I want to like this book. There is much to like about it. It reads well, it creates a universe so rich and visually compelling I could just see it in my mind (in the same way I could see Anne of Green Gables), and there is so much that reminds me of graduate school and hanging out with other intellectual wannabes way back when…
However, I perceived a paradox that somewhat tarnished the experience. Here we go: Joanna Rakoff recounts her year working in a literary agency in New York, right out of graduate school. She is the assistant to the agent that handles J.D. Salinger, the famously reclusive author who did not like to be talked about. Yet, she writes this book, where the agency is called The Agency and her boss, the Boss, and the talks at length about “Jerry”, J.D. Salinger… Why not The Famous Reclusive Author? Well, maybe not mentioning the specific author would make it hard to discuss the impact of specific works on the characters and would not provide the opportunity to draw parallels between some aspects of the plot and characters in My Salinger Year and actual Salinger works. Nor would it be possible to discuss the fan mail and Joanna’s response to it… Do does it matter? The agency and the agent could remain anonymous as they were not quite so central to the story. Maybe.
Apart from that, I thought the book provided interesting insight on how different people engage with literature and the pleasure of reading. Of course, one would think that literary agents would be at the top of the list of literature appreciators, but here is a quick exchange between Joanna and another agent:
“It’s like” — he sighed again and ran his hands through his fluffy hair — “your boss doesn’t get it.”
“Get Salinger?” I asked
“Salinger,” agreed Max. He looked away again, at the woodblock print of the man holder the hammer or anvil or whatever it was. Then he smiled sadly. “Publishing. Books. Life.”
On the other hand, she describes Max and Lucy, another agent, in the following way:
They were impossibly glamorous, Max and Lucy, and I loved merely to be in their proximity, listening to them banter, cigarettes held aloft. Max was short, with a ring of curly hair surrounding a bald pate, and Lucy squat, her skin dulled by nicotine, but their intelligence and wit — and the passion with which they threw themselves into their work, their books, their authors –made them as attractive, as thrilling, as film stars.
There are certainly tensions in this world, between the old and the new, between generations of agents, between those who wish to use new computer technologies and those who prefer traditional, antiquated ways of handling communication and business.
Beyond the romantic ideas about ushering new literature to light, publishing is a business, as Joanna obviously finds out, as she reviews contract after contract and types up detailed letters requesting contract amendments.
What Rakoff does well is to describe the Agency as a place, a work environment, a small ecosystem where people work, power relations evolve and cultural goods are produced. The Agency does offer a physical environment that is distinct from most other offices:
Other than the finance department, with its glaring fluorescents, the office was lit almost entirely by shaded lamps, which meant that its warren of rooms were indeed much more dim than a modern office, like Jenny’s, with walls of windows and bright overheads. But this was part of what I loved about it: the soft, consoling glow cast by the lamps; the hush of my co-workers’ feet on the soft carpet, the leather armchairs and dark wood bookcases. It was like working in someone’s apartment or a private library.
And as with most agencies, the internal pecking order is defined by different status markers (income, seniority, notoriety). And “making partner” would most likely be a journey fraught with tensions.
He’d been in and out of my boss’s office more often recently, often shouting. Max was up for for partner, and it seems that there were issues with the negotiations. I wasn’t sure, but I suspected this had something to do with the Agency’s old-fashioned cooperative system, in which agents’ salaries were based on seniority rather than sales. At any other agency, Max — with his vast, fantastic client list and his million–dollar deals — would be among the highest paid agents, but not so at the Agency, where the pot was divided equally. To become a partner, too he would have to pay into the Agency, though I didn’t know how much. Surely more than my entire salary. I wasn’t entirely sure why he stayed.
Throughout the book, there are comments on how the Agency compares with other literary agencies, and how the business compares with other businesses, from the point of view of a young person starting out in life. And it was amazing how this reminded me of my own initial forays into the business world (secretary in the marketing department of a paint manufacturing company, receptionist at a communication and public relations firm, office clerk in the human resources department of a cement company). No matter how large or small the place, branch office, head office, or very small business, the process of figuring out “how things work around here” and “what am I expected to do and how” when one is totally lacking experience, seems to be pretty much the same…
After a year of trials at The Agency, living with Don The Horrible Older Boyfriend, and going to parties where she has nothing to say, Joanna does move on, to try other things, to another life full of other possibilities.
Joanna Rakoff, My Salinger Year. Knopf, New York, 2014.