R.I.P J.D. Salinger
The recent passing of J.D. Salinger reminds me to read The Catcher in the Rye again. It's my ten year reunion for this one.
I believe writers should revisit books that fascinated or frustrated them during the first read. I return to stories that amazed in five or ten year increments. I also revisit and discover interest in books that did not appeal earlier in my writing career. They assist my progress in writing and reveal how my tastes and appreciation can change. So many books, so little time. . .but I must return to the early ones that had an impact.
A fellow in eighth grade encouraged my fledgling peek at The Catcher in the Rye. He wanted to become Holden Caulfield and thought of me as his sister, Phoebe. I had deeper aspirations for him but played along in case he might reconsider. He quoted lines of the text and tried on Holden's ideals.
His voice quivered when he recounted the first time Holden runs into the F-word. This occurs in a stairwell of his little sister's school. My friend felt a similiar concern that nasty kids would explain it to the naive ones in a way that would taint them forever. Then they would see the world as dangerous.
Where Holden imagines the word on his gravestone, my friend wanted to glamorize it with a new meaning in writing. He tried a variety of poetic slants and repetitions, sounding it out in whispers and screams. It always appeared with the same intensity and meaning to my tender ears. Even then I questioned its literary ability.
Five years later I read the story again and marveled at how Salinger used the F word. I never see it written without referring back to his phrasing. I advise my students if they want to use it, read Salinger. Make it purposeful. Give it an opportunity to shock, surprise and provide enlightenment the way it does for Holden.
Some writers who use it for shock value in dialogue believe repetition works. Once again, compare any writing to the scene in "Catcher'" I've highlighted it so you can squint and imagine it not written out. Then read the sentence aloud with its full expression.
"I went down by a different staircase, and I saw another F You_on the wall. I tried to rub it off with my hand again, but this one was scratched on, with a knife or something. It wouldn't come off. It's hopeless, anyway. If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn't rub out even half the 'F You' signs in the world. It's impossible."
If you want to make a point with the F word, make it a work for you.