Love and Squalor
Joyce Maynard Defends Her Kiss-and-Tell Salinger Memoir
With her tiny face and enormous brown eyes, Joyce Maynard resembles a walking, talking Keane painting. She's tall and thin and clad in faded jeans and a rumpled T-shirt as she wanders, remarkably out of place, through a well-appointed Washington, D.C. hotel lobby. There's an implicit contradiction between Maynard's slight, innocent physical appearance and the venom-tipped verbal darts whistling her way of late.
The impetus for those poison arrows is Maynard's new memoir, At Home in the World. Washington Post literary critic Jonathan Yardley declared the book "smarmy, whiny, smirky, and, above all, almost indescribably stupid." A Time review intoned, "In this memoir-happy era . . . the real question is where to draw the line between valid personal writing and mercenary gossip." Other rebukes have been less clever but equally stinging.
At Home in the World chronicles Maynard's youth in an alcoholic family, her adolescent entry into the writing life, her troubled marriage, and her life as a single mother. To many readers, though, accounts of these experiences can't compare to the 148 pages at the center of the book in which Maynard describes being wooed and eventually rejected by J.D. Salinger over the course of 11 months.
As we talk in the hotel coffee shop, Maynard expresses surprise--outrage, really--at the level of hostility directed at her by the literary world. She's visibly hurt by some of the responses, confused by others. There's a world of difference, she says, between the journalists--who focus on and react to the Salinger chapters--and the readers--who respond to Maynard herself.
"There is a widespread belief on the part of so-called literary types that women's stories are not valuable and important," she says. "I've seen this over and over again in the pieces condemning this book. You know, 'She's talking about trivial things.'"
Those "trivial things," she argues, are what attract readers to her bookstore appearances.
"I'm getting women who are saying, 'This is my story,'" she says. "Women who have felt shame and isolation about their experience feel less of that [because of the book]. Every time I've given a reading, they come. They come, and they don't talk about J.D. Salinger."
Maynard's defense speaks to the conflict at the heart of At Home in the World. She argues with great conviction that this book is a chronicle of one woman's struggles and that she, as a woman writer, has a right and a responsibility to tell her story. But Maynard, who has supported herself as a professional writer since she was 16 years old, also knows that her story alone was unlikely to prompt a reputed six-figure advance. To get the money, she needed to expose her reclusive former paramour.
Maynard had already made a cottage industry of exposing herself. As she states in the introduction to At Home in the World, "I have frequently made myself a character in my work," and that's an understatement. She maintains a web site (www. joycemaynard.com) that's filled with photos of Maynard and her three children, recipes for her favorite foods, and regular updates on her life. Three of her six published books are nonfiction accounts of her life. She came to national prominence (and Salinger's attention) when, at age 18, she wrote "An 18 Year Old Looks Back on Life," an essay that appeared in The New York Times Magazine with Maynard's photograph on the cover. In the 26 years since that auspicious debut, she's written about having an abortion, her marriage, and her breast implants for various newspapers and women's magazines.
The harsh critical reception to such revealing articles has been, Maynard says, "predictable. I'm a very easy mark for those things." Still, she maintains, the fallout isn't the point. Besides her practical need to earn a living, Maynard believes her first-person narrative fills a gap.
"If I tell about the dirty little secret of postpartum depression, or sitting on the bench watching my husband play softball and wishing I could go ice skating, or if I write about standing naked in front of the mirror after I'm done breast-feeding my third child and weeping over what's become of my body. . . . I think it's a valuable thing for women to get to read about other women and to know, it's not just 'me,'" she says.
But exposing Salinger is different, and Maynard knows it. Even if Salinger has, as she writes, courted numerous young girls with his letters and invitations, Maynard can hardly claim that her experience with him is a universal. Or can she?
"This is many women's story, in some form or other," she says. "It's the story of attaching themselves to a man who controls the power in the relationship and trying desperately to please him. It's about the obligations placed on women, and then, the obligation that appears to have been placed upon me to protect and to keep the secret of a man who did not particularly protect me."
Maynard contends that issue--protecting Salinger--is at the heart of most of the criticism of her.
"When people speak of Salinger's privacy, I question the use of the word 'privacy' when it comes to Salinger," she says. "To me, it is secrecy. It's a very different thing. If what Salinger truly is is private, I don't think he sends letters to 18-year-old girls and invites them into his life. I think when you send letters to 18-year-old girls, you have a vested interest in secrecy, for sure."
Secrecy can be dangerous, according to Maynard, the daughter of an alcoholic. ("My whole life would have been different if I had met one person when I was a kid who said, 'My father gets drunk at night,'" she says.) Besides, she says, keeping secrets is not an equal opportunity job.
"Once again, I think the job falls to the women to be the caretaker of decorum, manners, the feelings of other people," she says. "I do actually care about the feelings of other people, but making people happy is not what writing is about. . . .
"There are places where we accept that a person can express herself freely without fear, without considerations of decorum. Then, in fact, you're brutally honest, wonderfully uncompromising, and true to your art. But, if you have also written for Good Housekeeping, then you're this kiss-and-tell person. The list is long of male writers who have written about indecorous subjects, and they're applauded for their witty, macho honesty."
She's exhausted by all the vitriol she's encountered over At Home in the World. When this book tour is over, Maynard says, she's ready to leave the pronoun "I" alone for a while. She wants to use the money she's earned from this memoir to take her time writing a novel. (The author of To Die For says, "I don't dismiss my novels, but they were all written in a very intense, short period of time.") But that doesn't mean she'll give up personal writing; for Maynard, the unexamined life is not even a possibility.
"Best of all to have a perfect life," she says, "but if you can't pull that off, to be able to talk about your imperfect life seem greatly preferable."