18 June 2009

Salinger Vs. Swede Update: Swede Down But Not Out

At yesterday's hearing about the lawsuit between J.D. Salinger and the author of a new book which allegedly updates CATCHER IN THE RYE, a federal judge ruled that Holden Caulfield is a character protected by copyright -- but did not say the defendant would not be allowed to publish his novel. Caulfield is now the first single character from a single work to get copyright protection, which I hope in illustrations would be rendered as a sort of cape.

The judge has 10 days to decide whether the publication of 60 YEARS LATER: COMING THROUGH THE RYE can go forward regardless, and thanks to the Times we know a little bit more about the plot: "In order to regain control over his own life, which is drawing to a close, [a character named] ‘Mr. Salinger’ tries repeatedly to kill off Mr. C[aulfield] by various means: a runaway truck; falling construction debris; a lunatic woman with a knife; suicide by drowning and suicide by pills." Well, it's not zombies, but...

"It’s not okay to remake CATCHER IN THE RYE and use it to make a comment on adolescence or old age or something else," says Marc Reiner on the WSJ Law Blog, who says the closer the book is to a sequel, the more likely Salinger and his publishers will prevail in court. (Salinger wasn't in court for any of the filings or hearings.) But 60 YEARS LATER... has one surprising defender: Sara Nelson, formerly of Publishers Weekly, who has read it and writes in a declaration filed with the court:
CATCHER is one of the highest-selling novels in recent history. Its position in the canon of American literature is unassailable. The story and its protagonist Holden Caulfield retain timeless and universal appeal, as evidenced by the continued sales to this day... The audience to whom 60 YEARS would appeal is decidedly narrower than that of CATCHER's broad readership. In fact, it is more likely that 60 YEARS, through its critical content and the attendant publicity it will likely generate, will actually contribute to renewed interest in, discussion of, and consequently sales of, CATCHER.
I think, with disclosure to follow, that it was incredibly smart for Colting and his publishers to get Nelson's testimony; she would have extensive knowledge of the last major case of this type, the Mitchell estate vs. THE WIND DONE GONE, in terms of its effect on sales and the attention paid to the original author. (Disclosure: I review for PW and have done so in the time that Nelson was employed there, which would have made her technically my boss although we never directly interacted in such relationship; I have also met her, although it was before that professional relationship was established.)

The author's real name (as revealed by The Smoking Gun, a site heretofore not known for its literary reporting) is Fredrik Colting and, with all due respect to his legal team, he seems unaware of the hot water into which writing a novel based on a beloved-by-some book would land him. He told the Times: "In Sweden we don’t sue people." Not when there are Viking broadswords available -- that's how we do it in Göteborg, right?


Jess said...

To be honest, I don't think Nelson's point matters very much. Clearly Salinger isn't concerned with renewed attention and sales of his book. He's concerned with its integrity so it doesn't matter that the "sequel" would draw more attention to the original.

Also, The Wind Done Gone was more of a satire and a comment on racial relations, right? I would think the more comparable issue here would be the publication of Alexandra Ripley's Scarlett. I'm surprised the Mitchell estate wasn't upset about that.

Ellen said...

I think Ripley got the Mitchell estate's seal of approval to write the sequel. (They gave out similar license two years ago for another novel "Rhett Butler's People.")

Salinger isn't concerned with losing money, I agree, but I think that's the ground that a lot of copyright cases are built on and it was bound to come up. I've read "The Wind Done Gone" and I think it could be argued that was a case of integrity, too, since it paints characters from the original work in a negative light. I don't know if you can call it satirical if wit is secondary to the narrator's self-awareness as the only person who knows the "real" story.

Marjorie said...

Didn't the Smoking Gun break the story on James Frey?

Ellen said...

You're totally right, Marjorie. How did I forget about that?!