Unpredictable. Moody. Self-destructive. Given to emotional, violent outbursts as well as tender acts of kindness. Like I said, it was an intense two days. But I was preparing to speak at a writers’ conference, and lead a workshop on narrative voice in young adult fiction. And I was determined to reread The Catcher in the Rye before making any sweeping generalizations about how teens speak.
It had been a long time since Holden Caulfield and I had spent any time together. I think our last visit was back when I was a teen myself, reading his story for a high school English class. Judging from the semi-audible groans I heard from the attendees at my workshop, groans which moved through the room like the crowd wave at a ball game when I pulled out the book and its familiar red and yellow carousel horse cover, Holden was a known quantity to them as well.
“Isn’t that a little dated?” one outspoken fellow said, getting us off to a rip roaring start.
“Well, in some ways, it certainly is dated,” I conceded. “I was surprised to see the book’s original copyright is 1945.” (That drew a few contemptuous snorts.) “And Holden definitely uses some outdated slang. He references movies and film stars and music which a teen today wouldn’t relate to. But in the essential ways which define the so-called young adult voice, Holden is incredibly authentic.”
Prove it, their blank stares challenged. Show us how a 16-year old who has never heard of Twitter, Facebook or even the internet, can teach us anything about a young adult today. This dude has never used a computer. Never texted, sexted, or snapped a picture on a cell phone. He has no cable television, no iPod, no MTV. He puts change into a pay phone which has a rotary dial. He’s never heard of rap; he listens to jazz …
“Holden is first and foremost and above all a teenager,” I told them. “Regardless of all the rest of the discussion about him … Is he the voice of a disaffected generation? Is he having a nervous breakdown? Is he traumatized? Is he an alcoholic? … he sees the world and reacts to the world uniquely as a teen. And if we’re going to write for teens, we need to learn from Holden.”
Here’s what I learned from Holden, and what’s so true about every teen:
1. Holden “hates” everything … but not really. He constantly talks about what he “hates,” but it’s just a catchall word he uses as his emergent adult self begins to see and judge the world in new ways. He’s beginning to recognize hypocrisy and meanness and sadness, and it’s not fun. So he lumps it all into the category of things he “hates.”
2. Holden reacts to everything personally, but hasn’t a clue about himself. He’s hypersensitive, but not self-aware.
3. Holden wants to tell us his story … but wants us to think he’s indifferent to telling.
4. Holden acts first and thinks later. If he thinks at all.
5. Holden swears and drinks and affects what he recognizes as “adult” behavior, but the love of his life is his kid sister Phoebe, and he’s nostalgic about their trips to the carousel ride. Poor Holden isn’t an adult yet … but he’s no longer a child.
It doesn’t matter whether Holden is listening to Kanye West or Frank Sinatra. It doesn’t matter if he’s sending a friend a text message or a postcard. It doesn’t matter if he describes something as “corny” or “weak.” Holden responds to the world and tells his story from the perspective of an emerging adult, in a way that transcends the limiting details of popular culture. That’s why The Catcher in the Rye, despite being 66 years old, has something to teach us today.
So in my ongoing quest to capture the young adult voice in my fiction, I have a new mantra:
What Would Holden Do?