Category: Reviews

My Salinger Year, By Joanna Rakoff


I have to admit I was originally a little put off reading My Salinger Year for thinking it might be a literary exposé hanging on someone else’s coat-tails, but a couple of publishing friends insisted on how good it is, and I am really glad they did. My Salinger Year is a well-written and heartfelt memoir, subtly crafted – well characterised, with deft transitions you don’t notice in your reading, and insights into the worlds you enter when you set out on adult life.

The publisher’s bound proof uses one of those Hollywood hybrids (yes, one of those very pitches that writers are often told to avoid in their own submissions! but publishers can get away with shorthand): ‘The Devil Wears Prada with a whiff of Mad Men and Girls’. It has a simple premise: a (now) successful novelist looks back on the year in the 1990s when she moved to New York and worked as an assistant at a prominent literary agency whose star client was the reclusive and hugely popular novelist J.D. Salinger.

I worked in house for a publisher at this time too, and I relate to much that is described. Our filing systems were not quite so arcane, but I had a colleague who printed out a copy of every email she received, and then filed it away in one of the hefty cabinets that lined one end of her office. She then deleted the email.

But at least we had computers. This agency did not; the cutting edges of technology were a Selectric typewriter and a Dictaphone operated by foot pedals, and they’d only recently acquired a photocopier.

(God, this makes me feel old. The very first publisher I worked for did not even have a fax machine. We had to walk ten minutes round the corner to another office to send or collect faxes. We had a telex machine on the ground floor, though.)

The agency in My Salinger Year belonged to another era in other ways: colleagues smoked, and heavily. I certainly related to that too. Our editorial meetings used to take place on Wednesday mornings, and every Wednesday evening I’d return home stinking of smoke. I took to removing my sweater before I entered the meeting room, to stop smelly wool from polluting our airwaves at home, as I’d been told. My smoking colleagues were, however, thoughtful enough to ventilate the room for the non-smokers. Wide-open windows in February in an office overlooking the Thames: imagine the cold, and double it, and sitting there freezing your tits off for up to four hours at a time. And I still went home stinking of smoke! (This was back in the days when I had more hair on my head.) At least the books were interesting.

Rakoff’s boss is always ‘my boss’ or ‘your boss’ (a device that works with ease), and another big-name author is the Other Client. Various names are changed, but I don’t think it’s hard to identify people, and in fact colleagues are sympathetically drawn, whether hotshots selling books for millions of dollars, or New Yorker editors, or dusty souls at desks stacked high with paper. You do meet egos in publishing, but underlying histories soon surface, or are guessed at, and some sad ones appear in this book. The reason people go into such a low-paying long-hours industry is that they love books, and book people usually have easy access to the world of the imagination. You meet genuine kindness and real characters.

This all helps to bring publishing to life. It might be eccentric, even unprofessional to some outsiders, but the workplace drawn in this book is one that most of us can relate to in some way, with egos and decisions about which sandwich to choose for lunch, and thus Rakoff helps to demystify the business. She also provides practical insights for writers. For example, at one point an agent discusses a manuscript he’s thinking of representing:

‘I think this is the kind of novel where an editor is either going to love his style or’ – he grimaced – ‘not love it. There are changes he could make, but I think I may as well just get it out there, find an editor who loves it, and let him direct [the writer] in a rewrite. There are a lot of directions you could go with an edit. I don’t want to send him in the wrong direction. I want someone to fall in love with his writing.’

This raises something I often stress with writers during later stages of revising: though we do, of course, want to submit to agents or editors the absolute best draft we can imagine, and the one that is closest to the version that lurks in our dream of dreams, we can also allow for a little give and take in the process. With some manuscripts, you can aim to get maybe 90% or 95% or 99% of the way there (the place where it might eventually be published), but it’s healthy to leave the work open to further input down the line. This could involve anything from revisiting the genre or category in which a book is sold, to gaining a fresh viewpoint on matters of craft, such as whether it really works in the present tense, or whether a particular scene adds or detracts, or whether a final sentence is really necessary. Such editorial conversations with your professional collaborators could lead to further tweaks or subtle shifts in emphasis in the manuscript. These changes are, of course, ideally ones that the writer is happy with. It’s useful to think about this idea of the direction a draft could take. Little needs to be immutable in writing and publishing.

Back to this book. Rakoff sells stories, and takes on a new writer. She also tussles in contract negotiations over these newfangled things called ‘electronic rights’; back then, we had little idea of what they were, either – something to go on a CD-ROM, probably – but the rights director told us editors to grab them just in case. In most cases they’d languish unused for a long time until someone woke up to their possibility. (And that possibility, when it came, probably came from Amazon, it should be noted. Publishers were hardly bursting with inspiration and application when it came to digital formats that were about to show themselves over the horizon.)

Another strand of the book involves Rakoff’s home life in Brooklyn on the cusp of it becoming pricey and hipster. She seems to financially support a boyfriend who is both a writer and a sponger, which shows something of the hardship and agonies that writers can put themselves (and others) through in the name of Art. There are stories about the changing landscapes of friendship and the need for decent heating: everyday matters, but the things that our lives are carved of, and sincerely captured.

My Salinger Year is most of all a great read for anyone who loves reading and its immersive pleasures. Its depiction of the reclusive author and his devoted fans will stand on its own terms even for the uninitiated, but it will be of special interest to Salinger fans, who must be counted in their millions – hardly a narrow interest group. Sacks of fanmail arrived at Rakoff’s agency every week, from war veterans, grieving parents, schoolgirls professing love for Holden Caulfield. The high school student who wants an A, the teenager who writes of The Catcher in the Rye: ‘It’s a masterpiece, and I hope that you’re proud of it.’ Decades after it was written, it still strikes a chord. So many readers have staked a claim on this novel.

Rakoff’s duties included sending a standard reply, based on a carbon copy from 1963, explaining the author’s preference not to have any contact, though as time goes on she takes it upon herself to write personal replies. We also see some of the negotiations for the publication of a small-press edition of a Salinger novella called Hapworth that had been published in the New Yorker in 1965, but had never made it into a book. (Another account of that can be read here.)

Ironically, Rakoff seems to have been one of those few serious readers in the English-speaking world who’d never read Salinger, and we share her joy when she finally succumbs to the fragile magic of Holden and the Glass family. I was reminded of reading (and rereading) ‘Salinger’s fairy tales of New York’ in my own twenties, lying on my single bed in a tiny room on the top floor of a shared flat in London.

We do, perhaps, outgrow writers such as Salinger – but only for a while. Sometimes we have to let that tenderness and sentiment back in. And writers perhaps can take another look at the craft an author uses to weave such wonders in prose.

My Salinger Year is a really charming book that goes to the heart of the relationships between books and writers and readers. Read and enjoy. And maybe you too will dig out your old paperback editions of Salinger for a reread.

* Do a writing experiment based on this book and review.

Sin And Syntax, By Constance Hale


Many manuscripts read by editors and agents contain good content: story concepts, characters, settings. But they might not deliver in other ways. I think back to editorial meetings where we’d discuss books with ideas that at first seemed strong, but where ‘the writing’ didn’t quite succeed in the same way. He or she ‘can’t write’, one of my colleagues would say.

It’s hard to define that inability to write. Most people who take on board the task of writing a book can, of course, write. And I strongly believe that most/many/all people have a book in them, or at least stories to tell.

But sometimes we need to adapt our voices or shift our registers, and that’s where the writing falls short. Many of us have spent time in other trenches of writing – marketing or academia or journalism, maybe – and as a result we have come to crowd our writing with qualifiers and modifiers and clarifiers; such features of writing help us sell or argue or report with precision, but in the process they force us to sacrifice something else: mood, feeling, a sense of connection. Writing ends up thin or dreary or cluttered.

Also, there are sometimes gaps in our understanding, and however creative and free-spirited we want to be in our new projects, it can’t hurt to know how to use tools of the trade as fully and as brightly and as instinctively as we can.

Sometimes we need to learn how to write all over again.

To help in this task, we can read good guides to grammar and usage that refresh what we already know, and help with what we don’t know, as well as what we don’t yet know we don’t know. Sin and Syntax is the book I usually turn to, and the work I recommend most to writers who need to perk up their prose. Constance Hale, its author, is a journalist, editor and teacher who has written and edited for a range of publications, including Wired and the New York TimesHer website features tons of resources, including lesson plans for teachers and online writing classes for the keen.

Sin and Syntax has a simple structure. Part 1: Words brings to life the different parts of speech, with eight chapters on:


Among many places in this book that gave me pause, Constance Hale’s thoughtful brilliance is revealed in the chapter on conjunctions, which, ‘though seemingly inconspicuous, can alter the tone and voice of a paragraph’. Knowing use of the word ‘and’ brings cadence to the fiction of Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy.

Part 2: Sentences addresses the ways in which these building blocks are brought together, with four chapters on:

The Subject, the Predicate
Simple Sentences
Phrases and Clauses
Length and Tone

Part 3: Music has four chapters that explore some of the less tangible ways in which prose achieves its ‘mystery’ and writers grow their own style:


Each chapter throughout the book includes five sections. Those called Bones amount to simple grammatical ‘sermonettes’ that, for example, spell out in clear terms the distinctions between different types of verbs (e.g., static, dynamic, sensing, auxiliary), in this case using a brief analysis of Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ monologue.

The Flesh sections bring grammar to life with real-life examples, such as the suspenseful effects created by Dr Martin Luther King’s use of subordinate clauses, or the rich setting evoked by the specific and concrete nouns of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.

Cardinal Sins debunks myths (we can end sentences with prepositions) and looks at errors and usages best avoided, such as run-on sentences (see: Sarah Palin), or the transparent and stylistically awful sentences we sometimes encounter in academia. One example comes from a programme description in the social sciences at the University of East London, whose dependence on the verb ‘to be’ ‘takes the life out of studying human life’:

The programme will be of interest to graduates as well as professionals working in these areas … It will be of relevance to those desirous of adding legal understandings to these perspectives. It will also be of interest to students wishing to proceed to a doctorate in the anthropology of human rights and related areas.


Carnal Pleasures shows how breaking the rules can inject great energy into the writing: sentence fragments from David Foster Wallace, the wordplay of international Englishes, the voice and personality established in the haiku-like tweets of novelist and food writer Ruth Reichl.

Catechism sections added to the 2013 edition conclude each chapter with exercises that bring a practical energy to what we’ve been reading: parsing your own sentences; modelling writing on selections from Ernest Hemingway, Dave Eggers, or the New Yorker; exploring metaphors in your own freewriting; describing the sound of the rain.

There are a few other changes between the first (1999) and the second (2013) editions: the chapter entitled ‘Sentence Variety’ is replaced with ‘Length and Tone’, covering much of the same ground (compound and complex sentences, and the value of variety), and the chapter on voice now concludes the book, which seems fitting: all these other constituent parts come together to make your voice. And voice is, perhaps, more than anything what defines that elusive ability to write.

I’ve used Sin and Syntax as a course text in many writing classes. You can consult individual sections, but Constance Hale’s witty and conversational tone also makes this a brisk and accessible book that can be read from cover to cover. She also draws on a wide and wild variety of examples: Nabokov, Muhammad Ali, Apple ads, political speeches, confusing newspaper headlines, Catherine Tate, Junot Díaz, Joan Didion, Downton Abbey

Throughout, St Constance revisits ‘five new principles of prose’, which are mantras that could be pinned above every writer’s desk:

Relish every word.
Aim deep, but be simple.
Take risks.
Seek beauty.
Find the right pitch.

Concepts such depth, risk, and beauty involve some degree of subjectivity, of course. These are things to find for ourselves, and things that will forge voice and personality in our writing.

Many books on usage are varying degrees of bossy, reactionary, jargon-laden, righteous, or dry. They also have to negotiate the resistance that the subject of grammar can invite: it’s boring, it’s difficult, it’s uncreative, it’s frightening or intimidating.

Sin and Syntax is the book that belongs on every writer’s shelf. It shows us how to use English mindfully, and it makes grammar exciting, insisting upon an active and engaged command of language that gives voice to our writing and makes it ‘pulse with life’. It will help creative writers, and it’ll help marketers and academics and journalists and writers in every other field too.

Thank you, Constance Hale.

* Constance Hale, Sin And Syntax: How To Craft Wickedly Good Prose (Three Rivers Press/Random House, 2013)

Steering The Craft, By Ursula Le Guin


There are many books with elaborate theories of narrative structure, or top ten ways to create memorable settings/living characters/powerful dialogue. But many easily overegg, or go off at tangents, or create second-order systems that take over and stop the real writing coming through. At the root of all writing is, um, writing, and the basics of writing lie at the core of Steering the Craft.

Ursula Le Guin is of course the author of dearly beloved and ground-breaking novels such as The Left Hand Of Darkness and The Wizard Of Earthsea. She’s also a very generous critic, who reviews for the Guardian, among other publications. Look at her recent review of The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, for example. Read any of her reviews, in fact: warm, joyful, encouraging of both readers and writers. No snark. This is what reviewing should be. What a dream. Also take a look at this Paris Review interview.

No wonder Ursula Le Guin just received a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation. (Note that fellow recipients include those two other writers in the trenches of genre who’re also the writers of what I consider two of the most useful other works on writing: Ray Bradbury, author of Zen In The Art Of Writing, and Stephen King, author of On Writing. When it comes to writing on writing, genre writers rock.)

Back to St Ursula. All of her creative and storytelling brilliance aside, Steering The Craft is her most useful work for writers of fiction (and nonfiction) looking for practical advice as well as inspiration. It’s a short book, and deceptively simple in what it has to say. Everything it contains is pure gold.

Perhaps it’s easiest simply to give the self-explanatory titles of the ten chapters:

* The Sound of Your Writing
* Punctuation
* Sentence Length and Complex Syntax
* Repetition
* Adjective and adverb
* Subject Pronoun and Verb
* Point of View and Voice
* Changing Point of View
* Indirect Narration, or What Tells
* Crowding and Leaping

Additional sections cover verb forms (in case we need to brush up), provide a glossary of working literary terms, and offer tips on running a writing group (very handy). And its subtitle is Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew.

Such delights! It’s full of many bon mots. Here are just a few choice points.

* Unlike many other guides for writing fiction, St Ursula devotes space to grammar and usage, as you might gather from the list above. But rather than dwelling on technicalities, she gives commonsense principles to work by, interrogating the idea of ‘correctness’, yet still caring about commas – but in the most enabling and graceful of ways:

If you aren’t interested in punctuation, or are afraid of it, you’re missing out on a whole kit of the most essential, beautiful, elegant tools a writer has to work with.

Who could resist that?!

* Writers get bored of apparent experts telling us to ditch the adverbs and adjectives, but at the start of the chapter devoted to them St Ursula gets the point across directly and easily (see, I use them too!):

Adjectives and adverbs are rich and good and fattening. The main thing is not to overindulge.

She continues:

The bakery shop of English is rich beyond belief, and narrative prose, particularly if it’s going a long distance, needs more muscle than fat.

Point made?

* Her chapters on point of view include incredibly practical working definitions, e.g.: observer-narrator in first person; observer-narrator in third person; the detached author; and a term she prefers to omniscient narrator – the involved author:

This is the voice of the storyteller, who knows what’s going on in all the different places the characters are at the same time, and what’s going on inside the characters, and what has happened, and what has to happen … It’s not only the oldest and the most widely used storytelling voice, it’s the most versatile, flexible, and complex of the points of view – and probably, at this point, the most difficult for the writer.

Once upon a time …

* Her thoughts on the idea that stories are driven by conflict are extremely important for all writers to think about:

Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing. Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.

So: how are your characters relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing?

You can sample more of her discussion of story on her own site. Pure gold.

In practice, in much of the work I do as a book doctor or an editor I find that I can make a very quick judgement about the writing on the basis of sampling the voice in a page or two, and I probably have more time or inclination (and patience) than busy agents or editors. Writers who want to be published: you need to get this stuff right. Some of this is about right or wrong, but some of it is about more subtle stuff that has no easy solution. The counsel of St Ursula might just help you get there, though. This is not only a fantastic book for apprentice writers looking for resources as they are getting started, but also an excellent guide for more experienced writers; its clarity cuts through some of the clutter and contradictions in a very level manner, and it will also provide an epiphany or two along the way. It’s a book to read and reread whenever you need clarification and affirmations.

Okay, so book reviews should be useful, but this one isn’t in one very important way. This book was first published at the end of the last century by a small press in the US, and it does not have a UK publisher. I think I picked it up in the Boulder Book Store’s excellent writing section some ten years ago (because I love St Ursula, nay I worship St Ursula – I holiday in Ursuline convents, in fact). I’ve been recommending it for years, and British writers could order it online. But now I see that it’s trading for, like, £33.18 used and £72.33 new! And I can’t see an ebook. Perhaps readers overseas could order a print copy direct from the US? Though I see it’s hardly cheap there … (Update, March 2015: I since discovered a new edition is coming later this. Very exciting – maybe even more exciting than the new Harper Lee?!)

I think we need to ensure this book is brought into print in an edition that is available internationally. I shall badger publisher friends working at suitable imprints, and I shall ask friends in Portland if they ever run into her in the legendary Powell’s. And maybe I shall email St Ursula and her representatives with a copy of this post, and ask what can be done?

Really, this is one of the best of books on writing, and probably my favourite. It tops my list because of its writer’s voice: reassuring, wise, good-humoured. It makes you want to be in this writer’s presence, but on reflection, in fact, it succeeds in bringing you into her presence. That is something any writer or reader wants to achieve.

Thank you, Ursula Le Guin.

* Ursula Le Guin, Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew (Eighth Mountain Press, 1998)

Update: This edition seems to be out of print, but a new edition with a new subtitle appears to be coming from Mariner Books on 1 September 2015: Steering the Craft : A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story.