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A Literary Love Affair

 

 
Pit Bull Journalism

Why Does the American Press
Hate Joyce Maynard?

Joyce Maynard,
Articulating Paper Doll 

"Joyce Maynard is the second (see the first, Lyndon Baines Johnson) in the new Electromics ‹tm› Articulating Paper Doll series." 1998 Joe Rosen

For those too young to remember, the caption above refers obliquely to the time post-operative President Lyndon B. Johnson pulled up his shirt to show photographers the stitches from his gall bladder operation. The joke (if you want to dignify it with that honor) here is that Joyce Maynard wrote about having breast implants and then about having them removed. The Vanity Fair story was illustrated with a photograph of her holding up the silicon prostheses.

The squeamish little world of conventional media found this absolutely outrageous. You can imagine how they felt about this at The New York Times "Fashions of the Times" Sunday supplement. This is the background against which to see the Times coverage of her book and the letters auction.

Maureen Dowd's column comparing Ms. Maynard with Monica Lewinsky and calling them both "leech women" was so vicious that I was shocked the Times allowed it to go through.

In general, I found the Times coverage of this issue brutally unfair. Surely a bit of investigation would have turned up at least one or two sources to provide a more balanced view. The rest of the media reaction wasn't  much better -- just a literary gangbang of today's designated victim.

When Sotheby's announced the June 22 auction of fourteen love letters written in 1972 by secretive novelist J. D. Salinger, then 53, to teenage prodigy writer Joyce Maynard, then 18, the American press raised up a wild howl of pit bull journalism, chasing a non-scandal without reference to truth or justice.

One hideously cruel column, by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who called Maynard a predatory "leech woman," had the facts so wrong that it strengthens the case for truth-in-journalism laws. Joyce Maynard was merely one of the teenage females Salinger is known to have pursued by mail, seduced and abandoned.

I HAD NEVER HEARD OF JOYCE MAYNARD until September 1998, when San Francisco Chronicle books editor David Kipen sent me her memoir At Home in the World to review. As the entire literary world (except me) knew, after 26 years of silence she was finally publishing some of the details of her nine-month affair with Salinger.

Now I feel that calling her anything less friendly than Joyce would be inappropriate, even though we've never shaken hands. Although we have now corresponded by e-mail, before writing this essay I knew Joyce Maynard only through her book and her remarkably honest and well-written descriptions of her own life, which I occasionally read on her web site (www.joycemaynard.com), where her fans (and a few of her considerable pack of enraged enemies) gather to schmooze.

Like her writing, the web site has a deceptively home-made look. There are pictures of Joyce and her family today. We see Joyce as the heartbreakingly beautiful teenager who caught the great novelist's eye. You can buy her books, read works in progress, learn about the craft of writing, exchange messages on her Domestic Affairs bulletin board.

How is it possible that this beautiful, fundamentally decent, kind and even motherly woman has so many enemies in the American literary world? Why do they hate her so much?

Although there were two or three appreciative reviews and some grudging acknowledgements that the book was not entirely without merit, At Home in the World mostly evoked the kind of language usually reserved for abortion rights flame wars. In "Private Parts, Public Women," The Nation, November 16, 1998, Chris Krause wrote that she had examined most of the reviews and concluded, "Every review of this book I've read in the avalanche of press that's surrounded it is a review of Maynard's person. A few, like Katha Pollitt's in The New York Times Book Review, approach compassion; the majority are written with astonishing contempt and even hatred."

"An act of war"
  -- Kerry Fried, amazon.com

"Deluded"
  -- Daphne Merkin, The New Yorker

"Self-serving"
  -- Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"a mess"
  -- Diane White, The Boston Globe

"Indescribably stupid"
  -- Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post

"Icky, masturbatory eroticon"
  -- Gerry Hirshey, Mirabella

"Absorbing, funny and emotionally blistering"
  -- Jules Siegel, San Francisco Chronicle

I also called her book "dazzling" and her writing "clear, eloquent and unpretentious, like Shaker furniture rendered in words."

Publishing conspiracy theorists will note that I, too, revealed some intimate details about a secretive great novelist's sex life in my notorious 1977 Playboy memoir, "Who Is Thomas Pynchon ... And Why Did He Take Off With My Wife?", later reprinted in my book Lineland: Mortality and Mercy on the Internet's Pynchon-L@Waste.Org Mailing List by Jules Siegel, Christine Wexler, et al. David Kipen, who commissioned my San Francisco Chronicle review, not only contributed to Lineland but also visited me in Cancun when he came here for a Club Med cultural event and, like Joyce, lives in Mill Valley, California.

It is true that I was disposed to like Joyce's book for what might be called political reasons. But I also share most of Joyce's cultural axioms. Among many correspondences, I made the parallel decision to write only about what I know to be the truth -- what I see with my own eyes and feel with my own heart. Had I not liked At Home in the World, I would have kissed it off with polite admiration for her undeniable courage or not written anything at all.

BEFORE PUBLICATION, At Home in the World was condemned unread with increasingly gross imagery that began with "I Was a Teen-Ager for the New York Times," posted Jan. 8, 1998 in Microsoft's online magazine, Slate, by Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam.

"Joyce Maynard sells herself, piece by piece," the blurb sneered. She reminded him of a marooned character in a Stephen King story, Beam wrote, who successively amputates each of his limbs in order to survive, adding that his former Yale classmate was an "extraordinarily attractive woman. Before the breast implants, that is."

When Sotheby's announced the auction, much of Peter Applebome's New York Times article was devoted to explaining that it was not the contents (Salinger's property) that were being sold but the letters themselves (Joyce's property). In the coverage that followed it did not seem as if many commentators had read Joyce's book or were aware of any of the facts.

Cynthia Ozick told Appelbome: "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."

Joyce never "attached herself" to Salinger. He pursued her by mail. In 1972, after seeing her photograph on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in connection with her essay "An 18 Year-Old Looks Back on Life," Salinger began a months-long courtship by mail and telephone that culminated with Maynard's visiting him at his farm in New Hampshire, dropping out of Yale and moving in with him.

She was still a virgin and so tense that she remained one until Salinger abruptly abandoned her in Florida nine months later, after a homeopathic doctor diagnosed her sexual problem as tension, not some systemic disorder, as Salinger wanted to believe. Ozick's use of the phrase "suck out" is especially unfortunate, as it appears that Salinger utilized Joyce as a one-way oral sex outlet.

At the time she wrote her book, Joyce told me in a recent email, she had heard of three other women with whom Salinger had struck up relationships when they were still teenagers, largely through the mail.

"I have since learned of several others," she told me. "I am quite sure more will emerge, particularly if my letters sell for a high figure." Every young woman she heard about was a teenager when Salinger sought her out, she said, and there was always a correspondence.

One who called her after At Home in the World was published reported that Salinger later got his letters back from her, promising to keep them for her in his safe. "She handed them over," Joyce told me, "believing they would be together always. She never saw him again."

IN HER HYSTERICALLY BITTER COLUMN "Leech Women in Love!" (New York Times, 19 May 1999) Maureen Dowd linked Joyce Maynard and Monica Lewinsky as "Leech Women" because they supposedly are feeding off the blood of old lovers. She called them "parasites" and "sexual climbers" who were "pillaging the identities of men and peddling their love messages."

Dowd inspected the letters and quoted from them in her column (all proceeds of which presumably go to charity), but she confessed to feeling "creepy" about this, so it's OK. She didn't mention that she was allowed to look at the letters in a private session and that they were available only to authenticated bidders. Her salary and syndication rights presumably make her more virtuous than "she-monster" Joyce, a free-lancer.

As a Pulitzer Prize winner, Maureen Dowd apparently is no longer required to check her facts. "The publicity-phobic writer has been the object of Ms. Maynard's leech for quite awhile," she asserted confidently. She was frightened that "Monica might try to feed off her affair with Bill for as long as Joyce has fed off hers with Jerry" -- a story as long-running as "Cats," she wrote. Even when pressed by interviewers over the years Joyce Maynard said nothing about Salinger until the publication of At Home in the World.

Dowd not only got all the important facts wrong, but also failed (as did every other American writer who commented on the case after Applebome broke the story) to mention that Joyce Maynard was not the first of Salinger's correspondents to let go of his letters, many of which are in library collections available for any scholar to inspect. There are so many that Ian Hamilton constructed his Salinger biography mainly by paraphrasing them. Salinger sued to protect his copyright and won, as Applebome reported in considerable detail, and Hamilton had to rewrite the book.

Some of these letters were donated. Others may have been sold. Joyce, however, was shamelessly auctioning them off because she is an exhibitionist, claimed more than one writer. How cold of her to trade them for money to send her kids to college, they sniffed. I think they were her property to do with as she wished, and that all who disagree can cut cane in Cuba until they learn to respect our God-given free enterprise system.

It seems Dowd wrote her column off the top of her head after merely going and looking at the letters. Did she read At Home in the World? Did she even read Applebome's article in full? She abused the giant clout of her Pulitzer Prize and her position with The New York Times to beat up on Joyce Maynard in a slovenly attack that violates even the primitive ethics of professional journalism.

THE TIMES DID PUBLISH THREE LETTERS from readers questioning its coverage, including a drastically edited version of my letter correcting Cynthia Ozick, as well as a rather conciliatory op-ed piece by Joyce Carol Oates, who very sensibly pointed out:

"Though Joyce Maynard has been the object of much incensed, self-righteous criticism, primarily from admirers of the reclusive Salinger, her decision to sell his letters is her own business, like her decision to write about her own life. Why is one 'life' more sacrosanct than another? In fact, we might be sympathetic to J. D. Salinger's increasingly futile efforts to safeguard his precious privacy, as we might be sympathetic to anyone's efforts, but that he happens to be a writer with a reputation is irrelevant."

In general, however, Joyce's critics seemed to be motivated by power worship. Steve Duin of The Oregonian observed that At Home in the World ranked 23,434 in sales on Amazon.com and Catcher in the Rye was 256. (Perhaps as a result of the press coverage, as of June 6 Joyce's book ranked 5,971, Catcher in the Rye 84.)

"What happens if Maynard decides to auction off my love letters?" Duin satirically worried in "Private memo to J.D., for his eyes only," May 16, 1999, a column so belligerent and tasteless that more than one reader, myself included, thought he was an angry ex-lover. "You, at least, fell for a perky 18-year-old kid. I didn't start chasing her until she had the implants. These memoirs are like a walk on a nude beach. It's always the warthogs who choose to reveal too much."

When Lineland came out, the press did not abuse me and my ex-wife Christine Wexler, who shared the byline for her very important contributions -- some sneers, perhaps. Few journalists admire Pynchon's work with the passion many have for Salinger's. Chrissie and I arouse no jealousy because we aren't celebrities like Joyce Maynard, whose success tends to call into question the narrow lives of her critics, who are mostly chained to the machine wishing they could even vacation somewhere like Mill Valley.

Unlike Joyce, Chrissie and I felt no need for catharsis. We talked to Pynchon-L because it was great fun to be treated like celebrities again after so many years so far from the limelight. I published Lineland for the same reason I wrote the memoir: for the money and the glory. There were mutters about revenge. What for? I got the girl. In the end, she chose me over him. We both liked Tom a lot. It showed in what we said about him.

Joyce's book, by contrast, is a very angry document, despite her impeccable control of language and tone. "Although she avoids ever suggesting it, it could be argued that Salinger ruined Maynard's life," Chris Krause wrote.

JOYCE'S CRITICS ARE FIRMLY ENMESHED in an economic system whose prime axioms are secrecy and obedience. They perceive no contradiction in earning their own livelihoods by exposing secrets. They are authorized to invade other people's privacy. Joyce isn't authorized to reveal secrets because she's not carrying a press card and she is somehow less than Salinger, who has sold more books than she has and is taught in college literature courses.

"It was inevitable, given the mood of the day, that someone would find a way to transform the predatory Joyce Maynard into a victim," the Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley wrote on May 17, 1999, arguing that Salinger surely was merely interested in deep talks, not sex, while Joyce probably was looking for fame by association. Why, when she was already famous? Salinger, in fact, tried to talk her out of promoting the book Doubleday had contracted her to write. Like others who called her "predatory," Yardley did not bother to offer even gossip as evidence.

They don't have to offer evidence. Joyce Maynard has identified herself as a victim and put herself in the pillory. Anyone can empty chamber pots on her. Doesn't she know that victims are supposed to be quiet so aggressors can avoid being embarrassed by their crimes? I am reminded of Jeffrey Massom's histories of 19th-century German child abuse and incest victims, who were punished and even institutionalized for accusing their betters of rape, torture and perversion. Shame is the least expensive weapon of social control. When Joyce Maynard (or anyone else) asserts her right to complain and to be shamelessly independent, she threatens the class structure.

"Why are you wearing that collar?" Aesop's hungry wolf asks the well-fed dog. The pit bulls of American journalism think they are being ferocious when they are set snarling on today's officially designated victim, but all they are doing is showing the collar and rattling the chain in socially approved tantrums that are among their rewards for loyal service.