Skip to content

The Most Terrific Liar: Unreliable Narration in The Catcher in the Rye

A version of this essay was originally submitted in partial fulfillment of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester in 2009.

Please note that if you quote or cite this work that it is  © Karl Hodge 2012. The correct form of referencing is:

Karl Hodge. (2012). The Most Terrific Liar: Unreliable Narration in The Catcher in the Rye. Available: Last accessed DD/MM/YYYY.


Holden Caulfield is the first-person protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye and frequently thought of as a classic ‘unreliable narrator’.

The most widely applied definition of reliable and unreliable narration comes from Wayne Booth’s 1961 text The Rhetoric of Fiction.


I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks or acts for the norms of the work (which is to say the implied author’s norms), unreliable when he does not. (…)

It is most often a matter of what James calls inconscience; the narrator is mistaken, or he believes himself to have qualities which the author denies him.[1]


In short, when narration deviates from or contradicts the world built in the wider work, the narrator is considered unreliable.

However, there’s also a separation drawn here between the ‘implied author’ and the narrator. Booth seems to be saying that when the narrator speaks for the values of that author, we might see him as reliable. When he speaks against those values, the ‘implied author’s norms’ of the overall narrative, then he is not.

This is a problematic definition in the case of The Catcher in the Rye as there is evidence in the text that some of Holden’s values seem to match those of the author. What we need is a more nuanced definition and analysis.

Since the publication of The Rhetoric of Fiction, others have attempted to divide signifiers of narrative unreliability into distinct and recognisable tropes. Some have been conservative, with Monica Fludernik[2] identifying three broad categories. Ansgar Nunning[3], on the other hand, sets out a comprehensive matrix of unreliability – containing many separate ‘textual signals’ of unreliable narration.

Critically, both Nunning – and other contemporary narratologists – give greater consideration to the consumption of the text, rather than the ‘implied author’s norms’. Unreliability in this contemporary reformulation of Booth is a deviation from the norms and values expected by the reader.


(…) whether a narrator is called unreliable or not does not depend on the distance between the norms and values of the narrator and those of the implied author but between the distance that separates the narrator’s view of the world from the reader’s world-model and standards of normality [4]


My aim in this essay is to present a qualitative and personal reading that investigates the role of unreliable narration in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. I am following more closely in the footsteps of Nunning than Booth and admitting that, in making my analysis, I am concerned as much with character as narrative, with reader as much as author.

What will emerge is that The Catcher in the Rye doesn’t adhere quite so closely to the ‘classic’ definition of unreliable narration as one might immediately suppose. The novel’s protagonist is part of a complex interplay of world building and character interaction – whose very “unreliability” sometimes reveals the author’s values and norms. However, he is unreliable by other definitions – a statement we can now explore.


Holden Caulfield is what Seymour Chatman would call an ‘overt narrator’[5] – a character who addresses the reader directly, a ‘conspicuously audible narrator’ telling their own story.  The Catcher in the Rye is, effectively, a monologue – addressed to a ‘postulated reader’[6] or listener.  Holden ‘speaks’ to us as though he knows us, from the very first sentence:


 If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like (…)[7]

More specifically, Holden continues to conversationally address this postulated reader throughout – even ascribing values to him or her:


It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could’ve been there.[8]


For Nunning, this would place Holden firmly in the canon of ‘mad monologists’; unreliable narrators who take the reader into their confidence, offering their (exclusive) point of view and (skewed) experience of the narrative world. While Catcher’s ‘overt narration’ doesn’t immediately mark the narrative as unreliable, it does lead us into a relationship with the narrator, with Holden, that enables Salinger to encode signifiers of unreliability. It’s those markers in Holden’s dialogue and speech that I turn to now.

For Nunning one ‘textual signal’ of unreliability is the expression of uncertainty in dialogue. He uses Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier and his narrator John Dowell as an example that might easily be transposed to The Catcher in the Rye.


(Dowell’s) repeated use of words such as ‘think’ or ‘guess’ and, even more, his acknowledged ignorance, indicate a very weak degree of certitude, something that is underlined by the phrase ‘I don’t know’, arguably the most prominent leitmotif of the novel.[9]


Holden Caulfield’s monologue is filled with similar expressions of uncertainty. Like Dowell, Caulfield frequently ‘doesn’t know’.  More specifically, he cannot always explain his actions , saying he just ‘felt like’ doing something, whether it’s crying, going to sleep or pretending that he’s just taken a bullet to the guts. For example:


When I got to the museum, all of a sudden I wouldn’t have gone inside for a million bucks. It just didn’t appeal to me–and here I’d walked through the whole goddam park and looked forward to it and all.[10]


As part of this continuum of denial, Holden is often uncertain about his emotional states. He leaves school for the final time and cries, for example, unable to explain why. Feeling upset would be a ‘normal’ response but Holden doesn’t see it that way:


When I was all set to go, when I had my bags and all, I stood for a while next to the stairs and took a last look down the goddam corridor. I was sort of crying. I don’t know why.[11]


Holden also overcompensates for his lack of certainty, as though assuming that the reader doesn’t believe what he’s saying (which may well be the case).  He often ends an anecdote with ‘I’m not kidding’ or a piece of imparted information with ‘I really do’ or ‘it really is’:


Sometimes I act a lot older than I am – I really do – but people never notice it.[12]


Another marker of Holden’s ‘weak degree of certitude’ is his use of exaggeration, which is peppered throughout the text:


I dropped about a thousand hints, but I couldn’t get rid of him.[13]


He started parting his hair all over again. It took him about an hour to comb his hair.[14]


With this catalogue of verbal repetitions and tics, we are left wondering who Holden is really trying to convince, himself or the implied reader? [15]

These ‘tics’ gain greater significance in a contemporary reading when considered alongside more overt indicators of Holden’s unreliability in the narrative itself. The clearest and loudest of these is that Holden is a liar. He tells us himself, right at the beginning of chapter three:


I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the opera. It’s terrible.[16]


Like other things that Holden ‘just does’, he cannot explain why he lies. ‘It’s awful’, ‘it’s terrible’ he tells us. It isn’t long before we’re presented with narrative evidence that suggests Holden is more than just a profligate liar – he’s also an inventive fantasist. In chapter 8, Holden meets the mother of a schoolmate on the train intoNew York, Mrs. Morrow. He tells her his name is ‘Rudolf Schmidt’, that her vile and boorish son is the toast of the school and, as the lie spirals ever further into fantasy, he claims to have a tumour on his brain. Just a ‘tiny little’ one.

Embedded in this scene are two further, recurring aspects of Holden’s Mitty-ish tendencies. He pretends to be adult and he adopts a fake identity. Throughout the text, Holden mimics what he perceives to be adult behaviour, in apparent conflict with his own stated attitudes towards adulthood. Holden’s encounter with Mrs. Morrow, who he invites to the buffet car for a late night drink, is only the beginning of the 16 year old protagonist’s clumsy adoption of pseudo-adult behaviours.

When the train arrives inNew York, he takes a taxi from Penn Station to the Edmont Hotel and invites the driver for cocktails along the way.  He goes to a nightclub and flirts unsuccessfully with a trio of out-of-town girls. He entertains a young prostitute in his room, panicking when faced with the raw and real possibility of sex. During each of these encounters, he adopts pseudonymous personae – using the name ‘Jim Steele’ with the women in the bar and the sex worker, telling the taxi driver that he’s ‘loaded’.

Later in the narrative, Holden’s lies spin so far into the realm of fantasy that he begins to lie to himself; inventing a possible future in which he can opt out of growing up, drop out of society and pretend to be a deaf-mute, living in a log cabin with his deaf-mute bride.

While these narrative fragments alone tell us that Holden is unreliable as a character, they also tell us something more important about the overall narrative; that Holden no longer knows quite who he is. He is stuck in limbo, a transition between an adulthood he doesn’t quite understand and childhood, a time of life he seems to idolise. This is an issue I’d like to return to, but first – how does Holden’s unreliability as a character translate into unreliability as a narrator?


The key here is to closely read the context of Holden’s narration. When we do so, we reveal cues throughout the narrative that Holden’s experience is different to that of the characters around him – or that he is reframing events to fit his own world view. It’s through his interaction with other characters and his environment that Holden’s unreliability becomes visible.

For example, after an extended rant at a girlfriend, Sally Hayes, in which he professes to hate everything, he’s unaware that he’s begun shouting:


‘Don’t shout, please,’ old Sally said. Which was very funny, because I wasn’t even shouting.[17]


There are more subtle articulations of this too. He sets up his encounter with his history teacher at Pencey, Mr. Spencer, as though it’s a social visit with an elder friend, for example. There are clues that it is, instead, a punitive meeting; a telling off for falling behind.


The other reason I wasn’t down at the game was because I was on my way to say good-bye to old Spencer, my history teacher. He had the grippe, and I figured I probably wouldn’t see him again till Christmas vacation started. He wrote me this note saying he wanted to see me before I went home.[18]


Then, during their encounter, Mr. Spencer dresses Holden down for flunking history and three other subjects:


I flunked you in history because you knew absolutely nothing. (…) I doubt very much if you opened your textbook even once the whole term. Did you? Tell the truth, boy.[19]


Holden retreats swiftly, lying about a prior appointment to end the meeting early[20].


Salinger provides us with evidence in dialogue, narrative and meta-narrative that Holden is seeing things differently to us. What does that mean for our reading of the text?  The easiest and first response is that we begin to doubt other aspects of the telling – even when contextual cues confirming Holden’s veracity are missing.  For example, when Holden arrives at the Edmont Hotel, he describes a tableau of ‘perverted’ activity taking place within view of his window. A middle aged man dresses in drag; a couple spit cocktails at each other.  As this follows on shortly after his encounter with Mrs. Morrow, how much of this apparently exaggerated scene should we believe?

Perhaps the answer lies in making a differentiation between unreliable and untrustworthy narration – a distinction that’s conflated by Booth, but that is made clear by Nunning (via Lansing):


(…) a narrator might be quite trustworthy in reporting events, but not competent in interpreting them.[21]


There is rarely a sense that Holden is trying to mislead or lie to the reader, or that his lies to other characters are malicious or Machiavellian. He is, rather, ‘mistaken’, to use Booth’s terms. His interpretation of events is unreliable – but as a narrator, he is not untrustworthy.

There is a further reading of Booth that unreliable narrators speak counter to the values of the implied author, as Bruno Zerweck suggests:


The unintentional self-incrimination of the personalized narrator is a necessary condition for unreliability.[22] 


But does Salinger want us to think that Holden “incriminates” himself? That his values are greatly different from those of the implied author?

I don’t think he does.

I think Salinger wants us to see a character with a strongly defined moral centre. Someone for whom the transition from childhood to adulthood is a process of selling out – a surrender to primal and base desires. The desire for money (his brother, D.B.), sex (his roommate, Stradlater), alcohol (former teacher, Mr. Antolini), and for the shallow, shiny and meaningless (his date, Sally).

The two poles of Holden’s transition are his two brothers – Allie and D.B.  Allie is the terrific kid whose premature death ensures he will never grow up; who will stay innocent and unspoiled forever.  D.B. is the talented author who sold out, whose adult desires lead him to a phony life as a Hollywood screenwriter.  Holden is caught between them, the tallest child in the field of rye, trying to catch kids before they plunge over the precipice.


Holden’s apparent hypocrisy – that he spends money recklessly, that he drinks and pursues women while, at other times, decrying this very behaviour – signifies for us the character of child who is acting out the role of a man.  If we see The Catcher in the Rye as an odyssey, then Holden’s Ithaca is the apogee of adolescence; sexual awakening.

The sense one gets is that Salinger – and his avatar, the ‘implied author’ –  are sympathetic to Holden, not antagonistic. Holden is torn between the intellectual desire to be authentic and the chemical interactions inside him, making him increasingly more adult. More ‘phony’.

In this reading, Holden’s unreliability is not the implied author’s condemnation of his character – it’s a narrative function of the character’s state of being; his descent into a kind of madness over the course of the story. Holden may be denied certain qualities, but he is imbued with others of equal value, that solicit our understanding.


Finally, I wish to deal with the idea that unreliable narration is a cohort of dramatic irony, in particular Booth’s notion that an implied author may in some way be in cahoots with the postulated reader, weaving a second, true narrative behind the protagonist’s back:

In the irony with which we are concerned, the speaker is himself the butt of the ironic point. The author and reader are secretly in collusion, behind the speaker’s back, agreeing upon the standard by which he is found wanting.[23]

Greta Olson suggests a level of mutually agreed derision implicit in this:


Booth’s emphasis on the pleasures of exclusion suggests that the reader and implied author belong to an in-group that shares values, judgments, and meanings from which the unreliable narrator is ousted.[24]


Is this the case for Holden? That’s a difficult point to answer. There are times where the ‘implied author’ does seem to silently ridicule him.  When he has to order a Coke in the Edmont Hotel nightclub, for example – a mocking that is echoed in Holden’s inability to understand why the trio of girls crack wise about his apparent age. But I’d venture that the ‘second narrative’ at work here is more sympathetic than the term ‘dramatic irony’ might normally suggest.  While the implied author and postulated reader are in a sort of collusion, an agreement to see Holden as unreliable, I believe we’re invited to see him as a tragic character, troubled and confused, rather than a figure of fun.

The second narrative, the meta-narrative revealed by Holden’s increasingly erratic behaviour, is concerned with his widening disconnection from reality and descent into breakdown. It is for this reason more than any that Holden is unreliable as a narrator; as an illustration of his declining mental health.

The text opens with a clear statement, as clear as Holden can be, that what we are about to read is the story of someone becoming mentally unwell:


I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come here and take it easy.[25]


And closes, with Holden in an institution, recovering, planning to resume his life:


A lot of people, especially this one psychoanalyst guy they have here, keep asking me if I’m going to apply myself when I go back to school next September.[26]


The Catcher in the Rye is, at its core, a narrative about a teenage boy at the beginning of adulthood, coming to terms with the death of a sibling (Holden’s brother, Allie) and his subsequent failure at school . But, mediated through the erratic and emotionally detached narration of its protagonist, this is not the story Holden sets out to tell.

When we learn that Holden talks to his dead brother, that he cries sometimes for no reason and that, at the novel’s close, he literally loses control of his own actions, compulsively pacing the sidewalks of New York, seeing Allie at every turn – we know that there is something more at work here than inconsistency for its own sake, that The Catcher in the Rye is an inventory of extreme loss and change.

If there is a central reason for Salinger’s depiction of Holden as an unreliable narrator, then that is the case. We experience something far more complex than the black and white definition of unreliability suggested by Booth’s “implied author’s norms”. It is not  the case that Salinger wishes us to identify a set of values in opposition to those of Holden.

Rather, with reading and rereading, we note that Holden’s view is real to him – even though it is deluded. It is the view of a confused adolescent, a grieving brother, a young man with much to live up to and changing still to do. And although Holden never quite achieves this realisation within the scope of the text, the reader is invited to.




Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, (University of Chicago Press, 1983)

SeymourChatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, (Cornell University Press, 1981)

Donald P. Costello, The Language of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ in American Speech, Vol. 34, No. 3 (1959), Duke University Press

Monika Fludernik, Narratology in Context in Poetics Today, Vol 14, No. 4 (Winter 1993), Duke University Press

Ian Hamilton, In Search of J.D. Salinger, (Heinneman, 1988)

Ansgar Nunning, ”But-why-will-you-say-that-I-am-mad?” – On the Theory, History, and Signals of Unreliable Narration in British Fiction  in Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanstik, Vol 22, No. 1 (1997), University of Geissen

Greta Olson, Reconsidering Unreliability: Fallible and Untrustworthy Narrators Author(s) in Narrative, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Jan 2003),OhioStateUniversity Press

J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, (Penguin, 1994)

Salzman et al, New Essays on Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, (Cambridge University Press, 1993)

Tamar Yacobi, Fictional Reliability as a Communicative Problem in Poetics Today, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Winter 1981), Duke University Press

Bruno Zerweck, Historicizing unreliable narration: unreliability and cultural discourse in narrative fiction in Style, Vol 35, No.1, (2001),Northern Illinois University


[1] Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, (University of Chicago Press, 1983), p. 158

[2] Monika Fludernik, Narratology in Context in Poetics Today, Vol 14, No. 4 (Winter 1993), Duke University Press

[3] Ansgar Nunning, ”But-why-will-you-say-that-I-am-mad?” – On the Theory, History, and Signals of Unreliable Narration in British Fiction  in Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanstik, Vol 22, No. 1 (1997), University of Geissen

[4] Ansgar Nunning, ”But-why-will-you-say-that-I-am-mad?” – On the Theory, History, and Signals of Unreliable Narration in British Fiction in Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanstik, p. 101, Vol 22, No. 1 (1997), University of Geissen

[5] Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, (Cornell University Press, 1981)

[6] Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, (University of Chicago Press, 1983), p. 177

[7] J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, (Penguin, 1994). p. 1

[8] J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, (Penguin, 1994) p. 191

[9] Ansgar Nunning, ”But-why-will-you-say-that-I-am-mad?” – On the Theory, History, and Signals of Unreliable Narration in British Fiction  in Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanstik, p. 98, Vol 22, No. 1 (1997), University of Geissen

[10] J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, (Penguin, 1994), p. 110

[11] J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, (Penguin, 1994), p. 46

[12] Ibid. p. 8

[13] Ibid. p. 32

[14] Ibid. p. 27

[15] Shortly after publication, the text was discussed as a record of 50s teenage vernacular that may later acquire the importance of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in Donald P. Costello, The Language of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ in American Speech, Vol. 34, No. 3 (1959), Duke University Press

[16] J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, (Penguin, 1994), p. 14

[17] J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, (Penguin, 1994), p. 117

[18] Ibid, p. 3

[19] J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, (Penguin, 1994), p. 9

[20] It’s typical of Holden to frame every encounter he has as friendly.  Even Maurice – the ‘pimpy elevator guy’ who procures a girl for Holden at the Edmont Hotel, who fleeces him out of five dollars and gut-punches him in his room – is forgiven at the end of the text.

[21] Ansgar Nunning, ”But-why-will-you-say-that-I-am-mad?” – On the Theory, History, and Signals of Unreliable Narration in British Fiction  in Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanstik, Vol 22, No. 1 (1997), University of Geissen

[22] Bruno Zerweck, Historicizing unreliable narration: unreliability and cultural discourse in narrative fiction in Style, p. 151, Vol 35, No.1, (2001) Northern Illinois University

[23] Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, (University of Chicago Press, 1983), p. 304

[24] Greta Olson, Reconsidering Unreliability: Fallible and Untrustworthy Narrators Author(s) in Narrative, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Jan 2003),OhioStateUniversity Press

[25] J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, (Penguin, 1994). p. 1

[26] Ibid, p. 192

The Booker Re-Run

In 1971 the Booker switched from being a retrospective of the previous year’s pile of letters to the cutting edge taking of the literary pulse it aspires to be. So, while the prize was still run in 1970 and 1971 – the books that were shortlisted came from 1969 and 1971.

A year was missed out.

The Booker’s archivist, Peter Straus, is resurrecting the lost prize, with a long list drawn from the best novels of 1970.

The intriguing thing about this exercise is just how packed the list is with names you actually know, rather than reading room debutantes you’d usually have to Google.

Giants like Iris Murdoch, Christy Brown, Joe Orton, Shiva Naipaul and H.E. Bates. It’s like a greatest hits list. There’s also more than a little nod in the direction of populism with Melvyn Bragg, David Lodge, Ruth Rendell and Len Deighton appearing.  Christ, Brian Aldiss is even on there.

Brian W. Aldiss. The Science Fiction author who wrote the critically acclaimed “Barefoot in the Head”.  Imagine Iain Banks getting on the list now?

This stellar list is possible because, ironically, Straus stuck to Booker rules. All the novels in this re-run competition are still in print.

A couple of thoughts bubble up. The first is, what incredible work may we have missed due to the absence of the Booker that year? Which first time novelist, in an alternate reality, parlayed the attention they received into an entire career?

Of course, we could have missed some awful dross too.

This is a Darwinian Booker list. There may have been more novels eligible for the list in 1970, but perhaps the lack of demand for them 40 years on says something about their quality. This list has been chosen by time. By survival.  And so,  for once, it’s a Booker long list that you might actually want on your bookshelf.

Breaking into Writing

How do you break into the literary world?  In an interview with Wired, Paolo Bacigalupi, tells us it’s 85% graft, 5% inspiration, and 10% reading lots of fantasy and SF magazines… sort of.  Here’s the relevant bit:

“Pocketful of Dharma” was the first story that I sold, and that was really my first attempt at writing something short.

I’d stalked William Gibson at one point at a book signing and had asked him what his secret to success was.  You know I was a very hungry, very needy sort of writer and was just looking for any kind of a clue about how the whole thing worked.  I sort of hovered over his shoulder while he was signing other people’s books.  I hit him with all of these questions and one of the things that he said was that he’d written short stories until somebody would take him seriously and that was when he managed to actually sell a novel.  So I sort of took that to heart and went home and sat down and was like: ‘OK, so I need to write a short story.  How the fuck do I do this?’

So I bought some science fiction magazines–fantasy and science fiction magazines and stuff– and read all of the short stories in them and went, ‘OK, I just need to write something better than any these things.’  I sat down and started banging away and eventually what I got was “Pocketful of Dharma.”

They’re Plotting Against Me!

People (tutors, writers, other students) have told me the same thing in different configurations: “Characters drive the narrative!”

I nod. I agree. I go back to quietly and tightly plotting and planning every aspect of the novel I’m writing – because, actually, I don’t really believe it. I read interviews with writers who say they invent characters and they sort of wander off and do their own thing.

“They’re out of my control!” they cry, “She wanted to spend the entire book weeping in a cupboard”.

Of course, character is important. Characters must be satisfying by whatever criteria you wish to measure satisfaction. But should they be given minds of their own and set free to do whatever they please? Moulded from clay like goylem?

Stephen King claims that’s what he does. Not actually renanimate mud, granted, but he says in his memoir On Writing that he starts with character first and plot grows from what those characters go off and do.

Funny, then, that in every single one of his novels his characters make bad decisions that turn out to be influenced by some guilty secret from their childhood/the past which manifest as destructive supernatural forces.

Because ultimately, it doesn’t matter how comprehensively characters are constructed, they are always invention. As such, they are subject to the same limits of invention as plot. They are fragments of the author.

I say this because, implicit in the notion that character is paramount – that modern fiction must be a facsimile of reality – is the twin idea that plot is redundant. Or, at best, secondary.

Thing is, I like plot. I learned how to love plot from reading science fiction short story anthologies, dozens of them, throughout my adolescence; one tightly described high concept after another. Characters reduced to cyphers.

And while I don’t subscribe to the view that characters should be mere pawns, shifted around in one of a number of finite patterns, I don’t feel satisfied unless I’ve been given a conundrum to solve; a set of ideas to work through.

A story.

And here’s  the link that starting me thinking about this, on this cold Christmas morning, instead of presents and egg nog; an interesting piece from the Wall Street Journal about a resurgence in plot.

(…) the discipline of the conventional literary novel is a pretty harsh one. To read one is to enter into a kind of depressed economy, where pleasure must be bought with large quantities of work and patience. The Modernists felt little obligation to entertain their readers. That was just the price you paid for your Joycean epiphany. Conversely they have trained us, Pavlovianly, to associate a crisp, dynamic, exciting plot with supermarket fiction, and cheap thrills, and embarrassment. Plot was the coward’s way out, for people who can’t deal with the real world. If you’re having too much fun, you’re doing it wrong.

Lev Grossman – Good Novels Don’t have to be Hard

Holden Back the Years

I’m reading The Catcher in the Rye for the fifth time – following on from a week dipping into Borges’ short story collection Labyrinths, The contrast between these two experiences has been instructive.

One of the themes of Labyrinths is the structuralist idea of reader as author. Borges parodies the notion, belittles and criticises it by making it a joke. In Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, a cod-academic narrator unearths a transliteration of Cervantes’ Don Quixote by a contemporary author. He describes Menard’s desire to make the text his own – to create his own Quixote. But, we see that Menard has done nothing to the text at all; he has merely transcribed it.

In a key section, the narrator describes the difference between two identical paragraphs of text:

“The contrast in style is also vivid. The archaic style of Menard—quite foreign, after all—suffers from a certain affectation. Not so that of his forerunner, who handles with ease the current Spanish of his time.”

While this is clearly a stone lobbed in the direction of New Criticism – the “intentional fallacy’ of Wimsatt and Beardsley that dictates the irrelevance of authorial intention– I find that I can describe, anecdotally, a similar experience when re-reading The Catcher in the Rye. The text is the same, but the meaning of the novel has changed for me over time, in the new contexts I’ve found myself in and with new experience to compare it with.

I first read it in the 1980s, when I was 16 – the same age as Holden Caulfield, the novel’s protagonist. The cliché is that when you read Catcher as a teenager, you become Holden. That is, of course, what happened to me. The first person narration, the post-pubescent angst, the easy colloquial style all contribute to the sense that your thoughts are Holden’s thoughts. You are disconnected and cynical and you know everything – just like Holden. He speaks with your voice and you, like Holden, are in that limbo between child and adulthood.

I read Catcher again at 21 and, if anything, I was in even more agreement with Holden’s rebellious take on the institutions of adulthood. Curiously though, where I once felt that I was like Holden, this time I felt that he was like me. I had by then a firmer grasp of who I was, what my thoughts and feelings were. They had been shaped by Holden and Rebel without a Cause and John Lennon. Of course, I wasn’t the first person to think like that. Fortunately for me, my relationship with the popular culture I loved didn’t make me want to kill my idols.

I had another go at Catcher at 27. At this point I had been teaching at University level for three years – a job I enjoyed and was good at, but that was rife with political infighting at the institution I worked in. The first cracks in my love affair with Caulfield began to show. I felt ambivalent. I felt accused of selling out. My Girlfriend of the time read Catcher too. She found Holden “annoying”. I didn’t finish the read through.

At 35 my dissatisfaction with Holden had come full circle. I saw him as ungrateful and privileged during that reading; middle class and whiny. His military school scholarship and New York brownstone lifestyle. His artistic siblings and mistrust of the popular. I wanted to slap him. It was, as reactions to made-up people go, a little extreme.

Which brings me to my current reading. Again, I’m enjoying the novel – but for different reasons. I’m detached from Caulfield entirely and Salinger is foremost in my mind. It’s the writing I see now; the narrative and its execution. Holden is a brilliant creation; a flawed and authentic anti-hero. At 40, I can finally read that, see that, rather than looking for points of identification and reflections of self. I see, ironically, that Holden is a construction. He is a fiction. In his own words, he’s phony. I’m the one who’s real.

Take that, Holden Caulfield. You little shit.

Notes on Narrative

Some notes on narrative that, in best Blue Peter tradition, I made earlier. 16 years earlier:

Narratives are made up of units of information. In Roland Barthes’ ‘Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives’ he states:

“…narrative is never made up of anything other than functional units … This is not a matter of art (on the part of the narrator), but of structure…”

Barthes goes on to deconstruct these functional units, outlining two distinct types of narrative component.

The first type are referred to as ‘functions’, which are essentially the narrative elements of the structure, the units that constitute ’story’. Functions are “…units of content…”, they are statements that describe actions, (eg: Oswald shot the President) or provide information which is key to the narrative (Oswald had spent some time in Cuba). Barthes’ ‘Functions’ are similar to Hallorans’ ‘Message Vehicles’, which take meanings in terms of codes and sub-codes. To use an example from Barthes; the sentence “He saw a man of fifty” can render several meanings according to the context of the narrative and the position of the reader. It is firstly a description of age. In the context of other message vehicles that would define the text as a ’spy thriller’, the man is unidentified and signifies a ‘possible threat’. In the context of the eighteen year old reader he is a significantly older man, and so on. Barthes also points out that functions are correlative to one another, contribute to the meaning of one another. The function ‘he replaced the receiver’ only gains meaning in relation to its correlate ‘he picked up the phone’.

The second units given a term are ‘Indices’, which locate the ’scene’ of the text. Such units provide information about atmosphere, character, time and place. While these units do not directly contribute to the narrative, they serve to place the text into the ‘real’ world. For example, the indice “The night was stormy” gives us information about the temporal context of the narrative (it is night-time) and the atmosphere (stormy – foreshadows ‘doom’).

If narrative can be broken down into ‘units’ it follows, that these units can be ordered into a structure; a structure of messages that relate to each other. In books and films this structure is linear, is the Classic Realist structure of the text.



I’ve briefly reviewed the Mac-only writing tool Scrivener a couple of times for Macworld. This post is based on those two pieces:

Most of the stuff I review goes straight in the trash afterwards. Some programs stay on my machine for a little while. A very few apps become part of my toolkit; the software I use every day. Scrivener is one of those rare applications.

If you’re a student, write reports for work or fancy yourself as a creative author – Scrivener is perfection. It’s designed to help you plan, organise and execute large writing projects, from degree dissertations to blockbuster novels and everything in between. The basic features it gives you to do this are a simple but powerful word processor, outlining tools and an internal file system that enables you to file research snippets alongside your writing project. All of your work on a project is stored in a single file. I first reviewed the package at version 1.0. The program had major upgrades at 1.10 and 1.50, introducing lots of feature tweaks and fixes. At version 1.5.3 it’s mature and stable, Snow Leopard ready and boasts an ever-expanding fan base.

The program divides into discreet, yet connected parts. Writing’s processed in a traditional editor, with live word counts and layout tools. You can minimise distraction with a keyboard shortcut that puts the editor in full-screen mode – a feature I didn’t know I wanted until I tried it and loved it. But, unlike traditional writing programs, you don’t work on one file at once. The Scrivener format saves multiple files in one package. You arrange them using folders in a hierarchical filing system. The format’s very open – and files can be simple notes or full documents containing images, layout and links.

There are several ways to view this hierarchy. For our money the most powerful is the corkboard. And, yes, it’s a virtual representation of a literal corkboard, displaying the fragments of your novel or report as a series of index cards pinned to its pseudo-spongy surface. Not all attempts to translate real world metaphors work well in software interfaces – but this absolutely nails the process of dealing with complex documents.

Crucially, the corkboard isn’t just a reflection of your work in progress, but can be used to rearrange the workflow. For example, if a chapter is broken down into a sequence of events, you can switch things around by moving the index cards. Then there’s Outline mode, which shows the structure of the work in a detailed list. Again, a powerful way to get a quick overview of a large work.

My one gripe with the program, which I’m reluctant to admit, is that it’s Mac only. You can import files from Word or just about any other word processor though – so if you have to work on another machine for a while, it’s easy get your edits back into Scrivener when you’re home.

Scrivener can be bought for $39.95, which was about £25 in real money when I wrote this, from

Bean (and other none comestible writing tools)


I recently reviewed Bean 2.4 – a brilliant, free and very lightweight Mac word processor – for Macworld. Here’s my redux version of that review:

My quest for the ultimate writing tool continues with Bean, a stripped down and superfast word processor. Most of the applications Apple bundles with OS X are great – but TextEdit isn’t one of them. As a document viewer, it’s handy to have in the absence of Adobe Reader or MS Word. It supports RTF, HTML and even .webarchive files. As a word processor, I’d rather write with a sharp stone on the pavement.

I’m sure I can’t be alone in finding TextEdit clumsy to look at and cumbersome to use. Worst of all, it screws up perfectly good documents. Apple’s idea of ASCII text format seems to differ from everyone else’s.

If you can afford it, there’s MS Word. If you can’t, that’s where tools like come in – giving you the commercial standard features TextEdit can’t. Features like word count and print view. But, is pretty cumbersome, installing a suite of tools and requiring Java to run.

Bean is the ideal compromise. With a disk footprint of just 8 MB compared to’s 400 MB, it’s small – starting up in less than a second on our test machine.

It lacks a full word processor’s more advanced features, but Bean handles all the same files as TextEdit in an interface that’s very easy to use – with nice big icons and a clean and uncluttered work area.

Sure, it’s small. Compared to tools like Word it feels distinctly chopped down. But, it feels like Bean was designed by someone who writes for a living. All the features that have been left in are features you’ll actually use. With live word count, auto-save, spell check and page layout mode you won’t feel deprived. Though, used to using Scrivener recently, we did miss having full screen mode.

I’ve found myself using Google Docs a lot lately. Bean gives you the same simplicity, power and lack of clutter at the same price; nothing. Still – Google Docs has one thing Bean doesn’t. It’s cross platform. And you can access it from anywhere. So, make that two things Bean doesn’t have… I switched to Google Docs so I could access my writing on any machine I was logged in to – but it’s far from perfect. It’s ugly to look at, and it doesn’t quite know whether it’s using folders or tags to file your work.

These are petty issues – but there’s one major problem with Google Docs that can’t be overlooked: it screws up RTF export. Big time. That’s a big consideration when you’re writing professionally.

So – whenever I’m on a Mac – I mostly use Bean instead. Sometimes, I use it in conjunction with Google Docs, bypassing the export command and pasting my writing into Bean for final formatting. Either way, it’s free and takes up as much space as a couple of audio tracks. Win and, indeed, win.

Download Bean from

Notes on Focalisation


Decided to do my first semester essay on variable, internal focalisation in Madame Bovary. Want to explore the structuralist roots of perspective as Genette’s Narrative Discourse, the set text, refers to Barthes Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative a lot… And I love a bit of Barthes.

Anyway, for my benefit, here’s a beginner’s guide to focalisation or “point of view”.

Focalisation is the perspective from which we experience the narrative being told. I’m going to find a more concise way of expressing that later… Genette outlines three types of focalisation in narrative:

1. Non-focalised

This is often characterised as “omniscient” and is most frequently a third person narrative. Here, the narrator knows more than the characters about events that have happened and events that are to come, floats among and around them like a God, observing and noting. It’s the classic mode of the story teller, of Dickens and Balzac.

2. Internal Focalisation

Here the story is told from the exclusive viewpoint of the character or characters. It can be told in the first or third person, but presents the narrative through the experience of the focal character. We know what they know, see what they see.

It’s a little more complicated than that, though, as there are three variants:

a) Fixed Internal Focalisation
Here, we experience the text from the viewpoint of one character and one character alone. Classic examples would include:

Catcher in the Rye
A Confederacy of Dunces

b) Variable

In this subtype, we move from character to character within the narrative, experiencing their perspective. This might resemble, on the surface, non-focalised narrative perspective, but in true variable internal focalisation, the narrator knows and channels only the experience of the character she currently inhabits. Madame Bovary could be categorised as a narrative with variable, internal focalisation – but it’s a tricky one… The narrator’s voice begins in the first person, as an observer, for example.

c) Multiple

Multiple internal focalisation is similar to variable. However, we experience different narrative perspectives within a scene. This is the classic device of telling the same story from different viewpoints. There are many examples in film – Four Rooms, Code Unknown, Vantage Point.

3. External Focalisation

This is a rare variant of perspective in literary fiction – in which the action is described by an external observer. This observer doesn’t have access to the thoughts or feelings of the protagonists – and is an entirely external, authorial narrator or a minor character on the periphery. Examples abound in the short stories of Hemingway – but it’s a device most frequently found in genre fictions; crime, horror and the pulpier versions of SF.

First Thoughts on Mrs Dalloway

Ploughing through the first pages of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, I’m reminded of several other artists, not all of them writers.

The first is Jack Kerouac. The stream of consciousness narrative, poetic and vibrant real-time description and epic sentences. Full stops are few. My first attempt at reading was fruitless. Only going back and reading as though aloud and in character seemed to work. It was a child-like approach, but once I did that, I was there – in Woolf’s lucidly illustrated world.

The others are film-makers. Wim Wenders and Robert Altman (and his greatest imitator Paul Thomas Anderson). It flits in and out of different threads, from one viewpoint to another, aggregating into a whole. It puts me in mind of the first half of Wings of Desire as we move from the thoughts of one character to another, the focus becoming finer as the story progresses and coalesces. Very modern, difficult and rewarding.