Women Don’t Get to Be Asshole Geniuses

J.D. Salinger taught me that I should admire “art monsters,” but that as a woman, I couldn’t aspire to be one

A friend of mine has a theory that there’s an age group for each Salinger book. Naturally, The Catcher in the Rye should be read by teenagers. I read it when I was thirteen, was very moved, and haven’t picked it up since for fear that my 26-year-old self will despise it. Franny and Zooey belongs to the twenty-somethings. For the post-30 crowd, there’s Nine Stories, and somewhere beyond that, I suppose, Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction.

I didn’t know about this theory when I was thirteen, so I read them all in the span of a few years. When fifteen-year-old me read Franny and Zooey, I had no means of knowing that I would someday go on many dates with many versions of Lane Coutell. Re-reading Franny’s section now, I could control-F the word “Flaubert,” replace with “Kerouac,” and I would end up with an exact replica of a conversation I had with one of my boyfriends in college.

As a teenager reading Salinger, I saw opportunities. Salinger presented a world where people reference their lunch and Turgenev in the same breath — I wanted desperately to speak their language. I regularly skipped class to go to the art museum downtown, I lived in thrift stores and bought any dress with a 1960s silhouette, and all of my books came from the second-hand store run by a curmudgeonly old man. As far as I was concerned, if I didn’t carve out a place for myself as the next literary genius by the age of eighteen, then I would certainly be doomed to an unremarkable life. Salinger, with his admonishments of dull normal people in favor of geniuses who don’t have to try, looked like a shortcut to selfhood.

It feels unfair that a white man from the 1960s could have such an impact on my present personality, but here we are. It’s embarrassing. In a review of Franny and Zooey, Joan Didion recounts a party where a Sarah Lawrence type tried to sing to her the praises of Salinger: “Salinger was, she declared, the single person in the world capable of understanding her.” Didion was unimpressed. She described Franny and Zooey as “spurious, and what makes it spurious is Salinger’s tendency to flatter the essential triviality within each of his readers, his predilection for giving instructions for living.” There’s an undeniable comfort in the prescriptive writing of Salinger and, like most teens, I was willing to take whatever dosages Salinger could dole out. I was the drunk Sarah Lawrence type who felt understood — but minus the alcohol, the degree from Sarah Lawrence, and any invitations to a party where Joan Didion would be in attendance.

It wasn’t as if I didn’t grow up reading beautiful, compelling books by women — I tore through all the classics, Austen, the Brontes, Woolf, eventually made my way to Plath. There was a decent roster of feminist icons and characters to pick from there. However, I was bookish, sporadically depressed, and incurably meek. I wasn’t ever going to be an Elizabeth Bennet. Instead, I became a Franny.

I was bookish, sporadically depressed, and incurably meek. I wasn’t ever going to be an Elizabeth Bennet. Instead, I became a Franny.

Or, I made myself into a Franny. I’m not so sure. Either way, I’m certain I’ve written or said some variation of this from Franny’s letter to her beau, Lane: “I hate you when you’re being hopelessly super-male and retiscent (sp?).” It’s the “(sp?)” that crushes me. That constant need women have to point out our potential flaws before any man can come bearing down on our credibility for them. Or, perhaps Franny’s defense of Sappho: “I’ve been reading her like mad, and no vulgar remarks, please.” Please, please, don’t shit all over this thing that I love. Oh, I asked that in so many words, so many times before.

Franny’s section brings to mind flashbacks of every time I’ve sparred with these distant, intellectual men like Lane Coutell and crumbled on the spot. And I would like to say that I left those matches back in college, but we all know that’s not true. If a man asks me with the right inflection, “Just tell me first what a real poet is, if you don’t mind,” I have few doubts I’d wind up mumbling and sweating and then, like Franny, running to have a cry in the bathroom.

At the heart of Franny’s issues is the Jesus Prayer. After wrapping up an unprompted oral defense on Flaubert, Lane goads Franny into to telling him about the book in her bag. After which point, entire monologues spill out of Franny’s mouth about The Way of the Pilgrim and this One Weird Trick That Will Bring You Closer to God — namely, a prayer that, if repeated to the point of subconscious impulse, will invoke enlightenment of some kind. Franny explains: “…you only have to just do it with your lips at first — then eventually what happens, the prayer becomes self-active. Something happens after a while.”

Franny has to be provoked into telling him about her book — when you just know if Lane had been reading that book he wouldn’t shut the hell up about it. It would be his opening line, “Darling, you just must hear about this prayer book! I’m going mad over it!” She wouldn’t get a word in edgewise.

We all know Franny is more intelligent, more nuanced, more compelling than Lane, right? Right?

If I’m being honest, I wanted to be a Zooey. Zooey who gets to sit in his bathtub and yell at his mother, call her stupid and fat, tell his ailing sister she “looks like hell.” Zooey with his savage but undeniably snappy quips — “Phooey, I say, on all white-shoe college boys who edit their campus literary magazines.” He’s intoxicating and he also makes me want to vomit.

The thing about being a Zooey (or a Holden or a Seymour or a Buddy — take your pick) is that when you’re a Zooey, every flaw you have becomes yet another thing to be desired. Zooey’s cruelty is not only tolerated, but invited by his mother and sister. His brother Buddy, “who was a writer, and consequently, as Kafka, no less, has told us, not a nice man,” is the primary advice-giver of the Glass family. Men gain credibility for bearing their flaws. Often, their flaws become the very source of their authority.

Men gain credibility for bearing their flaws. Often, their flaws become the very source of their authority.

I wanted to be Zooey and tell everyone that they were doing everything incorrectly in only the most malicious of terms. But mostly women — insert something about internalized misogyny here. Like when he tells Franny she’s having “a tenth-rate nervous breakdown.” Poor Franny isn’t even allowed to have a depressive episode the right way.

At the peak of my teenage Salinger years, I wanted to be an art monster. Other heroes of mine included Hamlet and — god help me! — Stephen Dedalus. A bunch of intellectual men whose depression and anxiety manifested in acerbic backtalk. Because it’s so much more fun to be cruel than to be wounded.

There’s something irresistible about the cadence of Salinger’s geniuses — dress your flaws up in witticisms and if other people are hurt it’s because they’re stupid phonies. It’s also a very effective tool to alienate yourself from your friends and loved ones — at least, if you’re a woman, it is.

It turns out sad women don’t get to be asshole geniuses.

I’m not a nice depressive — my world loses meaning for weeks at a time and I grow fangs. Characters like Zooey gave me a vocabulary to be malicious to every person around me and pass it off as artistic integrity. But I was the only person in on the secret joke, aware of my own genius. Unlike Zooey, I wasn’t rewarded with people fawning over me. It turns out sad women don’t get to be asshole geniuses.

The sad women I encountered in classic literature usually met one of two fates: marriage or exile. Growing up, I never felt the brooding sadness of a Bronte heroine or the violent despair of Plath’s Esther (is that the first-rate way to have a nervous breakdown?). Franny is a rare exception; neither married nor exiled, she exists on the periphery of genius.

Franny gets the scraps of what the gifted men around her have and is made to believe that that’s enough — countless times, I’ve lived through the moment when Lane asks Franny to read over his paper, as if that’s an honor and not just a request for a free editing service. I see myself in Franny because through her I learned to apologize for being too sad, for being too mean, for being too egotistical, for wanting to be a genius.

I know that I’m Franny because I once dated a guy who tried to ask me out by saying we could be “the smartest couple on campus” and somehow that shit worked. I know that I’m Franny because one time when my apartment was being re-painted, a painter knocked one of my plants off a shelf and my first reaction was to apologize, but I don’t know what the hell for. I know that I’m Franny because goddamn if I don’t appreciate having a cry in a bathroom stall, hiding my depressive episodes in a place where men can’t tell me I’m doing it wrong.

I’m the one asking “(sp?)” and when a man questions me, “You think you’re a genius?” I feel mocked, attacked — of course I don’t think that, I can’t even spell “reticent” correctly.

I see myself in Franny because through her I learned to apologize for being too sad, for being too mean, for being too egotistical, for wanting to be a genius.

I believe Didion when she says, “What gives [Franny and Zooey] its extremely potent appeal is precisely that it is self-help copy.” Throughout the book, Franny is being coached, taught, corrected, whether it’s from Lane, Zooey, or her brother beyond the grave. It feels good to be given instruction — a notion heavily reinforced if you’re a woman. To this day, I allow myself to hear some version of Zooey’s voice in my head with the idea that I’m doing it to protect myself. I’d like to believe that men can’t be cruel to me if I’m cruel to myself first.

I read Salinger’s books over and over again throughout high school, sometimes out loud in a 1960’s New York accent. Seeing myself in his characters, I tried to inhabit them — and when that wasn’t possible, I just dated different versions of them and sat quietly while they berated and diminished me. I really believed I was lucky just to be there. Being a true genius’s free editing service is somehow better than being a normal phony. I put on the lives of Salinger’s characters hoping that, through consistent repetition, something might happen.

What’s irresistible about Zooey and his ilk is that none of them would ever need a Jesus prayer. Their intelligence, wit, and overall superiority is inherent. Zooey’s section opens with a four page letter from his brother debating whether he’s destined to become an actor or get his PhD in Greek. There’s little question of whether Zooey can fail at either — in regards to being actor, “You’re a born one, certainly.” Discussions of Franny’s future? “You can at least try to, if you want to.”

When people ask me what I plan to do with my writing, I have my own Jesus prayer, a set of answers that I repeat over and over again, ad infinitum. It’s not Zooey’s intelligence or his talent that I crave; it’s his freedom from having to prove it.

It’s not Zooey’s intelligence or his talent that I crave; it’s his freedom from having to prove it.

At one point towards the end of the story, Zooey lectures Franny: “An artist’s only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s.” Any artist who doesn’t fit the art monster archetype (white, cis-male, hetero) knows how troublesome these terms are: how frequently we are questioned about them, the exhaustion of having to explain it countless times. I don’t expect to have the luxury of my own terms anytime soon. Men are not going to stop asking me what my art is about, or where I get off thinking that I can make it in the first place.

But when I consider Salinger’s terms for being an artist or a genius — authenticity, effortlessness, some form of innate brilliance — it feels ridiculous that I ever strove towards them. The entire point is that people like Franny and I cannot achieve them. No matter what I do, my efforts are visible. I‘m not allowed to be a genius by that definition—and who cares? I’m a Franny, and that’s enough.

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