J. D. Salinger, best known for his teen-angst novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951), died last week at the age of 91 after living as a recluse for 50 years on his 90-acre compound in Cornish, New Hampshire. His death leaves the literati frothing at the mouth as they wait to see whether he left behind a treasure trove of manuscripts. Although Salinger never published another novel, he earned recognition for the collection Nine Stories and two compilations, Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. Shortly after publishing these, Salinger retired into a half-century of seclusion.
Though there were elements of Salinger's personal life that were reportedly unsavory, I believe we can learn from his efforts to spurn fame and self-promotion because they can lead to phoniness, something Salinger abhorred.
This time last year, through a series of events, I was encouraged to submit a manuscript for publication. The senior editor at the first publishing house said my writing was "like the best of the best" in my genre. That was a true confirmation of my calling. Here's the rub: I didn't make it past the marketing department. Although they esteemed my writing, I was a no name. They couldn't take a risk on me, especially in hard economic times. I was dejected for a while, but, per the request of an editor at another publishing house, I sent it off. This time the senior editor told me that I was a good writer but that I "had to have an audience built up" before I wrote a book. In the publishing world, it's called "having a platform." Apparently my platform was not big enough.
I truly appreciate these gracious editors and their advice, and I don't fault them for their decisions. The bottom line is that they have to make money. But now I find myself in a quandary. Before I learned of this platform business, I believed my motives for speaking, writing, hosting a radio program, and blogging were as legitimate as they could be for a sinful human.
Now, whenever an opportunity to do any of these arises, I wonder, Am I doing this only to build a bigger platform? Is this just self-promotion? Sometimes, "You have to have an audience built up before you write a book" gets translated into, "Throw yourself down from this high point of the temple" (do something spectacular to get attention) (Matt. 4:5-6) or, "No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world" (John 7:4). Some readers might accuse me of scraping my conscience or of being oversensitive; on the other hand, some may think that I'm using this very post to promote myself.
And that's where Salinger comes in. He has something to say about this in Catcher. When protagonist Holden Caulfield's sister, Phoebe, asks him why he doesn't become a lawyer like their father, he says:
[T]hey're all right if they go around saving innocent guys' lives … but you don't do that kind of stuff if you're a lawyer. All you do is make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot-shot …. Even if you did go around saving guys' lives and all, how would you know if you did it because you really wanted to save guys' lives, or because … you really wanted to … be a terrific lawyer with everyone slapping you on the back …. How would you know you weren't being a phony? The trouble is, you wouldn't. (p. 172)
Salinger isn't the only one. In 2005, stand-up comedian Dave Chappelle shunned the limelight when he walked away from his outrageously successful show on Comedy Central. In an interview with Time magazine, Chappelle said that part of the reason he walked away is because he didn't like who he was becoming. He had to reevaluate; that is part of why he escaped to South Africa for a while. "Coming here [to South Africa]," he said, "I don't have the distractions of fame. It quiets the ego down. I'm interested in the kind of person I've got to become. I want to be well-rounded, and the industry is a place of extremes. I want to be well-balanced. I've got to check my intentions."
While I am no Salinger or Chappelle, and I have no fame to walk away from, I still think we can learn from them without over-spiritualizing. How much of what we do as Christians and churches is about promoting ourselves? Are we using the church as a vehicle to make a name for ourselves? Are we one of Salinger's phonies, or are we being obedient to Christ? (And, as Salinger asks, how would we know we weren't being phony?)
This is something we have to wrestle with. There may be occasions when platform-building is called for, but there will be other times (more than we care to admit) when we have to forsake fame and "building a platform" by stepping away to reevaluate and to humble ourselves. As Chappelle said, "Your soul is priceless." Or, in the words of Jesus, "What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?" (Matt. 16:26).
Marlena Graves (M.Div., Northeastern Seminary) is a resident director at Cedarville University. She blogs at His Path Through the Wilderness, and has written for Her.meneutics about students who experience same-sex attraction.