Tom Sutcliffe: The captured imagination

Share
Related Topics

I don't know whether you've helped contribute to J D Salinger's legal fund, but I know I have, having purchased at least one, and possibly two copies of The Catcher in the Rye in the last few years (it's a bit of a fixture on school reading lists). I've done my small bit, in other words, to keep sales of this classic of teenage angst ticking over at around 250,000 a year – an impressive figure given that its accumulated sales are said to be something like 65 million copies. And without that fact I don't think we'd have been reading about the latest Salinger lawsuit, brought against a mysterious Swedish writer, J D California, who has produced a sequel he calls 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye.

A taste for litigation as frequently indulged as Salinger's requires two things. You have to be bothered and you have to have the funds. Salinger manifestly scores on both counts and so there have been a string of court cases – stopping biographies here and blocking film adaptations there. In the current suit, Salinger's lawyers argue that he retains exclusive rights to the character Holden Caulfield and somewhat redundantly add that their client is "fiercely protective of his intellectual property". You don't say.

He isn't unique in that of course. Lots of writers and artists take a dim view of unlicensed exploitation of their work – and the richer ones will generally police any attempt to cash in on work they've done themselves. J K Rowling could spend a long evening comparing judicial rulings with Salinger and they'd probably still have a lot of stuff to talk over at breakfast the next day. What is slightly unusual about Salinger, though, is that he has no interest in cashing in on his work himself – and apparently sees no virtue in allowing his creation off the leash into the larger culture. He hasn't sued in the past because he wants artistic control over who's cast to play Holden Caulfield, or over what percentage of the resulting profits should go into his bank account. He's sued because he doesn't want Holden to have any life independent of the novel. He is, in rather literal form, asserting his authority over what he created.

What's intriguing about this is how old-fashioned it is, and how stubbornly it resists the prevailing cultural tide of the last sixty years. It's jamming the door against meta-textuality, mash-ups and imaginative after-life – a culture in which it is understood that any really significant creation evolves towards a shared ownership, between creator and audience. There are good reasons for the maintenance of the legal fiction that Holden Caulfield is Salinger's alone to dispose of. But that legal fiction doesn't register the reality, which is that my Holden and your Holden are very different things, and that mine or yours might have a continuing life that Salinger can do nothing about. And Salinger is surely on even shakier ground in trying to prevent himself from becoming a character in other people's creations – preventing the publication of a fictional "interview" with him and objecting to his imagined presence in J D California's book. If he wanted to avoid mythology, he should have given a few more interviews.

Had Jane Eyre still been in copyright when Jean Rhys published Wide Sargasso Sea, Charlotte Brontë could presumably have prevented publication. But would readers have really wanted her to? And would cinema-goers have been happy if the Bogart estate had prevented Woody Allen from drawing on Bogie's film image in Play it Again Sam? There comes a point when people – both real and imaginary – step beyond their origins to become something else and that section of the world should be as accessible to writers as the concrete world of facts. I don't think that Salinger is really protecting the products of his own imagination with this lawsuit. I think he's trying to limit the freedom of someone else's.

Big train a-comin'

Later this year London's Serpentine will host the first Jeff Koons show in a British public gallery – and one can only hope it doesn't cost them anything like as much as the Koons under construction for the LA County Museum of Art. Koons proposes to hang a full-sized replica of a 1940s locomotive – with rotating wheels and smoking stack – from a crane. The museum has reportedly already spent $1.75m on feasibility studies and the total price is estimated to be north of $25m. The first thing I thought of when I saw it was George Wylie's The Straw Locomotive, in which the Glasgow-based artist hung a lifesize straw locomotive from the giant Finnieston Crane. Koons's piece is sufficiently different, I'd have thought, to make it very unlikely he'll add to his list of appearances in copyright infringement suits. But it's also sufficiently similar to make you wonder if he passed through Glasgow in 1987 and a seed of inspiration was sown.

Coming out of Aunt Dan and Lemon at the Royal Court recently I found myself wondering whether there are sometimes grounds for a theatrical refit – the equivalent of a liner being taken into dry-dock and given a more efficient set of boilers. The prompt here was the part Henry Kissinger plays in the drama, as the subject of an eloquent and passionate defence by the Aunt Dan of the title. In 1985 Kissinger's status as a liberal bogeyman was pretty much unchallenged, but one wonders whether he resonates in quite the same way for younger audiences now. I'm guessing that the youngest in the audience could really do with a surtitle footnote (or headnote) sketching in details of the secret bombing of Cambodia and the support for Latin American dictators. And even for audiences who remember him as a poster boy for ruthless realpolitik there's a difference between historical memories and the immediate jolt of provocation that Aunt Dan's speech delivered back then. The knee doesn't jerk in quite the same way. If the play is to extend its active service life for another 30-odd years it's time surely for the Kissinger power-unit to be unbolted and a gleaming Donald Rumsfeld put in its place.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Former Tory MP Harvey Proctor speaks during a press conference at St Ermin's Hotel, London, where he insisted he is  

Harvey Proctor and a worrying case of justice by lynch mob

James Hanning
 

Peerages: from birthright to bauble is not progress

John Rentoul
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future