Joanna Rakoff,
My Salinger Year
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2014)

Here's a funny and compelling coming-of-age memoir, with a literary twist.

It was the mid-1990s. Joanna Rakoff was 23 years old when she left graduate school in London and returned to the United States. She arrived in New York and tried to find both a place to live and a job. Eventually this meant huddling by night in a tiny, heatless apartment with her socialist boyfriend Don, and working by day as an office assistant at a prestigious literary agency. This seesaw world was probably something only a young, vibrant woman and would-be writer would tolerate. Joanna managed it only for a year. But what an interesting experience she had!

As for her relationship with Don -- well, we can only hope from the start that she comes to her senses about him. From this distance, we can see there's not much of a future for them as a couple.

As for her work at the agency: Joanna landed an entry-level position. This meant that she had to type correspondence and read manuscripts written by hopeful writers. This was the slush pile, the "over the transom" stuff that people sent in the hopes of snagging agency representation and eventual publication. And since this office was reluctant to enter the electronic age -- eventually it got one central computer for everyone to access, but using it for email or word processing was off limits -- Joanna soon found herself typing away on a real typewriter, all day long. If she had a question about procedure, she either had to puzzle it out herself or ask a colleague. No one took much time to explain anything. And the agent she worked for was often away from her desk, for personal reasons.

The biggest task of the job was how to deal with the continual fan letters for "Jerry." It took a while for Joanna to realize that this "Jerry" that everyone talked about was J.D. Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye, long known as a literary recluse. Her boss was Salinger's agent. Joanna had been instructed to throw away the letters they had sent, after sending form letters to the fans, since "Jerry" refused to answer or even acknowledge them. Joanna had never read Catcher, or any of Salinger's other books or short stories. So at first she went along with the plan. But after she spent one whole weekend reading everything that Salinger ever published, she understood why the fans kept writing. She started personalizing her answers to them.

Then a "new" Salinger book appeared to be in the works. The agent, the agency and Joanna got caught up in the frenzied details that volleyed between the elusive author and the small-time publisher who had taken on the job. Would this development be the very project that would bring "Jerry" out of his New Hampshire hideaway?

To her credit, Joanna never mentions the name of the literary agency or her boss, who was Salinger's agent. (These details can both be found through quick online searching, however.) She also waited until after Salinger's 2010 death to tell this story. I give her two thumbs up on both of these counts.

I loved reading this book. Yes, it is a memoir of a little-known woman beginning her adult life in the Big City. There could be a million or more such stories. But the real juice of the book comes when Joanna pulls back the curtains on an industry that once had a reputation of being all-too closed off to the outside world. As a writer, I was captivated by her recounting of the agency's odd operations and its promotion of the Salinger mystique. I could also relate to her frustrations at the office's reluctance to enter the electronic age. In 2005-07, I had a contract with a New York City literary agent who didn't have email and who hand-typed and mailed all of her responses to me. I couldn't believe such a person could exist at the time. Now, thanks to Joanna's story, I can.

My Salinger Year offers a terrific glimpse of the traditional publishing industry. This environment has changed radically in the last two decades. And yet, you just know that there must be some agencies out there that still operate like this. Any writer who wants to get published should read this book. Salinger fans should enjoy it as well, although they may complain that no remarkable revelations come to light here. And kudos to Joanna Rakoff, all around! She went on to publish this book, a novel and a number of articles for major magazines. She now truly lives a writer's life. And it all began with one Salinger year.

[ visit the author's website ]

book review by
Corinne H. Smith

5 September 2015

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