Books, New York, And The Internet: A Love Story
A tale of life in the city, 14 years in publishing, and embracing technology to save the culture you love.
There was a time in the predigital age, a time before e-readers and tablets and mobile phone apps, when taking an entry-level publishing job was like signing on to fight a war against paper. Back in the days when book publishers killed trees and prospective authors' dreams with equal abandon, there would be territory battles for access to that one Xerox machine on the 11th floor that jammed less frequently than the other ones. There were "It's not you, it's me" letters to be written and mailed back to literary agents along with scads of rejected book proposals. There were faxes to be sent and received, legal-size contracts to be filed, and pink perforated phone messages to be recorded and disbursed. There were copyedits to shepherd, reams of marked-up pages that smelled of coffee or whiskey or baby vomit, depending on the current life stages of both author and editor. There was so much mail. There were piles upon piles of manuscript pages to be collated and read and evaluated beneath unforgiving fluorescent lights, and ensuing headaches caused by eye strain and recycled air and too much Diet Coke.
I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey, the area Springsteen sang so many songs about leaving, but I never felt an urgency to flee my hometown. I certainly never had my heart set on becoming a New Yorker. It was those damn headaches that felt like they were my birthright. Like most New Yorkers I know, I am happiest when things are awful. I find joy in seeking out wonderful ways to be miserable, so it only made sense that I was drawn to the glamorous world of book publishing. Those headaches, and all the crazy hours and adorable little paychecks that accompanied them, made me feel alive. I loved those headaches. I was privileged — literally — to be able to experience those headaches (thanks for the safety net, Mom and Dad!). Those headaches meant that I had found my place in the world, alongside equally masochistic and idealistic people who loved to read as much as I did and who were prepared to sacrifice emotional and financial stability in order to turn their love of reading into a career. In other words, my colleagues were as crazy as I was, in the best possible way.
I blame George Plimpton. I met him at the very first swanky publishing party I ever attended, at a townhouse on the Upper East Side. I was drinking wine that didn't come from a box and was feeling very optimistic about my future prospects. And then there he was, the New York literary legend. I bravely approached Mr. Plimpton to introduce myself, and he said he was delighted to meet me, and perhaps he was more focused on checking out my breasts than on our conversation. Talking to him was so exciting! Degrading too, of course, but also very exciting. Just like the publishing industry!
I blame Chloë Sevigny too. I look back now on The Last Days of Disco and realize that the film finds many uncomfy parallels between an outmoded style of music and nightlife and the book publishing industry. Dinosaurs, both. But gosh, Chloë made it all look so fun and stylish.
I especially blame Margaret Atwood and Lorrie Moore and Susan Sontag and Charles freaking Dickens. I blame Toni Morrison and Roald Dahl and all the uncelebrated ghostwriters known collectively as "Francine Pascal" for the Sweet Valley High series. And yes, I blame Joan Didion. It was the idea of eventually working with writers like those that made me feel OK about the countless hours I spent, in the meantime, editing books that weren't uniformly thrilling. I relished the thankless coordinating I did for ghostwritten celebrity tell-alls, and I didn't mind babysitting a bunch of self-help authors, who were notoriously the least self-actualized nutcases on the planet. Those books were the reality TV shows of the book biz, the ones that would appeal to the masses and thereby finance the riskier, more thought-provoking books that I might one day publish to great acclaim. Because there was always the chance that somewhere buried in the slush pile, I'd find... blah blah blah. You get it, no need for me to fill in the details. Let's just say I had visions of National Book Awards, lifelong friendships with authors I'd edited, and stimulating parties filled with people who'd engage in watercooler talk about a newly published literary novel like it was the latest greatest show on HBO. I remember that when I acquired my first book as an assistant editor — a subversively funny story collection by an up-and-coming superstar — I received a congratulatory email from a senior editor I'd been crushing on. I think I skipped down Sixth Avenue that day.
I chose to make a life for myself in the epicenter of the book publishing world, the one place in the United States where performing menial tasks every day ultimately gave me a great sense of purpose. By choosing publishing, I also chose New York City. I chose to share a railroad-style apartment with three other women, scurrying like a mouse through our connected rooms alongside the actual mice that were scurrying through them. I chose to live in a location where mundane items became unimaginable luxuries: a dishwasher, a porch, a yard, a car, a washer/dryer in one's home. A supermarket. A Target where the women's apparel hasn't been thoroughly picked over. I chose summers that smelled of hot garbage and winters so icy that it was barely possible to slink over to the corner bodega without falling on your ass numerous times.
But New York was like the free bookshelf by the ladies' room at the office: There was a lot of unwanted crap stacked on those shelves, but there was often a gem or two to be found if you were motivated enough to dig around. There were endless possibilities. Dinner might be a rubber-banded container from the deli across the street where the entire salad bar was 50 percent off after 5 p.m., but then dessert could be a glass of champagne at a debut novelist's launch party. An acrid-smelling misogynist could proselytize about the impropriety of your attire on the subway, but the train itself would be speeding toward some moment of transcendent beauty, even if it was just a publishing assistant sing-along at some Koreatown karaoke bar.
The problem with choosing an identity and a lifestyle that's tied to a particular profession is, of course, that you must rely on job security for a sense of self-worth. In 2008 I left the corporation where I'd slowly but surely been making a name for myself for five years in order to take a job at a smaller publisher where ideally I'd have more authority — or at least fewer phones to answer. Four months into the job, my division was sold, and I lost my job. It was the worst breakup I'd ever experienced. I was a spurned lover, frantically trying to figure out what was left of me if my beloved had rejected me. What made me me if I wasn't a book editor? Being unemployed in New York City in the springtime should've been somewhat enjoyable. The city was alive and I had the time to take it all in! I was receiving unemployment checks, after all, and poverty wasn't imminent. But that season felt like one long panic attack, made worse by the fact that I felt overwhelmingly stressed about not being able to just relax and enjoy myself. This, as many neurotic and/or driven people know, is a vicious cycle.
After a string of desperate dates (informational interviews, really — it turned out my layoff coincided with an economic crisis that led to mass consolidation in the publishing world), I found a vaguely book-related position at a startup and I snapped it up. I spent years at that damn job, watching from afar as former contemporaries climbed their respective corporate ladders and became forces in the publishing field. I was jealous and frustrated, and so, as many others have done before and will continue to do, I took to the internet.
I had spent years trying to help others find their own distinctive voices, and I was amazed to find that I could help myself in the same way. It turned out I didn't need stationery or a corporate card or a fancy job title in order to take part in New York book culture. And I didn't need a book deal in order to be a writer. I didn't even need to consider myself to be a writer in order to be a writer. "Serious" writerly types might bemoan the detrimental effect that social media have on productivity or creativity, but one of the most rewarding things I've ever done was to start a silly Tumblr blog called Slaughterhouse 90210 on a whim. I was bored at work and a friend suggested that I create a blog featuring some of my favorite quotes from literature — I had thousands. But quotes alone weren't fun. I realized that if I juxtaposed quotes from books I loved with images from TV shows, my blog posts would be entertaining and provide unique commentary.
Slaughterhouse 90210 was singularly mine. I could never be fired from it! My blog gave me a platform to become a writer and critic and performer, encouraged by the literary community I found on Tumblr. I was inspired by all my newfound Bookternet friends — readers, writers, bloggers, booksellers, publishing world types, and fellow refugees. You certainly didn't have to live in New York City to take part in the discussion. But it sure was fun getting to know some of these new friends in real life. There are an abundance in this city.
A fundamental tenet of society at large is that book readings are supposed to be boring. Why would anyone want to spend an evening glistening to some pretentious twerp drone on and on? How many tiny plastic cups of cheap chardonnay would one have to drink not to mind when a creep in the back row asks the reader intensive questions about the creative process? Or if he has more of a comment than a question? One of the most magical things about New York is that readings are not boring here. On any given night, there are at least three or four literary events taking place in New York, and thanks to great curation and a high level of passion among event planners, at least two or three of them will be delightful. I can walk into any one of an amazing collection of local bookstores and know that I'll be inspired and entertained, and that I'll have a friend or two in the audience. I love that. As highly esteemed experts have been saying for many years, book publishing is undergoing many technological shifts. It's in a constant state of flux. But literary culture, especially in New York City, is alive and well and essential.
Life is sometimes shitty. I don't ascribe the shittiness of life to New York, maybe because I don't really know any other way of adult life, so I have little to compare it to. I ascribe my bouts of unhappiness to being a person who sometimes has difficulty relaxing and taking it all in. Betrayals and heartache and injustices take place everywhere, and loneliness is pervasive. But reading and being on the internet and living in New York City are simultaneously solitary and intensely social activities. Somehow sitting on the couch in my apartment in Greenpoint, all alone with a book, I feel surrounded by friends.
Maris Kreizman is the creator of Slaughterhouse 90210, a blog and soon-to-be book (Flatiron Books, 2015) that celebrates the intersection of her two great loves--literature and TV. She's currently a publishing community manager at Kickstarter. A former book editor, Maris cannot get enough of critiquing her own writing.
Excerpted from Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York edited by Sari Botton, published by Touchstone, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2014 by Sari Botton. Reprinted with permission.
For more information about Never Can Say Goodbye, click here.