Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Caught in the Rye

JD Salinger is suing someone who has written a sequel of sorts to Catcher in the Rye.

The story is called 60 Years Later: Coming through the Rye. It tells the story of a 76-year-old Holden Caulfield as he escapes from a nursing home and “embarks on a curious journey through the streets of New York.”

The writer is a Swedish/American travel writer who uses the nom de plume John David California. He claims to have discovered Salinger’s masterpiece in an abandoned cabin in Cambodia. (Whatever man, he discovered Catcher in his sophomore English class like everybody else.)

Salinger’s attorneys have called the book a “rip-off pure and simple.”

This story raises three questions:
1. How much control do authors have over their creations?
2. Should California be permitted to release his book?
3. Did J.D. California think Salinger’s lawyers weren’t going to fight him?

Let’s address the last question first. California and Windupbird Publishing had to figure that Salinger or some proxy would sue. Salinger, 90, is notoriously protective of his work. Even though he could probably get a $500,000 advance for his grocery list, Salinger has not published a book in decades. He refuses to be interviewed or to sell the film rights to his story. (Thank God. I don’t need to see Jake Gyllenhaal playing Holden Caulfield.)

California had about the same chance of avoiding litigation as I would if I wrote Harry Potter and the Unhappy Marriage that Ends in a Vitriolic Custody Battle.

I’m not sure the legality of California’s situation; but I suspect Salinger and his attorneys will be able to block the book’s release.

Now here comes the hard question. Should they?

Should California be permitted to release his story?

Sure, Rye II: Electric Boogaloo might be hack work on par with Star Trek fan fiction. But it might be like Jon Clinch’s Finn, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead or Gregory Maguire’s modern fairy tales. Clinch might not be Mark Twain, and Tom Stoppard isn’t Shakespeare but their stories have merit of their own.

Makal Gilmore wrote, “When you create characters and a storyscape that occupy somebody else’s imagination, you lose the sole authority to determine how that work resounds in other’s dreams.”

This is especially true for corporately owned characters. Could you imagine if people could no longer write Mickey Mouse or Batman stories because their creators’ estates interceded?

Salinger can’t stop California and others from imagining The Further Adventures of Holden Caulfield. (Though he may be able to stop them from being published.)

I suspect someone will ultimately publish a sequel to Catcher. It may be under the auspices of Salinger’s estate decades after his death. It could be this June, if Salinger withdraws his objection. (Unlikely.)

Either way, it will not surpass Salinger or tarnish Catcher’s reputation.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

P.S. Other bad sequel ideas:

1985. Big Brother Discovers Whitesnake.

Richmond Heights. A modern retelling of Wuthering Heights in which Heathcliff can’t pass a school levy.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

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