The Power of Literature
Back in 1996, Joanna Rakoff, a literature grad and unpublished poet started a job as an agent’s assistant at a prestigious, old fashioned, literary agent, styled in this book as simply `The Agency’ At the time she started, the internet was a wee infant, but computers were common, and the tyranny of peremptory, unnecessary emails were already a problem. As a friend already within the publishing world said to her:
“Well, we’re going to do everything by email. No more interoffice memos” She pointed to her desk. “It’s driving me insane. Every two seconds I get ten new emails about NOTHING……But what’s really driving me crazy is that no one talks to each other anymore. At All………..my boss is just right there” – she pointed across the room – “but instead of getting up, walking the fifteen feet over to my desk…..she emails me, from across the room!”
But Rakoff’s office was barely into the latter half of the twentieth century. Typing was carried out on manual typewriters, using carbons, though a recent entrant to modern technology was a copier, and in revolutionary fashion they had even moved from telex machines to faxes.
This was no ordinary literary agency though. They represented the famously reclusive J.D.Salinger. And Salinger did not engage with technology.
Rakoff’s instructions were also that she must never never engage with, and certainly never instigate engagement with Salinger; the handle-with-kid-gloves author, hugely admired, hugely instrumental, hugely pursued by a fan base for over 30 years, was the property of her never named boss. Rakoff’s task was initially that of filing clark, secretary – and sending out of form letters to the hundreds of fans writing to Salinger, care of his publishers, who forwarded all such mail directly to The Agency. The form letters basically said, thanks, but Mr Salinger has requested that mail should not be forwarded to him, so we are unable to forward your letter.
Except that Rakoff, living in an unheated tenement building without a kitchen sink with her distinctly self-obsessed, chip-on-the-shoulder, wannabe writer boyfriend, began to get drawn in to many of the fan letters, which came from elderly Second World War veterans as well as darkly troubled adolescents, for whom Holden Caulfield, Catcher In The Rye’s iconic tortured adolescent, touched, or continued to touch, their souls. Women also wrote confessional letters to Salinger, not just about Caulfield, but about Frannie (Frannie and Zooey) and other members of the Glass family. Salinger’s writing seemed to mainline into the psyche.
This account of her year in `The Agency’ is about writing, the power of literature, the changing nature of publishing – the nurturing of an author, the careful placing of an author with a publisher through a one-by-one submission to a targeted publisher, only sending on to the next when the first rejected it – was already changing to the hyped `bidding war’ which is the way things now work. Books as commodities. It is also of course about Salinger, and eventually about Rakoff’s own relationship to his writing, as it is not until nearly the end of her time in `The Agency’ that she subsumes herself into his writing. And this changes much in her own attitude to herself, her life, her ambitions, her relationships with friends and lovers, past and present.
So this is also, very much a book about the power of literature to transform, shake, insinuate and alchemically start chain reactions in lives:
…great .writers and editors who cared deeply about words, language, story, which was another way of simply being engaged with the world, of trying to make sense of the world, rather than retreating from it, trying to place an artificial order on the messy stuff of life
The strange wonder of powerful writing, engaged in like some act of reflective devotion, and then, sent out, as on the wind, to find some home with unknown readers who in turn receive this revelation and transformation. Literature not as `escape’, literature as engagement.
And Rakoff herself, by turns confused, distraught, impassioned, intrigued, wryly self-observant, writes her Salinger Year most beautifully and entrancingly.
I received it as a review copy from the publishers. Once I started reading, I resented interruption, and will now source more of Rakoff’s writing. And, yes, absolutely of course, a Salinger re-read is absolutely on the cards.
Writers on writing who send you with renewed energy back to immersive reading are writers who fan the flame of literature into a blaze.