The Literary World’s Michael Jackson Moment

When personal reflection becomes a tabloid prize

On Friday afternoon, Knopf publicity director Paul Bogaards fielded requests from editors eager to speak with Bret Easton Ellis about J.D. Salinger’s death.

“Yeah!!!” Mr. Ellis had tweeted on Thursday as the Salinger news spread. “Thank God he’s finally dead. I’ve been waiting for this day for-fucking-ever. Party tonight!!!”

Perhaps Mr. Ellis would like to write an essay along those lines? Perhaps give a quote?

There were of course other prospective eulogists—Mr. Bogaards had heard from parties interested in Lorrie Moore and Toni Morrison.

Salinger was a celebrity death for The New Yorker set. Instead of TMZ’s lurid photos or grainy video footage, the high-minded press’s sought-after stock in trade were personal essays and precise insight.

The people we think to ask suggest what Salinger means to us. There’s the issue of reclusive personal weirdness—Joyce Maynard’s voice mail could accept no new messages.

The ambiguities of enduring literary merit—Roth and Didion (“I’m on deadline”) had retreated into dignified silence. And, most of all, the status as a writer beloved of the young and sensitively bookish—Jonathans Franzen and Safran Foer were “overwhelmed” by requests for comment, according to their publicists.

It makes sense that literary deaths prompt eloquent grief. But there’s a ravenous quality to the pursuit of Salinger that’s at odds with the writer himself. Why all this noise about America’s most silent author?

He was, as Norman Mailer grudgingly called him in Advertisements for Myself, “everyone’s favorite.” Through his work, in spite of himself, Salinger made friends with an entire nation of readers.

So the outpouring is predictable but ironic. Salinger would surely have hated the fuss.

“He’d have nothing to do with this!” said Tom Beller, co-editor of a book of essays about Salinger, With Love and Squalor. He’s written two pieces about Salinger since his death.

“If there was a Salinger for Salinger—probably Fitzgerald—and he was asked to comment on his death, he would detest the idea of doing an interview or writing a piece.”

The Literary World’s Michael Jackson Moment