Working with Jerry: My Salinger Year
Joanna Rakoff’s account of the New York literary agency where she got her first job will enchant anyone interested in publishing, in writing, in JD Salinger and in the extraordinary connection a reader can form with a writer he or she has never met and never will
Private: JD Salinger in 1952. Photograph: Antony Di Gesu/San Diego Historical Society/Hulton/Getty
My Salinger Year
In 1996, on Joanna Rakoff’s first day at her first job at a prestigious New York literary agency, her intimidating new boss told the bemused new employee that “we need to talk about Jerry”. People, Rakoff’s boss said, would try any trick to get in touch with Jerry, but Rakoff was never, ever to give out his phone number or address. Rakoff was utterly confused until, leaving her boss’s office, she noticed a shelf full of editions of books by JD Salinger. Oh, she thought. That Jerry.
My Salinger Year is Rakoff’s account of what happened next, and it will enchant anyone interested in publishing, in writing, in Salinger and in the extraordinary connection a reader can form with a writer he or she has never met and never will. It’s a book about a very specific industry in a very specific time and place, but it’s also a universal story about growing up. It’s tender and sad and a joy to read.
When Rakoff took the job at what she calls the Agency – its name is never mentioned in the book, but it’s not hard to discover that it was Harold Ober Associates – she had no idea where her life was going. She had just abandoned her PhD in London and returned to the US with the intention of joining her college boyfriend in California.
Instead she found herself staying in New York with a new boyfriend, a self-proclaimed socialist and writer called Don. A would-be writer herself, she vaguely liked the idea of working in publishing, and the wilfully old-fashioned agency – where everyone used typewriters and “computer” was a dirty word – seemed pleasingly bookish.
But her job wasn’t particularly stimulating. She spent most of her time typing up her boss’s correspondence from a pedal-powered dictaphone.
But then she was asked to type out the standard letters the agency sent to Salinger fans who wrote to the reclusive author. As she read the correspondence that poured in every day – from teenagers writing in a faux-Holden Caulfield style to second World War veterans who felt that only Salinger understood what they’d gone through – she found herself unable to ignore all this raw emotion. And so she began personalising the standard replies, with some surprising results.
Rakoff was, as she wrote in a 2010 Slate piece, “the only bookish, angry, misfit American teenager to have graduated from high school without reading The Catcher in the Rye”. In fact she’d never read anything by Salinger. But 1996 was the year when Salinger agreed to let a tiny publisher issue his novella Hapworth 16, 1929, which hadn’t appeared in print since its original 1965 publication, in the New Yorker magazine.
Suddenly Salinger was calling the office regularly, and Rakoff’s lack of fannish devotion meant that she wasn’t too starstruck to talk to the friendly, thoughtful and rather deaf literary legend at the other end of the phone.
Eventually, of course, Rakoff read his books – all of them, in a single weekend – and discovered that they were bolder and stranger and sadder than she’d imagined. It’s like a firework going off, and My Salinger Year will strike a lingering chord in the heart of any reader who has ever read a book and felt somehow understood by the person who wrote it. The effect that Salinger’s books, and by extension all books, can have on readers, from the fans who wrote all those letters to Rakoff herself, is real and important.
Rakoff also brilliantly captures what it’s like to be young and working in a media world that was rapidly changing in some places but not in others. (Two years after Rakoff’s Salinger year I began my own first job at a national broadsheet, where all the journalists had access to a single computer with an internet connection.)
But, more crucially, she captures what it’s like to have any sort of first real job, to take the first steps towards financial independence and, with luck, a rewarding career, to find out what you really want to do and who you want to be with. This is a book about loving books, but it’s also a book about growing up, about trying to figure out where you fit in the world. I’d like to think Salinger would approve.