My Salinger Year is Joanna Rakoff’s account of her first job after completing her post-grad studies in London, a year spent working for J. D. Salinger’s literary agent. It’s 1996 and on her first day she wonders where her computer is only to be presented with an electric typewriter then put to work typing up the backlog of contracts and letters all held on a pedal-operated Dictaphone. This is an office where photocopiers are regarded as the coming thing. In her first week she’s called into her boss’s office and given the Jerry rules – never reveal Salinger’s personal details, never pass on any letters – and a pile of unanswered fan letters complete with a form response. The problem is that when she comes to read them she’s unable to harden her heart to the World War Two veterans who identify with Salinger, to the teenagers who identify with Holden Caulfield convinced that Salinger has been channelling them, to the mother who wants to name the library she’s setting up in memory of her daughter after a Salinger short story. She writes her own replies.
Rakoff is an immensely likeable and entertaining guide to the inner workings of the Agency, as it’s referred to throughout, which seems to have not one but both feet firmly planted back in the mid-twentieth century. At one point her boss daringly considers buying a computer but only if they’re available in black. Max and Lucy try their best to breathe fresh air into the Agency, taking on young, edgier clients but Rakoff’s boss reigns supreme, refusing to take part in auctions and removing any reference to ‘electronic books’ from contracts. The Agency is all agog when Salinger himself strikes a deal with a tiny publisher to publish a short story originally run by the New Yorker, in book form. It’s a fraught enterprise and Rakoff finds herself fielding phone calls from the publisher attempting to soothe his shredded nerves. Loud calls with the man himself are conducted behind closed doors in her boss’s office and some times with Rakoff herself. She becomes quite matey with him, confessing her own literary aspirations. Running through her account is Rakoff’s personal life: her college boyfriend in California who she loves but cannot be with; her New York boyfriend, older, self-obsessed and neglectful; her hopes for her own writing career and the horrible realisation that she will somehow have to make ends meet on the Agency’s pittance and pay off the credit card bill that she’d assumed her parents were footing. By the end of it, you can’t help but root for her, desperately hoping that she’ll ditch Don, rescue the close friendship that seems to be drifting away from her, reunite with her college boyfriend and make her own mark on the literary world. In the final section of the book, Rakoff ties up the loose ends of her Salinger year then brings us pleasingly up to date with her life.
I would have been amazed if I hadn’t loved this book entrenched as it is in the book world and I wasn’t disappointed: it’s a delight from start to finish, an endearingly affectionate portrait of a particular corner of the trade being dragged, quietly protesting, towards the twenty-first century. It’s tone reminded me of Julie and Julia – Julie Powell’s account of a year spent learning to cook like Julia Child – and at times it screams ‘film me’. If this has whetted your appetite for another insider’s view and you haven’t come across Diana Athill’s Stet already, you’re in for a treat. Beautifully expressed, it isn’t as exuberant as My Salinger Year but it’s a fascinating insight into life as an editor in a publishing house. I thoroughly enjoyed both.