Suspend Your Disbelief

Shop Talk |

the controversy in the rye, part II

60yearslaterAs the Catcher in the Rye lawsuit develops, lawyers and bookworms alike have begun to air their opinions. The Wall Street Journal‘s Law Blog speaks with Marc Reiner, a copyright lawyer, about the issues raised by the lawsuit and whether it has any merits:

That issue — whether a fictional character is copyrightable — is a little unsettled. It’s most readily applied to characters that are graphic, like Mickey Mouse, or if the character has been in a series, like Tarzan.

I’d probably lean toward thinking that Holden Caulfield is fleshed out well enough to be copyrightable.

Some folks think the whole thing is a hoax. Meanwhile, the New York Times has taken the unusual step of weighing in with an editorial decreeing that whatever the legal outcome, Holden–like Huck Finn–will remain eternally youthful:

Do we really want to see that brash, rebellious and confused young man grow up? It is outlandish to imagine Salinger taking Caulfield into AARP territory. It is even less tempting to imagine Mr. Colting — whose clearly derivative nom de plume is J. D. California — doing so.

Anyone else get the feeling this is about more than copyright infringement? The fervor over this case is proof that for readers, Holden is more than a fictional character or a piece of intellectual property: he’s a person. He might have started as words on a page, but as one of literature’s most iconic characters, he now feels real to us. What’s the difference? A character can’t be hurt, insulted, slandered, or degraded–but a person can. And because Holden feels like a person, we’re understandably protective of how he is portrayed. Colting/California’s novel draws ire because it seems untrue to the Holden we know.

So here’s a mind-boggling idea: if you think of Holden as a person, the fundamental issue here is almost one of human rights. Now that Holden has been conjured into being, even Salinger probably needs to treat him with respect. Salinger has long claimed that he alone has the right to create a Catcher sequel–but if he had written a book like 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, readers and writers would likely have had the same reaction: That’s not true to Holden.

Literary Partners