If a body kiss a body, need a body cry?

The spectacle of Joyce Maynard trilling away about her ancient affair is a highly distasteful one

AN AMERICAN writer, Joyce Maynard, has drawn a great deal of attention to herself by publishing details of an affair she had 25 years ago. Nobody is claiming that her memoir is remarkable for being especially well written or perceptive; rather, all its interest lies in the revelation of private matters.

The man had various oddities of behaviour, as many people do, which will be described in full in the forthcoming serialisation, and the newspapers have rushed to cover the story. All in all, Joyce Maynard looks set to make more of a splash with her 25-year-old affair with the novelist JD Salinger than with anything else she has done in her life.

With the ex-novelist, rather, because Salinger has taken the decision to withdraw from public life and lead the private life of an ordinary citizen. After the colossal success of his youth, some brilliant short stories and novellas, and The Catcher in the Rye (which was and remains one of the best selling and most beloved books in the world), Salinger grew heartily to dislike the attentions of media and fans, and went to live in the country, with a big white fence and a shotgun. After a while longer, he stopped even publishing; he has not published anything since 1964, when his last story, Hapworth 16, 1924, appeared in The New Yorker. We guess, but do not know, that he has continued to write. He has announced plans to publish this last story in volume form, but no plans to publish any new work. And that is his right.

An odd life, certainly; one that is bound to raise the reader's curiosity. And Salinger's readers - those creepy fans, swapping gossip on the Internet - behave as if they, as well as Salinger, had some kind of rights in the matter: a right to know about someone's life, to know where he lives, to know where he goes and whom he sleeps with, a right to go through his rubbish and describe what they find. He wrote novels, many years ago, that encourage you to think that the author, so sane and conversational in his manner, is your friend. He had already put his personal life, it appeared, on show; and a bit more intrusion, surely, would not make any difference.

But the reader doesn't have any rights at all. There are some people whose private lives, certainly, may legitimately be inquired into: politicians and judges, holders of public offices, and - we can argue about journalists and teachers - a very few others. There is such a thing as the freedom of the biographer, which is entirely legitimate after his subject's death. The rest is tittle-tattle, profoundly distressing to anyone subjected to the intrusion, and without any justification whatsoever.

Any remotely successful writer has to handle the attentions of the media; most of us make an unholy pact with it, passing on bits of harmless information about our private lives in exchange for a newspaper feature that may bring a new book to the attention of the public. It is fairly harmless, if the writer is absolutely certain of the moment he will say, "That's none of your business." We all draw that line, and nobody has the right to overstep it. Salinger has chosen to keep his private life very private indeed; and that would have been his prerogative even if he had continued to publish after 1964.

Personally, I think Salinger has damaged his aim by being too self-protective; he does not distinguish between a considerate, fair and unintrusive biography such as Ian Hamilton's In Search of JD Salinger, and a muckraking piece of hackery. But it's his life, to handle as he wishes, and he should be forgiven for wondering, wearily, whether the ongoing frenzied speculation about him is a substitute for the altogether more demanding task of coming to terms with the seductive, intricate, elusive books he has published before 1964.

The spectacle of Joyce Maynard trilling away about her ancient affair is a highly distasteful one. Just look at the photographs of the pair of them: she is grinning for the publicity shot; he, with a look of animal terror, is warding off the camera with his forearm. It is hard to read her smug peroration - "When I stood on his doorstep the other day, I was a strong and brave 44-year-old woman and I knew he had been wrong" - and agree that this is the act of a strong, brave person.

I know we all want to know everything about people we admire; we want to know what Stanley Kubrick has for breakfast and what Thomas Pynchon's beard looks like and what JD Salinger's telephone number is. And, thanks to Maynard and her kind, we will soon be able to find out. But we have one last defence: we can decline to read, or to buy, this disgusting stuff. Because if we do support it, I promise, you will be next; pretty soon, not being famous will be no protection.

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