Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Book review: My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

The minute I heard about this book, I knew I'd have to read it. It's about an agency assistant (basically an editorial assistant but at a literary agency instead of a publishing house) in NYC in 1996 (the year after I graduated from college.) It sounded so familiar and yet, I'm always incredibly curious about what would be different from my own experience.

Joanna dropped out of graduate school without finishing her Ph.D. and like all English majors (especially those from New York), Publishing called to her. Through an employment agency, she quickly landed a job as an assistant at an old-school literary agency in midtown. And it is seriously old-school. I thought my old publisher was antiquated because they forced the last hold-out editor to get a computer in 1999 and there was still one form that was on carbon paper and needed to be typed. This agency in 1997 just got their first computer, and still thought of the photocopier and fax machine as new technology. So poor Joanna was manually retyping a form letter over and over on a Selectric typewriter every day. I feel so cutting edge since I had my first computer around 1987 and my first laptop in 1991.

So on her first day at this new job, the only thing her new boss very explicitly explained to her was how to deal with "Jerry," Joanna didn't get it at first, but by the end of the day she had connected the dots and came up with J.D. Salinger. Yep, the agency represented him (and other estates from his era like Fitzgerald.) And he is famously reclusive and cantankerous so placating him is a high priority at the agency.

Meanwhile, Joanna pretty much immediately upon moving back to NYC, met and moved in with an older guy, Don. He's a writer, like Joanna (she: poetry; him: fiction). He's a socialist and mocks her for bourgeoisie tenancies. They move into a terrible apartment in Williamsburg with no kitchen sink and no heat.

The book is a lot about Joanna's year working at the agency. It's a great view into that world for anyone thinking about going into publishing. I really enjoyed those parts of the book. Don I enjoyed much less. He was an ass. Very snobby. Joanna was snobby enough with her literary tastes, but he was much worse and meanly teased her for any interest in any commercial fiction from the last century. And I had to sigh when she lamented not having read the complete works of Dickens. She does acknowledge at one point the irony of preferring to work with dead writers... while wanting herself to be a live writer (ditto for Don). But that revelation was immediately forgotten. He even dismissed her liking of Jane Austen as liking of something commercial and trite. Seriously? He seemed to think unless you were reading Kant, you were worthless. I have no time for idiots like that.

But often in our early 20s, we do date idiots. And I should cut Joanna slack and I'm not sure my circa-24 boyfriend would look much better under a spotlight. But like I said, I preferred the majority of the book that was set at her work. And that's why you should read the book. It is witty, interesting, with a kooky cast of characters (including Jerry himself who does make a cameo) and gives a great insider's view of the world of literary agencies, circa 1970 (because that's really how this company functioned.) It was a fast, easy read and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I checked this book out of the library.

1 comment:

Paul S said...

From your review it sounds like Don is in sore need of a dose of Holden Caulfield's scepticism and irreverence.
That aside I think I might enjoy this one.