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.