What makes great art great? Or, to narrow the scope slightly, what makes great literature great literature? Is there a formula one can compile and measure a piece of writing against? Or is our response to art always just a subjective matter?

Far greater minds than mine have grappled with such questions for centuries, and whilst there is a variety of opinions, it seems to me, that most people agree that there certainly is an objective aspect involved in the critique of art. For example, in the case of reading a piece of prose, one can ask: is the writing compelling, powerful, persuasive? Does the work entice, challenge, and make its readers think? However, at the same time, reading (and the appreciation of any other art form) is also undoubtedly a very personal thing.

And this, to my mind, is what makes it so fascinating. How one piece of art can be viewed / read / seen / etc. by a hundred different people and can elicit such a different response from each one.

Now, the reason I bring up such philosophical ponderings here is that I have just re-read a novella that I simply love: Franny and Zooey – and yet am not sure that I can clearly express why.

Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger

There are books that I absolutely love and which I would naturally expect almost anyone who read them to also love – e.g. The Great Gatsby, or Great Expectations, or To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I do genuinely find it hard to imagine that anyone who has the remotest fondness for fiction could read one of these and not agree that it is a truly great novel.

But then there are other novels that I personally love just as much, yet somehow imagine others might not be particularly taken with – novels such as The Good Soldier, The Go-Between, and Lolita. And I think that Franny and Zooey fits in to this latter camp.

It is a strange novella (if that’s even the right term?). It was originally published in The New Yorker magazine as two separate stories, and only later published together and released as one book. And what does it consist of? Well, not very much, in one sense. Franny and Zooey of the title are the two youngest siblings of the Glass family (whom Salinger wrote about elsewhere), and here we find young Franny in the midst of a kind of breakdown.

I’m sick of just liking people. I wish to God I could meet somebody I could respect.

Born with a fantastic intellect, raised with the privileges of a fine education, and having a loving family and good looks to boot, Franny should be just about as happy as any American lass could be, and yet suddenly she finds she cannot escape the disappointment she feels for everything and everyone around her. Franny then stumbles across a small mystical little book entitled: The Way of a Pilgrim, which she reads, clings to and tries to imitate from there on out. Zooey, as her elder brother, is brought onto the scene by their mother to try and comfort his sister (albeit in a not very comforting manner) – and there you have it: the synopsis of this entire piece.

Yet despite its brevity and simplicity of plot, it is truly brilliant. The loose dialog that proceeds between the two siblings is both an intimate snapshot of a family and also a commentary on the broader world and its values.

When Salinger is writing at his best, I find his characters are so well captured, so incredibly vivid, and the writing here is a fine example. Even thought this is a pretty slender volume (my edition runs to a mere 157 pages), I come away feeling that I know his principle characters so well. I know what they are like – how they act, how they think, how they speak. I know their habits and their little idiosyncrasies. In short, the characters become fully alive to me.

‘Oh, it’s lovely to see you!’ Franny said as the cab moved off. ‘I’ve missed you.’ The words were no sooner out than she realized that she didn’t mean them at all. Again with guilt, she took Lane’s hand and tightly, warmly laced fingers with him.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: Salinger’s most famous work, The Catcher in the Rye.