Reading Break: My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff

Next week is Reading Break at my college. For once, things worked out so that I have no grading. I have meetings and projects to work on, but I should actually have time during my Reading Break to read. For fun! And to blog. My plan is that instead of one round-up post on what I’ve been reading lately, I’ll do a series of Reading Break posts over the next week, every other day or so.

Cover of Joanna Rakoff's My Salinger Year. A view of brick apartment buildings, with a young woman visible in a lighted window.I read Joanna Rakoff’s memoir of her mid-90s stint as an assistant at a New York literary agency, My Salinger Year, partly because I liked the cover and partly because, like so many bookish English majors, I once indulged the fantasy of working in publishing.

The book reminded me a bit of Whit Stillman’s Last Days of Discothough Rakoff’s post-disco social and romantic life is less glamorous–and not that interesting. Still, I think Stillman fans might enjoy this nostalgic portrait of young cultural strivers in New York.

It’s nostalgic not just because the publishing world has changed a lot since the mid-90s, but because the unnamed (though easily identifiable, so why?) agency and Rakoff’s unnamed (which became annoyingly coy) boss are Old School even for their time. I thought Rakoff was clear-sighted both about the problems with her boss’s allegiance to old ways–clients are leaving the agency in droves–and about the value of what is being lost:

“Things are changing,” she told me one afternoon, lingering by my typewriter [in the mid-90s, the agency had no computers] with cigarette, as always, in hand. She’d just returned from lunch with a friend at the InterContinental. . . . “Literary agencies used to be honorable. Business was personal. You had lunch with an editor. You showed him a manuscript you thought he might like. He bought it. And then he’d work with that writer for years. For that writer’s whole career!”

Michael Bourne’s review in The Millions is perceptive about why people in publishing might be especially nostalgic for this lost world: while Rakoff is paid barely enough to get by (she shares an unheated apartment without a kitchen sink and lives mostly on noodles), her job does pay and provide benefits. Today, such entry-level publishing jobs are typically unpaid internships. As Bourne says:

[T]hanks to self-publishing and the rise of MFA programs as a subsidy system for poets and literary novelists, writers today have more paths to publication and more ways to make money as writers than has ever been the case. A less-heralded casualty of the digital age is the disintegration of the lower rungs of the ladder that have long led young, smart readers into the caste of professional tastemakers. . . .

The top positions in [the book business] still exist and can be well-paid, but the gateway jobs where generations of young people learned the trade, are being devalued or outsourced. In publishing, it’s the near-mandatory unpaid internships that make it so hard for anyone without rich parents to enter the business.

Plenty of people don’t mourn the loss of “professional tastemakers,” of course, but Bourne’s comments point to a major problem with increasing diversity in publishing: most people with rich parents are white. (Although there’s a scene where Rakoff’s dad dumps student loan payments she didn’t know she had on her–he forged her signature–her parents also help her out; her mom buys her interview suit, for instance).

This book grew on me, and it had some interesting, understated things to say about art vs. commerce and finding your own voice as a writer and your way as a person, but it felt pretty slight overall and there were stretches where I was bored. I suspect the nostalgia of people in publishing was a factor in its own publication.

The other factor, of course, is the Salinger connection. Rakoff’s boss was J. D. Salinger’s agent, and one of Rakoff’s tasks is typing a form response to his fan mail explaining that he doesn’t want it passed on (she starts writing personal replies instead, like a kind of advice columnist). Early in her tenure, her boss gives her a long list of rules and a stern lecture on the importance of protecting Salinger’s privacy. Thus it’s hard not to see Rakoff’s trading on her minor interactions with Salinger as a betrayal, and the writing of this book as ethically suspect. Without that breach of his fiercely-guarded privacy, would anyone much care about her story? This bothered me increasingly as I read.


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6 Responses to Reading Break: My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff

  1. lawless says:

    Hooray for reading time without grading responsibilities!

    Since Salinger’s dead and his personal privacy can’t be invaded, I can’t really get worked up about whatever is revealed, which I assume has mostly, if not only, to do with his interactions with the agency. Jane Austen’s nephew published unfinished manuscripts she didn’t want published. We know plenty about Emily Dickinson’s life that wasn’t public at the time. Invasion of privacy is what happens to famous people when they’re dead, including dead authors.

    Besides, it’s always felt as though his reclusiveness was part and parcel of his practice of serial emotionally abuse and manipulation of his female companions, whom he’d then drop or send away, including at least one wife and Joyce Maynard.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      It’s an interesting question, what we owe the dead when our desire for knowledge is in conflict with their wishes. Especially when we have little or no relationship with that person (do we owe them more if we cared about them?).

      My feelings about this are pretty conflicted, actually. Although I haven’t read Maynard’s book about her relationship with Salinger, I’m sure it’s much more revealing than Rakoff’s description of a few phone calls, a brief in-person introduction, and how much she loved Salinger’s books when she finally read them. But this book actually bothers me more. Maynard’s story is as much hers as Salinger’s. I guess it’s true that “I had a relationship with a much older man” would have interested far fewer readers had that man not been a famous author. But still. Rakoff’s relationship with Salinger is so tenuous that it feels much more like trading on his name to sell her book. Like she’s giving those brief interactions more prominence than they really had to create a hook for a pretty conventional story. And it’s that feeling that she’s capitalizing on him in a way he would hate, while still professing that he was so important to her, that bothered me. There’s a totally unexamined contradiction there. I’d feel better if she had at least acknowledged it.

      • lawless says:

        Thanks for the clarification that

        it feels much more like trading on his name to sell her book. Like she’s giving those brief interactions more prominence than they really had to create a hook for a pretty conventional story. And it’s that feeling that she’s capitalizing on him in a way he would hate, while still professing that he was so important to her, that bothered me.

        I can see where it would have helped if she’d addressed the contradiction between her admiration and doing something he clearly wouldn’t have wanted her to do if he’d lived.

  2. Sunita says:

    I lived in New York during this time and I knew people with weird sink setups in their apartments (no sink in the kitchen, a sink in a different room, etc.), and I also hung out with artistic/literary types, so this would be enjoyably nostalgic for me in several ways. But she lost me at Salinger. I’ve just never understood the need to invade the privacy of someone who so clearly made it their highest priority. Granted, I’m teaching a course on privacy issues right now, so that probably intensifies my attitudes.

    For what it’s worth, privacy after death is not uniformly lost. In the US there are laws that don’t recognize it as a right (FOIA) and laws that do (HIPAA), and other protections or lack thereof depend on jurisdiction. I’m not saying she broke any, obviously, just that the social, political, and legal recognition of the privacy rights of the deceased aren’t as cut and dried as one might think. And then of course there are the rights of Salinger’s heirs and family.

    One of the articles I read about this book said something to the effect that people had been asking Rakoff to write this book for years, and they didn’t seem to mean the publishing-culture part. It’s a shame, really, that the reason she could get it published and reviewed was because of a slight connection to a famous recluse. The story of the era and profession is much more interesting to me.

  3. KeiraSoleore says:

    I’m with Sunita here. I feel a person’s privacy should be protected in the same manner that he wanted it during his life or death. Austen’s nephew was wrong to profit from the manuscripts that he knew she explicitly did not want published. Rakoff should not be capitalizing on a famous dead author to sell her less-than-stellar book. Harper Lee’s situation is the newest entry in this arena.

    As far as MFAs vs. NYC cultures go, I reviewed a marvelous book by Charles Harbaugh last year called “MFA vs NYC.” I blogged about it here: He pretty much concurs with your Bourne quote here. The MFA is an interesting circular phenomenon that’s growing like wildfire. Writers teach writers who in turn teach writers who… and no one is ever in the “publish or perish” situation, so there’s leisure to explore and write that one seminal book or conversely, writers get lazy.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oh, I’d heard about that book–interesting. I wonder about the “no publish or perish” thing. MFAs are in academia, after all, and a certain amount of publishing is probably expected. I think they tend to have more temporary faculty, though; that was certainly true of the MFA at my grad institution. So someone with a few good publishing credits could be a travelling teacher. (If you could take that life).

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