If you really want to hear about it, I used to think The Catcher in the Rye was a book for obnoxious teenage boys. In a world where all the most celebrated books are by men, writing it off without even reading it was my own form of feminist revenge. I was doing it for the sisterhood – for everyone who said Jane Austen was just breathless handwritten letters and regency balls, to anyone who looked at me nervously when I said I liked Sylvia Plath. Holden Caulfield would be subject to the Eye Roll Without Full View Of The Facts – because why should I care about a whiney, privileged white guy?
I’m far from the only person to have felt this way about J. D. Salinger’s iconic novel. The internet is full of sassy shutdowns that harangue Holden for being a spoilt, narcissistic, misogynist chump, who fits right into the snowflakey millennial culture of social media. But contrary to popular belief, feminists sometimes put down their pitchforks and earlier this year I decided to put my vehement teenage prejudice to one side.
When it comes to contemporary fiction, female writers are killing it
It occurred to me recently that, though female writers remain an afterthought in the literary ‘canon’, when it comes to contemporary fiction, they now define it. The urgency to read writers like Sally Rooney, Anna Burns, Lauren Groff, Eimear McBride, Zadie (and Ali) Smith, Nicole Flattery – the list could go on – has left my book pile with a striking gender imbalance. Back in 1997, Chris Kraus wrote in I Love Dick: “No matter how dispassionate or large a vision of the world a woman formulates, whenever it includes her own experience and emotion, the telescope’s turned back on her.” In the last few years, it’s felt like that is shifting, that a focus on female interiority in fiction is something we’ve finally started to celebrate on its own terms. As a reader, it has been electric. But I began to yearn to find that same nuance and vulnerability in writing by men, too.
Macho posturing may have turned him into a misanthrope, but small acts of kindness still overwhelm him
“You don’t like anything that’s happening,” observes Phoebe, his younger sister, and whether he’s calling himself a “sex maniac” (at sixteen) or chatting over-enthusiastically to a group of nuns, that appears to be true. Despite being written in 1945, The Catcher in the Rye sensitively confronts a topic that still hasn’t been destigmatised in 2019: male mental health. In a world where men are encouraged to be strong, he has no outlet for his emotional struggles and channels his sadness into self-loathing. One line in particular – “Almost every time somebody gives me a present, it ends up making me sad” – almost made me weep. Macho posturing may have turned him into a misanthrope, but small acts of kindness still overwhelm him.
The Catcher in the Rye is sometimes compared to the The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath’s first and only novel. But while people have no problem reading that as a study in poor mental health - on the contrary, the novel’s qualities are often obscured by hysterical autobiographical readings - the conversation around male vulnerability is often absent when people talk about Holden Caulfield, the spoiled, over sensitive young man. It betrays our gendered reaction to literature – the turning back of Kraus’ telescope.
In the past, I’ve been facetious about books by men, because I’ve been too tired or too angry to direct my empathy towards them. While that may be understandable, what finally reading Catcher has made me realise is that it probably isn’t helping me be a better feminist. In fact, it might even mean I’m being a little bit of a phony.
Jessie Thompson is Digital Arts Editor of the Evening Standard.