Some authors want their books to speak for themselves

Holden Caulfield has no screen face. He is each one of us who has read the book
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The Independent Online

One of the most enjoyable programmes on television at the moment is The Big Read, a dramatisation each week of one of the books in the BBC's "most popular" list, accompanied by a well-known name saying why he or she loves the book. It's entertaining and instructive, and has led to immediate and notable increases in national sales of the books involved. Nothing surely could possibly go wrong with such a winning formula. But twice now something has gone awry. And on both occasions I was secretly inclined to applaud.

Last Saturday John Humphrys went to Alabama to talk about To Kill a Mockingbird. Bless the BBC, which would not stoop to a studio discussion with projections of the Deep South when it can fly a team to Alabama. Humphrys was able not just to visit the town where the book was set, but actually to stand a few yards from the house where the book's author Harper Lee still lives.

And that's where things went a little awry. Mr Humphrys stood near Harper Lee's home; but he did not get inside it. This must have been a bit of a blow for the man who makes British politicians tremble, and is one of the best-known faces in British journalism. He'd come all that way and Harper Lee didn't want to see him. It was nothing personal, you understand. Harper Lee doesn't see anybody, leastways not to talk about her one and only novel. She long ago made a decision never to speak about it. The book, she decided, must speak for itself.

That's not what television executives like to hear. But it wasn't the only nasty shock for the BBC and its Big Read. One of the other books they were featuring was J D Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. This seminal work of male adolescence was accorded a brief dramatisation with a commentary from Ruby Wax. Once again, the author was not happy. Salinger, perhaps surprisingly, did not complain that Ruby Wax was not the obvious choice to discuss the psyche of the male adolescent. No, he was objecting to something much more fundamental. He did not want his book dramatised at all.

That is why it is one of the very few world-famous novels not to have been made into a film. That is why he was unhappy with even a brief television dramatisation going ahead without his permission. That is why his literary agents have threatened the BBC with legal action over alleged breach of copyright.

Is J D Salinger being ludicrously overprotective of his work? Is Harper Lee a spoilsport for not allowing herself to be questioned by John Humphrys? There's a part of me that is on the side of the authors here. In the case of Harper Lee I feel - though I could get drummed out of the National Union of Journalists - that it is refreshing to have an artist who does not believe in giving interviews.

We might well learn something about a work by hearing its creator discuss it, but in another way the work is also for ever diminished. Once the creator has said how a certain character or incident should be viewed, it becomes "wrong" to take a contrary view. How can the reader know better than the writer. But when we don't know the author's opinion we are free to use our own imaginations, make our own judgements and see the characters through the mind's eye.

And that, perhaps, informs J D Salinger's thinking. Holden Caulfield, the hero, or antihero, of The Catcher in the Rye, has no screen face. He is not James Dean or Brad Pitt or Keanu Reeves. He is not Macaulay Culkin. He is each one of us who has read the book as a teenager. Maybe he even is Ruby Wax, in her mind's eye.

The BBC's Big Read initiative is one of the best things the corporation has done in years. And dramatisations of novels can introduce those books to a new readership, as the sales figures show. But I'm not going to label the authors who refuse to help out as killjoy eccentrics. They want their books to speak for themselves, and they want their characters to be eternal and beyond the definition given by one actor or director.

It's not always helpful for writers to give an interview. I'm grateful that Shakespeare didn't live in the media age. He might have told the John Humphrys of his day that he was trying to make the point that Romeo and Juliet really should have listened to their parents.

¿ Sir Nicholas Serota, head of the Tate, has been rather unfairly reported as implicitly criticising the National Gallery in his speech this week saying that an obsession with saving art for the nation can be at the expense of acquiring contemporary art. Sir Nicholas, of course, never mentioned the National Gallery. OK, Sir Nicholas made his speech at a conference attended by all the national press, and shrewd man that he is, he would have known how his speech would be interpreted. But is that his fault? Absolutely not.