Joan Didion Thought Franny and Zooey Was a Self-Help Book for Coeds

In Depth

A reminder: while Franny and Zooey is now considered quite the classic, it wasn’t always looked at that way, and one Joan Didion was part of the horde of critics and writers who didn’t take to it immediately.

As Longreads points out, in her original review of J.D. Salinger’s book for The National Review in 1961, Didion wrote about interacting with one “stunningly predictable Sarah Lawrence girl” who came up to her at a party and told her that Salinger was “the single person in the world capable of understanding her.”

This was not a compliment, to either Salinger or the Sarah Lawrence girl. Rather, Didion considered it a “Positive Thinking for the upper middle classes” or a “Double Your Energy and Live Without Fatigue for Sarah Lawrence girls”:

To anyone who has ever felt over-
exposed to the world, to anyone who 
has ever harbored hatred in his or 
her heart toward droppers of names,
 writers of papers on Flaubert, toward 
eaters of frogs’ legs, all of this has a certain seductive lure; there is a kind of lulling charm in being assured in that dazzling Salinger prose, that one’s raw nerves, one’s urban hangover, one’s very horridness, is really not horridness at all but instead a kind of dark night of the soul; there is something very attractive about being told that one finds enlightenment or peace by something as eminently within the realm of the possible as tolerance toward television writers and section men, that one can find the peace which passeth understanding simply by looking for Christ in one’s date for the Yale game.
However brilliantly rendered (and it is), however hauntingly right in the rhythm of its dialogue (and it is), Franny and Zooey is finally spurious, and what makes it spurious is Salinger’s tendency to flatter the essential triviality within each of his readers, his predilection for giving instructions for living. What gives the book its extremely potent appeal is precisely that it is self-help copy: it emerges finally as Positive Thinking for the upper middle classes, as Double Your Energy and Live Without Fatigue for Sarah Lawrence girls.

Good thing both of those sets (mostly) turned out okay.

Image via AP

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