Eula Biss, who teaches nonfiction writing at Northwestern University and has won the Pushcart Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award, told me: "It's never surprised me when I hear someone like Johnny Depp has moved to the south of France or a Salinger figure has willingly walled himself off from the world. I once had a student who sent 100 tweets to a celebrity for a project and on the 100th tweet received back, 'Please stop.' She was flabbergasted and wrote an essay about celebrities owing their celebrity to the fans. No: Celebrity is a byproduct of work — though there are those reclusive artists who feed off their mythology."
Salinger, for instance.
Besides being our uber-example of the walled-off artist, he's also a prime reminder that, as much as a reclusive artist seems to be disengaging from the audience, the audience and its expectations are never out of mind.
"He definitely participated in enhancing his myth," Salerno said. "He participated in its creation and he perpetrated it. Without question. He seemed to come out of hiding every now and then just to remind the public that he was recluse. But a real recluse doesn't call the New York Times, pursue Hollywood actresses and 18-year-old girls or travel the world — all of which he did during the 45 years when nobody knew what he was doing. He was, yes, extremely private, but I doubt Thomas Pynchon could call the New York Times."
Certainly Salinger's silence wasn't about writer's block, either. Salerno's book and film claim (through unnamed sources) that several works written by Salinger during this period will be published between 2015 and 2020.
But frankly, that's worrisome.
The artist who goes away only to return after a prolonged absence doesn't necessarily always deliver that earlier vitality: For every Marilynne Robinson — whose Pulitzer-nominated first novel, 1980's "Housekeeping," was followed up 24 years later with the Pulitzer-winning masterpiece "Gilead" — there's a Stanley Kubrick, whose uncertainty as a filmmaker seemed to grow parallel to the decades he increasingly placed between finished films. Malick returned in 1998 with "The Thin Red Line" and then became so relatively prolific that his 2011 Oscar-nominated "Tree of Life" was followed just last spring with "To the Wonder," which, despite starring Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams, seemed like a massive non-event.
There is something to be said for quitting while you're ahead.
"Some artists, maybe they just don't need to say anything else," Langer said. "Maybe you write a 'Catcher in the Rye' and you rightly decide, 'OK, so now I can die.' I mean, Philip Roth? Good for him, I suppose." Last fall the 80-year-old Roth announced he was retiring from novel writing — which inspired the equally distinguished 82-year-old Canadian short story master Alice Munro to declared herself finished as well.
Which is a much tidier way of exiting the stage than, say, Joseph Mitchell, the venerated New Yorker journalist whose remarkable story is so often repeated among writers that, depending on how you see it, Mitchell is either a cautionary tale or a beautifully melancholic portrait of frustration. Mitchell, who joined the New Yorker in 1938, was one of the magazine's most prolific, inventive writers, a master chronicler of the city's nooks and crannies. Then, in 1964, he stopped. He came to work every day for the next three decades, kept an office at the magazine, could be heard typing — and never filed another story.
Said Thomas Kunkel, president of St. Norbert College outside of Green Bay, Wis., and author of a forthcoming biography, "Joseph Mitchell: Time and Tide": "Mitchell was like Salinger in that both stopped publishing about the same time and both passed a kind of point of no return where they wouldn't publish again. But, remember, you can only try to reconstruct why someone does what they do. You are never in the room with them at the moment that alters the course of the life — if it even is a moment. I don't know if this applies to Salinger, too, but Mitchell, to some extent, he became a prisoner of his own expectations.
"When everyone begins to expect everything you produce to be a masterpiece, when every new work is an event, the pressure is debilitating. And so you have trouble writing, which means you're not producing, which creates this vicarious circular energy. It's a big part of why Joe stayed so silent so long, and it happens to artists in every medium: The biggest demon they tend to carry around are the weight of their expectations."Biss, when I asked why she has yet to follow up on her 2009 essay collection, "Notes From Man's Land": "I'm about to finish my next book and I'm having anxiety dreams. In my dreams, I do this perfect dive and I have no idea how I did it and so this guy, this Olympic representative, asks me to join the Olympic diving team. I tell him there's no way I can replicate that dive."
"No. I join! But then I sit in the locker room the whole Olympics, worried and sweating and never dive again."