As long as there will be famous people, there will be non-celebrities who have stories to tell about them. This practice is fairly popular in book form, and there’s a certain undefined genre of memoirs written by writers who happened to interact with celebrities. Two very good examples are Joyce Maynard’s At Home in the World, the much-maligned 1998 book in which Maynard revealed her relationship with reclusive novelist J. D. Salinger (she was 18, he was 53), and Brendan Jay Sullivan’s Rivington Was Ours, which concerns the author’s friendship with the up-and-coming Lady Gaga when she was a performer on the Lower East Side in 2006. The two books are excellent case studies in how such a story should — and shouldn’t — be told, as well as the particularly unfair and misogynistic way critics and readers respond to these types of books.
Joyce Maynard, who has been writing about herself since she was a high school senior (but who also, she asserts in the preface to the new edition of her memoir, is an accomplished novelist), falls into the usual category of female writers who take an introspective look at their lives and emotions: they’re labeled as hysterical narcissists, typically by male critics (and a handful of women who generally point to “bad feminism” as an easy way to dismiss the writing of another woman who they disagree with). The reissue of At Home in the World has an interesting marketing campaign. Released in tandem with the subpar documentary about Salinger, the book’s blurbs make it clear that Maynard’s account of her life was hated by critics and readers alike. Even the glowing reviews in the first pages emphasize that positive opinions of the book represented a contrarian stance, and Maynard’s preface details the struggles she encountered publishing her novels after her so-called “betrayal” of a legendary, much-beloved male writer who, it must be reiterated, invited a very young 18-year-old woman to live with him and his two teenage children on his farm for a year before tossing her aside when he had decided he was finished with her.
For decades, Maynard kept silent about her relationship with “Jerry” Salinger, finally deciding, when her daughter was the same age as she was when she met the writer, that she had to tell her story. From the aforementioned preface:
“Oh, you’re the one who wrote that book about Salinger,” people have said to me over the years since. “I wrote a book about me,” I tell them. “Salinger chose to make himself a part of my story.” My story. Not his.
Although her relationship with J. D. Salinger only takes up a fraction of At Home in the World, it’s still “the book about J. D. Salinger,” and one that was characterized as a spiteful tell-all about the famous recluse’s crazier habits. (Compared to the documentary and recent biography, Maynard’s recollections are fairly tame and minimal in respect to Salinger’s personal life.) While many labeled Maynard a sleazy writer for capitalizing on the legacy of a much more famous man, there’s a moment in the memoir in which Salinger reiterates the importance of a writer’s honesty to him or herself, and inadvertently gives Maynard the go-ahead to tell the story of their relationship, despite his demands she keep silent:
“Some day, Joyce,” he says to me, “there will be a story you want to tell for no better reason than because it matters to you more than any other. You’ll give up this business of delivering what everybody tells you to do. You’ll stop looking over your shoulder to make sure you’re keeping everybody happy, and you’ll simply write what’s real and true. Honest writing always makes people nervous, and they’ll think of all kinds of ways to make your life hell. One day a long time from now you’ll cease to care anymore whom you please or what anybody has to say about you. That’s when you’ll finally produce the work you’re capable of.”
Where At Home in the World is an accomplished piece of memoir writing despite 15 years of critical attacks on Maynard’s reputation, Brendan Jay Sullivan’s recently published remembrance of his friendship with Lady Gaga during the early years of her career, bearing the subtitle- and SEO-ready name Rivington Was Ours: Lady Gaga, the Lower East Side, and the Prime of Our Lives, is the exact opposite. Whereas Maynard’s book is a thoughtful, serious recollection of a young girl on the brink of a breakdown and her struggles to overcome the emotional turmoil of both her relationship with Salinger and the dreadful circumstances of her adolescence, Sullivan’s book is a self-congratulatory appreciation of himself in the faint shadow of the young Lady Gaga, who would go on to be one of the most famous performers in the world.
While Salinger exists in At Home in the World as a figure who offers comfort and mentorship to the young Joyce Maynard before breaking her heart, Lady Gaga appears in Rivington Was Ours as someone who, while on the cusp of stardom, repeatedly boosts Sullivan’s ego with constant praise of his creative talents as he rides on the coattails of her success as her DJ. When he isn’t spinning, Sullivan recounts his attempts at writing a novel — a rewrite of Romeo and Juliet told from the point of view of the doomed Mercutio. “Isn’t that brilliant?” he remembers Gaga gushing. “Such a good story. I can already see it being a big movie. You’re going to be huge.” (To be fair, plenty of other minor, less-famous people Sullivan encounters also attest to his “genius.”)
Perhaps the most embarrassing example of hubris in the memoir, though, comes out in this exchange between Gaga and Sullivan in what begins as mutual appreciation and goes someplace even more mind-blowingly awful:
“I’m insecure. It’s way different.” “You’re not insecure.” “I know I am because I like hearing you tell me I’m not.” “You’re not insecure, baby. But you’re protecting someone who’s insecure. Inside of you, you have a little geeky Brendan who didn’t fit in and probably wore glasses.” “It was not cute.” “You have to spread your wings, buddy. You’re six foot two, you dress like a champion, and you have a nice, thick—” “Stop it.” She shrugged. “What? Girls talk.”
Yes, this is a man who just revealed by way of a conversation with Lady Gaga that he has a large penis. (Typically, such a revelation isn’t so overt in a memoir penned by a dude.) In an already obvious attempt to place himself within the same world as Lady Gaga’s fame (which is, it should be noted, a sentiment Gaga herself would probably get behind, considering her own desperation for acknowledgement), Sullivan’s book reads like a incessant quest for validation, a bid to legitimize nightlife as an art form. Compared to Maynard’s, it’s a tacky display. Sullivan, of course, will likely not receive the same kinds of criticism as Maynard — a man’s boasts about his own girth are generally more appreciated than a woman’s recounting of her budding sexuality, especially when her sexual discovery was at the hands of a very famous and beloved man — but perhaps that’s due less to misogyny than to the fact that Sullivan’s book is so clearly a fleeting and ephemeral grab for relevance.
Maynard’s book, on the other hand, will hopefully receive a more positive, thoughtful, and less knee-jerky response. Nothing about At Home in the World truly feels like a gross retelling of a young woman’s association with a famous writer; rather, it comes across as a respectable and nuanced look at womanhood during a time when the notion of femininity was changing. Fifteen years after its initial publication, the book can also be read, within the context of its critical response, as a meta-commentary on the importance masculine voices and sensibilities hold over the writing of words. Looking at Rivington Was Ours, it’s clear that nothing has changed, but we can at least better identify when masculine bravado is being oversold at the expense of intelligence, poignancy, and relevance.