There are many weird things about living in New York, and chief among them are strangers on the subway who feel compelled to come up to you and bestow their unsolicited opinions upon your ears. It's enough to make you want to pick up and move to one of the Dakotas.
A few months ago I was on the 1 train, on my way to work and reading a republished copy of Joyce Maynard's At Home in the World, a book that, among other things, recounts the details of an 18-year-old Maynard's affair with a 53-year-old J. D. Salinger.
"I hate that book," said a voice across from me. I said nothing. He continued: "I just think it's shitty what she did. To Salinger, I mean." I opened my mouth to respond, but the train had already arrived at my station. All I got the chance to say was "Well, I disagree."
The opinions expressed by Nameless Boy on the 1 Train are anything but new. At Home in the World was first released in 1998 and met with similar reviews. Entertainment Weekly gave the book a grade of C-, citing that it — and Maynard — "aren't nice." Maureen Dowd wrote a column for the Times in which she compared Maynard and Monica Lewinsky, calling them both "leech women.” A few months after the book was released, Maynard was invited to speak at a literary event, but as she took the stage, an entire row of people exited the hall in protest. She recounts this story in the preface of a reissued version of At Home.
Maynard's reactions to her negative reviews take up the majority of the preface. She writes:
"After At Home in the World was published, many people expressed the view that because my story involved that of a great man who demanded not to be spoken of, I owed him my silence. The attacks — not only on my memoir, but also on my character — were brutal, intensely personal, and relentless. I was called an exploiter, a predator. I lost count of the time I was described as 'shameless."
I am not interested in analyzing the literary skill of Joyce Maynard. There are plenty of book reviews that attempt that, and none of them provide a concrete answer regarding her writing abilities. After all, one man's cloying is another man's refreshing honesty.
What I am interested in is deliberating the category of writers that Maynard, at least with At Home in the World, has fallen into. It's a category that includes a broad range of work, with everything from Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters, his book of poems about Sylvia Plath, published 35 years after her death; to Chris Kraus's I Love Dick, a record of Kraus's romantic obsession with the British structuralist critic Dick Hebdige; to Marie Calloway's what purpose did i serve in your life, a title which alludes to a question Maynard asked Salinger upon their last meeting and includes many prominent figures in the literary community. This is a category that includes writers with brows both high and low, and audiences both cult and mainstream. It’s not even unique to the literary community: Consider Taylor Swift naming John Mayer in her song “Dear John,” or Fiona Apple naming her once-boyfriend Jonathan Ames in a song aptly titled, “Jonathan.”
These people and these works do not simply provide a candid and introspective look into life. They are not just memoirs. They are not even just memoirs that include well-known names in the way that, say, Mary Karr's Lit does with David Foster Wallace or Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking does with John Gregory Dunne. No, what these people do is call somebody out. They name names in an effort to tell their side of the story and, in doing so, attempt to reclaim their narrative. At best, this kind of work is seen as an important attempt at honesty; at worst, it's seen as sleazy, narcissistic, hysterical and, perhaps worst of all, as capitalizing on the legacy of a famous person. So which is it?