Novels are like sausages

At my book group the other evening we were discussing J.D. Salinger’s novel Franny and Zooey. One of the group mentioned a bit of information he’d learned about the author suggesting that an early collaboration Salinger had made with a local high school was merely his attempt to learn the lingo of youth at the time and that once he got what he wanted, he dropped his association with the students and the school. The group member said that he began hating Salinger when he learned this.

It seems to me, though, that novels are like sausages; you really don’t want to see how either is made or you’ll never be able to enjoy the final product. A novel should exist apart from the writer. If we never knew a single thing about the author of a given work, would the work still stand on its own by its own merits? Indeed, many medieval works of anonymous authorship are still studied today. Conversely, many celebrated novelists of the last century are utterly forgotten today. Does it really matter who B. Traven is in order for us to enjoy Treasure of the Sierra Madre and his other novels? Might we be distracted by the peccadilloes of a writer’s personal life from enjoying her otherwise substantive work? Yes, some background on the author might give insight into the story or at least the creative process, but a good work will be able to stand or fall apart from that information.

As writers we’re constantly stealing: pieces of the personalities of our friends, anecdotes we’ve overheard, clever ways to twist and turn our plots, et cetera. We research our subjects, and when we know enough, we often lose our interest in or at least our connection with the subject we studied. The non-writing public may imagine that we sit in our cold garrets and await inspiration from our muse, frantically pouring forth polished fiction in great bursts. We know better.

So do the novels of J.D. Salinger (and any writer) stand on their own merits despite what we know (or think we know) about the author? I think they must be approached this way. Furthermore, would the latest novel by some famous author sink out of sight if the world didn’t know it was written by him?

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One Comment on “Novels are like sausages”

  1. Brian Keaney Says:

    As someone who once worked in a sausage factory I can confirm that you really do not want to know how they are made. And as someone who has met authors whose work he admired only to discover that they were fallible human beings I think the same is certainly true of novels.

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