English undergraduate and member of the School of the Arts Student Press team, Fred Johnson, has been exploring the moral concerns around the leaking of three of J.D Salinger’s previously unpublished short stories:
“Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules”.
“So speaks Mr. Spencer in the late J.D Salinger’s hugely successful 1951 novel, The Catcher in the Rye. But it would appear that recently, like Salinger’s protagonist Holden Caulfield, certain scholars and enthusiasts have not been playing by the rules.
“The New York Times has reported recently that three of Salinger’s previously unpublished short stories have been leaked online, one of which is a prequel to the author’s only novel.
“This is doubtlessly a good thing for those Salinger-scholars who are unable to visit the original manuscripts locked in Princeton and Texas Universities, and indeed for the countless fans of his work.
“But not all is rosy. The notoriously reclusive author was famously rigorous in enforcing his rights to deny publication, and he specified to his family that his remaining unpublished stories should only be released fifty years after his death. Since he died in 2010, there has clearly been some departure from Mr Salinger’s wishes.
“This rather uncomfortable betrayal of the dead author forces the sour question: does the undeniably high literary and scholarly value of these texts, and indeed the accessibility of these pirate copies, justify directly ignoring the wishes of the late writer? Do the dying wishes of any significant artist resonate in such an impatient and progressive world? Fifty years does seem like an unreasonably long time, meaning some of Salinger’s most avid fans may not get to read the stories in their lifetimes – but it is within the author’s legal rights to insist so.
“Salinger was remarkable for his fearful reaction to the sudden fame that The Catcher in the Rye entailed, and indeed in the years following its publication he ebbed from public view and wrote less and less. In his final interview, Salinger famously said: “There is a marvellous peace in not publishing.
“When you publish, the world thinks you owe something. If you don’t publish, they don’t know what you’re doing. You can keep it for yourself.”
“Salinger was unhappy with the fame forced upon him, and one must sympathise; our modern world is a hard one to hide in. Privacy is a difficult enough thing to defend even when you’re not a generation-defining writer, especially in our society of surveillance and spying.
“Certain literary figures have voiced their disapproval of the texts’ publication. Scholar and biographer Kenneth Slawenski was one of the first people to validate these online stories, and yet expressed moral concern: “While I do quibble with the ethics (or lack of ethics) in posting the Salinger stories, they look to be true transcripts of the originals and match my own copies.”
“For all the awkwardness, the question remains glaring – should art of such value render reclusive artists’ wishes void in favour of furthering cultural knowledge? Couldn’t we be losing artistically extraordinary pieces to the stubborn dead? Or should the creator’s rights be rigorously defended?
“The choice ultimately lies, somewhat suitably, between Spencer’s rules and Caulfield’s ever-resentful vision.”
By Fred Johnson