Commentary or Fan Fic?

Apparently there’s this book that’s been self-published in England and due to be published in the U.S. that is a “sequel” to Catcher in the Rye, making use of many of Salinger’s original characters, aged appropriately.  The author of the book says it’s not a sequel, and that, “The book explores the famously reclusive Salinger’s efforts to control both his own persona and the persona of the character he created,” according to the brief. “It also scrutinizes and criticizes the iconic stature of Salinger and his creation by comparing the precocious and self-satisfied 16-year-old Holden with a 76-year-old version of himself fraught with indecision and insecurity.”

According to the NYT’s, “Mr. Colting acknowledges that three original characters from “Catcher in the Rye” appear in his novel: Mr. C, his sister Phoebe and Stradlater, Holden Caulfield’s prep school roommate. He also provides a list of more than two dozen original characters he has created for his novel, including Mary, Mr. C’s deceased wife, and Daniel, his son.”

Hmm, sounds like a sequel, Mr. Colting, despite the new characters.  Also sounds not so much like metafiction, as a Case Western professor has declared, so much as it does fan fiction, where a writer takes characters  and situations from a copyrighted book and spins their own versions on a favored author’s original tale.  If it were a story that was in the public domain, it wouldn’t be a problem.  Salinger, however, is very much alive at 90 and fighting this.  

The author says the novel is a commentary on Catcher in the Rye.  That sounds nice, but it also seems, at least from the reportage (and it may turn out to be incorrect reportage, we’ll have to wait and see), that the author really has infringed on Salinger’s copyright by including actual identifiable characters from the original novel.  Saying it’s commentary on Catcher in the Rye seems like a good defense, but I have a feeling it won’t hold up in court.

My first novel, One for Sorrow, was a partial commentary on Catcher in the Rye, but made no use of any of Salinger’s characters or plot in order to do so.  I simply wrote a coming of age story from the point of view of a working class boy growing up in the Rust Belt, who sees ghosts–something that would never happen in a Salinger book, ha!–and runs away from home the way Caulfield goes off the grid once he’s kicked out of Prep School.  My narrator doesn’t have the means to go anywhere fancy like New York City, where Caulfield runs to, rents a hotel room, hangs out with a girlfriend in ritzy restaurants, buying drinks, and where he tries to purchase a prostitute, among other things.  My narrator isn’t really able to afford that sort of running away; he hides instead in his girlfriend’s closet, then in an old lean-to in the woods near his house, and finally gets as far as Youngstown, Ohio, where he squats in an abandoned church.  No alcohol, no restaurant binges, no prostitutes, just crappy desperate turning from one place to another until the reality that he’s unable to run away from his problems sets in.  At one point he reads a book at his girlfriend’s house which is untitled but is obviously a summarized version of the plot of Catcher in the Rye, and he comments on that book, trying to show the differences in how that book looks to a kid from a closed-down ex-manufacturing/ex-steel region who isn’t anywhere near the middle or upper classes, and a much more Midwestern perspective versus Catcher’s East Coast.  I consider that sort of thing commentary on another book.  Taking another author’s characters whole-cloth, though?  That sounds like fan fiction to me, not commentary, though I’m sure commentary does arise out of the fan fiction.  The author probably should have tried to find a different way to do this than to appropriate actual characters.

I’ll be interested to know what comes of it.   Mainly because, even though I wrinkle my nose a little at Holden Caulfield and his drama, I like the kid nonetheless, and the book remains one of my favorites.

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4 responses

  1. Great commentary. I especially like when you mentioned “Catcher in the Rye” in “One for Sorrow.” It was a nice point but no hamfisted.

  2. Ha! As soon as you mentioned “a Case Western professor,” I knew it was Woodmansee–basically all of her scholarship surrounds the myth of the Romantic Author (with a capital A) that underlies American copyright law. She has called for a complete overhaul of our copyright system. believing that our current focus of attaching copyrights to an “author” is misguided as all creative works are collaborative in some sense.

    Without having read Colting’s book, I can’t really comment further. This reminds me of the “Wind Done Gone” case a bit, so I am curious to see how it pans out–although in that case, the author was careful not to use the actual names of Mitchell’s characters. Thanks for the head’s up!

    • Hey Denise! So funny you knew who that prof was immediately! I think there are some others who think like her, that copyright is misguided. I think there are definitely some kinks that could be worked out, but as a writer I also wouldn’t want absolutely every property right to my creations stripped away. There has to be a set of laws to protect as well as to keep certain aspects of original creative work freed up at the same time. Right now it doesn’t seem that we’ve got a solution. The author of “The Wind Done Gone” probably was a lot smarter in not using actual names from Mitchell’s book. This guy probably could get away with this if he’d found some way to clue the reader into who his characters are without spelling it out. Roman a cle is a form of storytelling where the characters are based on actual living people, but names are never given, and the clues for who they are litter the manuscript for readers to discern (they’re almost always famous figures, of course, for this to work). Those are perfectly viable; it can be done in fiction with fictional characters, too, as a technique, I imagine.

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