The more I read Catcher in the Rye, the more I understood why it is seen as one of the great novels of the 20th century, specifically in American culture. It deserves all the credit it is given. I found Holden to be the most relatable character I've ever read. I also "understand" Holden better than just about any other character I've ever read (the only character I feel I understand more is Bob Slocum from Joseph Heller's "Something Happened", and that's probably because its 600 pages of stream of conscious instead of 250 pages of personal narration).The prose of Catcher is what makes it such a genius work. The story/plot itself isn't top-tier, and it shouldn't be. However, I think critics of Catcher may dismiss the plot too quickly. It's not like Holden is going to school for 200 pages. He's doing some pretty crazy things for a teenager. Going to bars, walking the streets alone, paying a prostitute, etc. If we had a book with a page turning, mechanically calculated, precise and stunning plot (Great Gatsby comes to mind as well as several Stephen King novels and some Fantasy novels), we would lose what makes Catcher Catcher.
I think if most authors tried to write the plot of Catcher, it wouldn't be that great. However, one of my favorite quotes by my second favorite Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson is something like "a terrible writer can take a genius plot and make it suck. A great writer can take a terrible plot and make it great". (Warning: slight tangent!) For an example, he used the fact that his friend got into an argument about what makes a great author. His friend's basic argument is that writing is mostly about mechanical skill, not crazy epiphanies and seemingly divine inspiration (sort of contrary to Stephen Daedelus, eh?). His friend then said something similar to the above quote, that great writers could turn a crappy idea into a great novel. The person he was arguing gave him a challenge: write a decent novel who's plot was based on two things: (1) Pokemon (2) The Roman Empire. Sanderson's friend took the bet and tried to write a novel. And he got published. I'll try to find the novel (I've found it before but have never got around to reading it).
I think JD Salinger is a perfect example of a great writer. This guy could literally narrate a baseball game in Holden's voice and I would love it (and so would millions of other people). He achieved a state of both commercial success and academic legitimacy, which I think is the hallmark of a great book (something that's not pulp fiction or purely academic jargon).
Plath's and Joyce's writing styles are also very good, but I don't think they're as universal as Salinger's. Well, maybe Joyce's was in his day. Ulysses, for example, still has some amazing lines.
Check out these two, for example, and see if they resonate with you.
The first is when Leopold is riding along in a carriage to a funeral, and there's this really awkward moment where another guy is talking about how bad suicide is (very bad for catholics) and he doesn't know that Leopold's dad killed himself. Anyways, during the ride Joyce drops this on us (it's a memory of Leopold's):
"That afternoon of the inquest. The redlabelled bottle on the table. The room in the hotel with hunting pictures. Stuffy it was. Sunlight through the slats of the Venetian blinds. The coroner's ears, big and hairy. Boots giving evidence. Thought he was asleep at first. Then saw like yellow streaks on his face. Had slipped down to the foot of the bed. Verdict: overdose. Death by misadventure. The Letter. For my son Leopold. No more pain. Wake no more. Nobody owns."
Jesus christ that's almost as emotionally heavy as Plath!
And an example of how he makes a newspaper machine interesting (and somewhat deep):
"Sllt. The nethermost deck of the first machine jogged forward its flyboard with sllt the first batch of quirefolded papers. Sllt. Almost human the way it sllt to call attention. Doings its best to speak. That door too sllt creaking, asking to be shut. Everything speaks in its own way Sllt."
Plath also has amazing prose for her heavy hitting, grey style. But I'm not sure if she's as universal of an author. I definitely wouldn't want to watch a baseball game narrated by Esther. It would probably just depress the hell out of me (GO AWAY HOLDEN!). The thing I like about Plath's prose it that it really does feel poetic. There's lots of imagery, colors, etc. I find it somewhat similar to White Boy Shuffle in that sense (although the tones are very different, I find the prose to be very poetic in both). Bell Jar definitely has a more complete plot than something like Catcher though.
So I'm not really sure what I'm trying to say with all this. Just that JD's prose is amazingly universal and that I think that the ability to write good prose and turn anything (such as pokemon in ancient rome) into good fiction is the defining trait of a good author.