On roads not taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could…

Robert Frost

Books have always been a huge part of my life and my psyche, so it should not have come as a surprise that, after a brief detour into a government minor, I ended up majoring, in college, in comparative literature. But majors are meant to lead to jobs, and so, as an eager and resourceful college junior, I sought out — and got! –two internships in NYC — one at W. W. Norton, and one at FSG. Naturally, the internships only paid enough to cover subway fare, so my parents found an old Russian lady in Rego Park, Queens, making some extra cash by subletting a room, and that’s where I lived during my first stint in my favorite city.

At Norton, I sat in a large back room, walls lined with books, in front of an aging computer, a table piled high with manuscripts behind me. This was the “slush pile” — the manuscripts sent in unsolicited, novels and short stories and autobiographies, almost all destined for the trash bin. Part of my job was to read through enough of each submission to decide if it was worth further review, although often someone else had already done so and I just had to type up the rejection letter. Certain themes and plots were popular among the would-be writers — most memorably, novels focusing on Jesus’ secret but carnally adventurous marriage to Mary Magdalene would show up with unnerving regularity. Occasionally, something like a translation of Chekhov stories could be found there (note from an editor: “is this worthwhile, or the usual grad student drivel?”). And once, an absolutely surprising, transcendent, formally and philosophically sophisticated collection of poems that almost — almost — made its way from the slush pile to publication. The poetry assistant editor fought for it tooth and nail, but reluctantly I had to type up a rejection letter in this case, too. At least this one was not a form letter. The problem was that the author had only had one poem published in a journal, so the advice was to submit to poetry reviews first and then, with a more filled-out resume, seek publication again. I wish I remembered the author’s name.

So — lesson number one of Norton — literature may be literature, but it is a business, and if you want in, learn the rules and play by them. Get an agent. Have your agent have lunch with the right editor. Each editor assembles their own portfolio but all the editors must agree before Norton takes on the project. Then comes the process — the chapters sent back and forth, the thick manuscripts with notes and suggestions, the revisions, the galleys, the covers. As a socially anxious twenty year old, I couldn’t see myself doing the lunches with the agents, but the days spent reading interesting books and working to make them better — that seemed exciting and fulfilling. And, to the girl in that back office with all the books and manuscripts behind her, it seemed completely out of reach.

In retrospect, it is clear that that girl was not really processing the world in the right way. Right before my parents drove me to Rego Park, we got a call from my aunt — my uncle had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. That was March 23rd; by May 10th, he was gone. My great-aunt died a month later. My first serious boyfriend, back at Dartmouth, was busy with two projects — one involved trying to hook up with first one and then another friend, and the other consisted of failing out of school and lying to me about it. A man who had been, I had thought, a close friend and one of the few people I knew socially in NYC, was shallow and self-absorbed when we did manage to get together. I did not even notice that I started getting in to Norton later and later. Or that I dropped fifteen pounds. I also did not notice that, when tasked with sending out two promotional mailings for two important books, I packed them each with the other book’s cover letter.

By the time I got to FSG, there was nothing left to do but deal. The deaths had come. The boyfriend had broken up with me. The friendship had settled into the anemic state it survives in to this day. And my time at Norton irretrievably poisoned by that mistake, there was nowhere else to go but up. Emblematic of the ways in which FSG was different from Norton was the figure of Roger Straus, who roamed the halls in his silk suit. Things were more sequential, more organized. The interns (there were three or four others, although I remember exactly nothing about them) were given daily tasks — a day in editorial, a day in publicity, a week in Children’s. I did lots of filing and organizing, putting away contracts, but was not thrust into the middle of the process in the same way that I had been at Norton. The one exception was a Russian novel that I was given to read and evaluate — I wrote up a critique and recommended we don’t publish it.

And yet, coming to work every day to be surrounded by books, by people reading and writing and critiquing books, and moving them forward, and getting important works of fiction, poetry, history into the world — all this was a pleasure and a privilege. What a great job to have. I just couldn’t, fully, imagine myself in it.

A year later, I got a call from FSG. They had an opening for an assistant editor, they were wondering if I was interested. Was I? But I had just sent in documents to Columbia, accepting a spot in their PhD program in Slavic. Literally, days before. Here was another road. Both roads would immerse me in words, in pages, in moving forward the cause of spreading the joy that books give. I briefly thought about asking to defer for a year, which might have been possible, or might not have been. In any case, it wasn’t me — I either commit, or I don’t. So with a tinge of regret, I let them know I couldn’t.

Robert Frost, in choosing his road less traveled, speaks of having “kept the first for another day!” But immediately he reveals this as a wishful thought, since “knowing how way leads on to way,/I doubted if I should ever come back.” Now that I am no longer an insecure socially awkward twenty year old, I can see more clearly that I would have been been fine in the role, and grown in it, as I did on my PhD track. I do sometimes wonder what would have happened had I taken up that FSG opportunity, but I don’t regret it. Either way, I’ve gotten to share the wonders of literature with others, and that’s a great gift! Plus, life is long — who knows where I might end up?

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