“Why didn’t Don consort with writers? Successful writers, published writers, or even simply ambitious, interesting writers, published or no? Why hadn’t he argued and bantered with the New Yorker editors? Why hadn’t he made them his friends? Forged alliances? Told them about his novel? Why hadn’t he talked about Gramsci or Proust with them? The answer sent a shiver through me: Don didn’t want friends who worked at The New Yorker. He didn’t want friends who dressed in creamy Brooks Brothers oxfords and college ties, friends who had health insurance and degrees from Harvard, friends who’d just published their first Talk of the Town pieces. He surrounded himself with fools — the broken, the failed or failing, the sad and confused — so that he might be their king. Which, obviously, made him nothing but the king of fools.”
My Salinger Year, p. 151
By Joanna Rakoff
My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff truly reads like a memoir, most strikingly because the people in her story feel far too real to be of pure fiction. They don’t even seem fictionalized for the purposes of creating a smooth narrative. Even the minor characters – Olivia, Jenny, the college boyfriend – leave an impression, as if you had briefly met them in person.
When Rakoff begins working at the Agency, the real-life Harold Ober Associates, she enters a small world casually populated with massive literary icons. Just like Rakoff, I feel nervous and unabashedly curious in the presence of Judy Blume, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, and of course, Salinger. The peeks into even the most basic interactions between Rakoff and Salinger are somehow revealing. Here, Salinger calls the Agency and references an earlier phone conversation with Rakoff, in which she tells him that she writes poetry: Continue Reading →
I am memoir-bound with three planned stops, beginning with My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff. Rakoff writes of her year working at Harold Ober Associates, New York’s historic literary agency, which she refers to simply as “the Agency.” Rakoff explains, “I had dropped out of graduate school — or finished my master’s, depending on how you looked at it,” a self-depreciating distinction that I love. She is the Assistant to Phyllis Westberg, the President of the Agency and literary agent to the one and only Jerry Salinger.
It is 1996 and the age is pre-digital, at least in the literary world, or at least in the Agency. Rakoff uses a Selectric typewriter and a Dictaphone, the copy machine is the office’s newest technology, and there are no computers. There are whispers of other offices doing away with interoffice memos in favor of e-mail. Rakoff hears from a friend whose own office has decided to go paperless and Rakoff responds, “How is that possible?”
From Rakoff’s intelligent take on life, to the drama and inner workings of a literary agency, to the candid appearances by Salinger himself, I am thoroughly enjoying it all. It is a quick read if you want it to be, though I am taking my time with it. I am at the part where Salinger gives word to Phyllis Westberg that he wants to go forward with the publication of Hapworth 16, 1924. Based on how those events unraveled in real life, I am excited to maybe learn what went on inside Harold Ober Associates during that time, courtesy of Rakoff and her Salinger year.