“There are things that if I don’t do now, I never will.”
These words, written by Joanna Rakoff in her memoir My Salinger Year, are eerily reminiscent of those I uttered around five months ago, when I resigned from my job in New York. Her whole story, in fact – or at least this portion of it, her year with “The Agency” aka Harold Ober Associates (thank you, Google!) – rings achingly true. “We wanted to be writers ourselves,” Rakoff writes, of herself and her cohorts; the underpaid assistants to literary agents and editors worldwide, who make the publishing world tick, the essential cogs in the machines. “This seemed the most socially acceptable way to go about doing so, though it was already becoming clear that this was not at all the way to go about doing so.”
When My Salinger Year begins, Rakoff is a naïve graduate school drop-out. She’s a poet, too – or wants to be, at least. That creative spark is veiled entirely by external factors, namely the men in her life (her father, her boyfriend, and soon, her boss) who have, unconsciously (I think) taken it upon themselves to dictate the course of her life. Joanna’s role at The Agency is assistant to the president, Phyllis Westberg (unnamed in the memoir, but again, Google is out friend); brusque, uncommunicative and extravagantly archaic in her ways. The Agency doesn’t use computers; typewriters and Dictaphones remain the tools of its trade. Heck, when Joanna arrives, they’ve only recently transitioned to photocopiers, and still refer to them as carbons. So, seriously old-school.
Joanna’s vital role at The Agency was the ‘protection’ of J.D. Salinger. “We need to talk about Jerry,” Westberg announced on her first day, and so began an elongated explanation of Joanna’s duties: she was not to share Salinger’s contact information, forward any mail, or engage him in conversation. She would respond to all fan correspondence with a form letter, and immediately patch him through to Westberg should he call. Interestingly, Rakoff didn’t quite understand the fuss when she first arrived: at that time, she wasn’t versed on the influence of Salinger on such a diverse range of readers. She simply hadn’t read any of this work – which comforted me as I turned the pages of her memoir, as the only work of Salinger’s I’m familiar with is The Catcher in the Rye. Of course, now I’m desperate to read more…
My Salinger Year is framed around the intended publication, through a small press, of one of Salinger’s novels. But readers needn’t be ardent Salinger fans to engage with Rakoff’s work: one simply needs to understand the impact established authors can have on aspiring creators. This is vital reading for writers at all junctures of their careers, and for those entrenched in the world of publishing. But there’s plenty to enjoy for readers outside those circles, too. My Salinger Year is about a young woman, a budding writer, who, over the course of a year, developed her sense of self and purpose. That’s something we can all relate to, regardless of our chosen field.