I think I felt the urge many people my age experience – to set down (as honestly as I knew how) what it was like to live most of my adult life in the last half of the 20th C. in the USA. I meant it to be a kind of witness to my times.
How would you describe your experience at The New Yorker?
I often describe it as the story of the longest lateral career in journalistic history.
And what do you see your book as witness to?
Among other things it is a witness to the typical experience of a young woman in the work force in the pre-feminist era. In those days, young men were routinely offered trainee or apprenticeship positions complete with on the job training to help them move up in whatever field they entered. Young women were – this is an old story I am afraid – expected to type, get coffee, and deliver the mail.
Why do you think you never advanced at The New Yorker when other young women who came there as you did went on to write for the magazine?
The position I held – that of a providing a mothering, nurturing source of loyalty, reliability, and continuity on the writers’ floor – was exactly the one they wanted me in. I like to point out the irony that, if indeed The New Yorker exploited my neurosis to suit their needs, they also paid handsomely to rid me of it. A policy that pays 80% of analytic bills doesn’t come cheap. And mine was only one being submitted from a place that produced more psychiatric outpatients than a war zone.
What were the benefits of working at The New Yorker?
Long summers off was certainly one. Since the writers and editors all tended to go to the beach or the country between the 4th of July and Labor Day, it was easy to train a summer intern to simply forward their mail and messages. So I had the luxury of travelling as much as I could afford. There were screenings and press parties and other cultural events to which I could always get free tickets. Though they were small potatoes by today’s standards, there was usually a surplus of goody bags coming in to the shopping column and I often became a beneficiary of one or two of those. But probably the most important thing I received – remember I was suffering most of my tenure there from low self-esteem- was the ego boost I got whenever I was introduced as the girl who “works at The New Yorker.” Of course the job description “receptionist” never crossed my lips.
JANET GROTH, a former Fulbright lecturer in Norway and Visiting Fellow at Yale, is professor emeritus of English at Plattsburgh State University of New York and teaches at Columbia University School of Continuing Education in the Summer Session. She is the author of Edmund Wilson; A Critic for Our Time, winner of the NEMLA Book Award. With the late David Castronovo as co-author, she has written three other books on Edmund Wilson, most recently, Critic in Love: A Romantic Biography of Edmund Wilson in 2005. She lives in New York City.