Certain industries – mostly creative ones – have managed to achieve a kind of mythic status in our collective cultural imaginations, and publishing (despite its notoriously dismal pay and scarcity of jobs) is one of them. It’s also an industry that’s been subject to significant change over the past couple of decades, thanks in part to a technological express train that shows no signs of slowing. From replacing clackety typewriters with shiny Macs to negotiating the new territory of ebooks and digital publishing, the book industry has been forced to roll with some pretty knuckle-crunching punches.
For that reason, the irretrievable ways of the not-so-distant past – Martini-soaked lunches, dusty book-lined offices and teetering piles of photocopied manuscripts – have become weighted with an additional layer of romantic nostalgia. And while US author Joanna Rakoff’s charming second book, My Salinger Year, takes absolute advantage of this, from obnoxiously loud Selectric typewriters to literary agents sipping spirits and smoking at their desks, it’s no work of wistful imagination. Rakoff’s book is ‘the truth, told as best [she] could’, of her year as an assistant at one of New York’s oldest literary agencies in 1996, a job for which many an Arts graduate would sell a kidney.
But Rakoff, who quit her PhD at 23 and moved to the city without any real plan for the direction she wanted her life to take, had ‘no idea what a literary agency was’, least of all a burning desire to become one of the lucky ones who goes from ‘years of low pay’ and ‘answering a boss’ beck and call’ to being ‘on the other side of it all, to be the writer knocking confidently on [the] boss’s door’. On Rakoff’s first day, her boss, a woman who has worked at the agency for over 30 years and who lights cigarettes in a way that’s simultaneously reminiscent of Don Corleone and Lauren Bacall, tells Rakoff that she is not, under any circumstances, to give out ‘Jerry’s’ contact details to anyone. Rakoff is confused until she spots the office bookshelf that’s crammed with copies of JD Salinger’s small but revered body of work: Oh, she thinks. That Jerry.
It turns out that Jerry, for all his refusal to engage in any sort of public life, takes up a lot of office time: Rakoff spends much of her year typing endless form letters in response to fan letters (many replete with ‘goddamn’, ‘crumby’ and ‘phony’, in the inimitable style of The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield) from adoring Salinger fans.
My Salinger Year is more than a memoir about an iconic profession; it’s also an astute and entertaining coming-of-age tale that reads just like a novel (apt, considering the famous Bildungsroman that Salinger is best known for). But while Catcher tackles the time of life most frequently associated with awkwardness and inner turmoil – the late teens – My Salinger Year explores what is, for many, an equally confusing period: the early 20s.
In between fielding Salinger fan mail and being quietly star-struck when Judy Blume visits the agency to meet with her boss, Rakoff deals with the familiar yet agonising travails of young adulthood. She feels herself slowly growing apart from her best friend, Jenny; she knows that she’s in a doomed relationship with her unreliable lover, Don, but seems unable to patch things up with her well-intentioned college boyfriend, whose softly pleading phone calls only leave Rakoff more uncertain about what she’s doing with her life.
This human drama unfurls against the backdrop of an industry on the cusp of huge change; while Jenny complains about her boss’ intention to have a paperless office, Rakoff’s boss bridles at the idea of having even one computer at the agency. Rakoff’s life is changing, too: as she spends her days endlessly typing the same form letter into her Selectric, wondering if she could ever toss away the template and write back to Salinger’s fans properly, she finally discovers the author’s work for herself. It’s a shame that Rakoff’s discussion of Salinger’s stories reveals a couple of major plot points; she could have articulated her appreciation for his characters and style just as eloquently without dropping any spoilers.
My Salinger Year is a book for book lovers – for anyone who’s ever longed to join a profession that’s as steeped in its own rose-tinted mythology as it is in the history of letters. It’s also a poignant and honest coming-of-age tale that’s sure to resonate with anyone who’s ever turned towards their bookshelf seeking answers as well as enjoyment.
Carody Culver is a Brisbane-based freelance writer, editor and part-time bookseller.