It's a bit ingenuous for an older man (53) to hurt a kid (18) deeply and then be offended because she later turns her pain and scars to a small profit.

Moreover, Ms. Dowd, of course, has no problems about profiting from the situation herself. She did go and inspect the letters and does quote from them in her column (all proceeds of which presumably go to charity) but she confesses to feeling "creepy" about this. This doesn't stop her from making money off it because she isn't selling anything; she's on a salary (plus syndication rights, I imagine). This presumably makes her more virtuous than Ms. Maynard, who is a free-lancer, and did not quote from the letters in her book.

I am going to be really blunt here. This is just a case of literary fascism. Maureen Dowd is using the giant clout of her position with New York Times to beat up on Joyce Maynard because she thinks it's fashionable and/or she's an insufferable prig (to use a very apt cliche). She defends the rights of the overaged male sexual aggressor over those of his female victim, who is no longer only 18 and should not speak out because it was all so long ago and it shouldn't have damaged her anyway and she probably asked for it, too.

Literary fascism is too kind. It's pit bull journalism. And it's rotten.

Reprinted with permission

Jules Siegel has spent 40+ years as a professional writer, including stories published in Playboy, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Village Voice, Saturday Evening Post, Best American Short Stories, and many other publications.

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Albion Monitor May 24, 1999 (

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