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.
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 Disco, though 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.