At age thirteen, I read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time. I’m not going to describe the moments that stayed with me over the years, or add up the number of times I’ve opened the book since then. I will tell you this: I remember thinking long and hard about the flap copy that accompanied the book. Along with some author background, it included this startling little story from Salinger himself: “I’ve been writing since I was fifteen or so. My short stories have appeared in a number of magazines over the last ten years, mostly – and most happily – in The New Yorker. I worked on The Catcher in the Rye, on and off, for ten years.”
At that time, I hadn’t worked on anything, off and on or otherwise, for ten years. And since the book covers little more than seventy-two hours in Holden Caulfield’s life, I found myself wondering: how did Salinger create so seamless a narrative if he worked on it for so long? What was he thinking when he went back to the manuscript over those years and found his place – “Where was I with this? Oh, that’s right, Holden had just gotten out of Horwitz’s cab.” How could he keep up his belief in his creative process? How did he keep the characters so focused when Salinger’s own life experiences had to have been growing exponentially over that decade?
I come back to his revelation often, particularly when a new writer seems to grab hold of our collective literate consciousness and rattle the publishing world. I thought of it again as I recalled the story about the Kaavya Viswanathan / Megan McCafferty conundrum. (Many people saw too many close similarities between the novels of the previously published McCafferty and the acclaimed new novel from the young, fresh Viswanathan, a situation that took place in the past year or two.)
Don’t misunderstand me: I’m all for overnight success, as long as it happens to someone who has worked long and hard to get it. But then I learned that only a few years ago, Ms. Viswanathan’s parents hired a college placement counselor to help secure a spot for their daughter in an Ivy League college. Fine. Lovely. Why not?
Then the counselor fortuitously “discovered” this student’s writing ability and connected her to an agent – why not? – at a little shop called The William Morris Agency. Who then connected her to a packager who connected her to Little Brown. So by age nineteen, Ms. Viswanathan finds her debut novel, with what many believe was a generous leg up from author Megan McCafferty, climbing various lists.
Question: What? How do you have no publishing history - I believe I’ve heard it called a “platform” – and get a deal represented by The William Morris Agency to have your first novel published by Little Brown? This is the same publisher who gave us The Catcher in the Rye more than fifty years ago, presumably to reach Salinger’s fans who had been reading him for about ten years in, what was that magazine again – oh yes, The New Yorker. I guess that’s the difference half a century makes. Fifty years ago you may have needed the equivalent of ten years worth of New Yorker stories to get a publisher to look at your novel. Today, you may need little more than a guidance counselor with connections.
The larger question for publishers isn’t about plagiarism. More than a few articles over the past few years have given us laundry lists of books gone bad once plagiarism and/or outright lies were discovered well after the books had hit the shelves. And while I haven’t read “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life” nor have I read either of Megan McCafferty’s novels that provided so much “inspiration,” I have no doubt they were written with passion, and frustration, and joy.
But at times like this, I’m wondering if in the case of ‘Opal,’ it’s too much too soon. I can’t help but recall the advice a brilliant editor gave me years ago: “Don’t publish your first book until you absolutely can’t stand NOT to. It will always be – no matter what else happens - your first book. It should be the foundation that builds your career.”
When I tell the story – some day – about my first book being published, I’d like to remember it as pleasant, satisfying and exciting, and begin with Holden’s words to us as he sits outside the carousel in Central Park: ‘I wish you could have been there.’ I’m guessing Ms. Visawanthan, and everyone connected to her story, wishes they could say the same.