Michael Moats runs a web site, Trade Paperbacks, that offers book reviews along with a chance to “trade paperbacks” with the reviewer in a one-to-one book swap. A political speechwriter by day, Moats is writing a book about J.D. Salinger. He recently reviewed the latest Salinger biography for Agni Online.
Based on your review, it sounds like nobody has written a satisfying account of Salinger’s life and work yet. What’s missing from the biographies that have been published so far? Is it even possible to write a definitive account of Salinger?
Most writers seem to have screwed up in dealing with Salinger’s hostility to their project. Ian Hamilton can hardly be blamed, since Salinger sued him and forced him to rewrite his book twice. But Paul Alexander seems to have gotten very spiteful about it and resorted to Fox News-style ambiguation to make us think the guy was a pedophile or something. The latest one by Slawenski goes the opposite direction and tries to write the book Salinger might have approved of, which really isn’t possible. People can’t seem to let him off the hook for not proving himself either a total prince or a total son of a bitch.
There may someday be a definitive account, but it seems unlikely. A Salinger bio is an exercise in decoding a handful of books and stories along with what little we know about his life, so it becomes very much about the writer’s intuition and not the subject’s history. No one is going to be able to leave out a little bit of their Zembla when writing about him. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing, if they do it right.
You say that Salinger’s fans imagine him to be a terrific guy, when in fact he was an “unsettlingly odd recluse.” Franzen said something similar about David Foster Wallace recently—that Wallace’s fans tend to overlook the deeply unsettling aspects of his life and writing. Is this a thing? Are readers too optimistic in their assumptions about the authors of their favorite books?
It’s totally a thing, but I take it as a good sign about humanity that most people are able to assume the writer is likable and nice, rather than a prick.
I’ll go you one further on this point: one of the chapters I’m working on has a part in it about how David Foster Wallace is our Seymour Glass—brilliant, populist, sagely, suicidal. How about that for conflating the real author with who you imagine him to be?
How does the book-swapping feature at Trade Paperbacks work? Are people taking you up on it? Do you really mail them your own books out of the goodness of your heart?
You write me and I send you a book—no trade is actually required; I just thought it was a clever name. Some people are taking me up on it, but only a few so far—which is fine since I am just mailing them on myself.
The idea for TBP wasn’t really to do the trading; it was more of a New Years Resolution combined with a move into a new apartment combined with a pun. I found myself churning through books and not even really being able to say whether they were good or what they were about, so I made a resolution to write about the books so that I would actually pay attention. Then we moved and I had less shelf space, so there were books all the hell over everywhere. Then the name Trade Paperbacks occurred to me and I couldn’t back down after that, even though it is excruciating to part with books.
What do you like about sharing your books this way, as opposed to joining an online forum like Shelfari?
Shelfari or Goodreads just feel impersonal. I like this being an “among friends” kind of enterprise, something that I know has some traction in my own small group, rather than being tossed out into the vast constellation of a huge Amazon.com-based community. I want people to actually read the writing, which the trading is really just an excuse for.
In other words, the book trading sites are not places where I can appropriately make it about me and my showing off. Whether nerding-out over books on a blog is really an appropriate way of “showing off” is another question entirely. One the Fiction Advocate has some insight on, I suspect.
What are you working on next (that is awesome)?
Getting married (which is awesome). And planning a honeymoon (which, same). Other than that, I’ve been researching—i.e. reading, with post-it notes—to write a screenplay about the aides de camp to George Washington during the Revolutionary War. These guys were like the original Bad News Bears. Henry Knox was a bookseller before he becameWashington’s Artillery Chief. Alexander Hamilton was an impoverished, illegitimate son who grew up in the Caribbean until he came to the states, or the colonies back then, and ended up asWashington’s closest and most brilliant aide. Then there was Baron von Steuben (seriously) who was not actually a Baron, but did swear a lot and managed to regiment and drill the Continental Army. I want a movie about them. I think I want the soundtrack to be modern music—I have a particular vision of the opening part of Animal Collective’s “Summertime Clothes” and a chaotic battlefield—and I really want that weird guy who talks to God in Braveheart to play von Steuben.