A must-read memoir for those who make a living by reading, publishing, or selling books
Poet and novelist Joanna Rakoff was in her early 20s when she joined the literary agency in New York, US, that represented J.D. Salinger. Although she politely refrains from giving out the name of the firm in her memoir My Salinger Year, a search on Google will easily reveal it to be Harold Ober Associates. Her unnamed boss, who represented Salinger after his former agent Dorothy Olding retired, was Phyllis Westberg.
This information may be sufficient to trigger the interest of generations of readers who have been charmed by Salinger’s characters—Franny, Zooey, and of course Holden Caulfied in The Catcher In the Rye, a novel that belongs with classics such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Norman Mailer’s The American Dream. One of the first instructions Rakoff was given on joining the agency was to “never—never, never, never—give out (Salinger’s) address or phone number". Writing almost 20 years after she left that job, Rakoff respects the reclusive writer’s obsessive need to protect his privacy. Salinger haunts the pages of her memoir without becoming the overwhelming focus of it.
Instead, Rakoff’s own life of relative poverty, her oafish, Marxist boyfriend working on a “dense" novel (a character Caulfield would have despised for being a “phony"), her gradual alienation from school and college friends, and fascination with the snobbery and glamour of New York’s literary scene are the themes that the narrative keeps going back to.
For much of the time Rakoff worked with the agency, she did not get a chance to read many submissions, though she did impress her boss with her ability to forage the slush pile. Her duties involved composing letters on a Selectric typewriter from memos left on a dictaphone by her boss, and typing out a set response to Salinger’s voluminous fanmail. The most moving passages in the book deal with her failure to stick to the script, as she starts becoming invested in the lives of some of these letter-writers.
Compared to the shark-like appetite of super agents like Andrew Wylie, Westberg put quality over monetary gain, operating on principles that might now seem fusty. Her ideal was to match writers with the right editors, so multiple submissions were not kosher. Like the adherence to typewriters and pink index cards for filing, such a quirk seems risible in light of the onward march of modern publishing. The agency inevitably, but unhappily, had to relinquish these cherished values.
In a parallel narrative, Rakoff recounts her own metamorphosis—from being a greenhorn in publishing to being able to sell a story to a magazine (albeit to an obscure one) to finally meeting, and reading, Jerry—Salinger’s nickname. One of the saving graces of the book, in spite of its title, is Rakoff’s delayed acquaintance with the works of Salinger. This is not a gushing tribute by one who grew up with moony eyed admiration for Caulfield, or by imitating Franny’s eccentricities, or is a war veteran haunted by Salinger’s subtle revisiting of the scars of the Great War. It isn’t until three-quarters in, Rakoff picks up her first Salinger—but when she does, she is, like most readers, left changed.
For this reason perhaps, she can bring Salinger closer to the reader without being blinded by a film of fandom over her eyes. We learn of his deafness, his habit of screaming into the phone, and getting her name wrong. When she eventually gets to meet him, the effect is surprisingly muted, but again, intensely human—Rakoff notes his unusually large, dry hands.
In spite of the gentle voice, quietly in control, the narrative tends to suffer mildly in two instances: when Rakoff’s father foists her education and credit-card loans on her without warning, a horror whose aftermath she never quite explores; and her relationship with her boyfriend, whose attitude and infidelities shake her up every second page, but clearly not enough to make her leave him.