Thursday, March 10, 2011

Corrections from the Assisterati

Oh, dear...this, again?

The New York Observer has published an article on assistants in the publishing world. That's assistants to editors, agents, scouts, and publicists (never mind those assistants in design, production, and on the financial side), the group of which the article’s author, Kat Stoeffel, has deigned to call "The Assisterati." Judging from the industry responses--and the responses of the assistants around me--Stoeffel has gotten quite a few things wrong in this article. So let's take them to task:

1) Where they come from: Of a gathering of the Assisterati, Stoeffel says, "most of the guests were already connected through a network of private colleges on the East Coast . . . Some were on intimate terms, having attended the same summer camp, the Columbia Publishing Course." Certainly yes, a handful of publishing assistants emerge from excellent colleges and universities on the East coast. And some of them attended intensive summer programs like the NYU Publishing Institute, the Columbia Publishing Course, and other such immersive workshops that cram a lifetime of publishing experience (and an extraordinary series of panels headed by industry leaders) into a brief six weeks. (It's not much of a summer camp, more like a graduate-school-level boot camp.) But Stoeffel makes this all seem serendipitous, a product of privilege rather than deliberate planning for a deeply desired career. First, the geographic and economic spread among entry-level publishing employees is fairly large: I've worked with assistants who studied on the West Coast, the Midwest, the Deep South, the EU, in India, and in South Africa, and all of them had widely varying levels of economic support by way of hard-earned loans and scholarships. Secondly, the choice to attend summer publishing programs is hardly made just to gain cultural cache. While these programs carry a price tag (about $7000 for CPC, $5000 for NYU), they represent a fraction of the price and time that a person would need to commit for a master's degree in English or Journalism (usually upwards of $25,000). And because they are focused on the questions and concerns surrounding the publishing industry, they provide a unique advantage for people that are deeply committed to having a long career learning its nuances of the industry. (Remember that phrase, "deeply committed" in mind.)

2) Who do they think they are? Stoeffel starts to go into the character and attitudes of the Assisterati: "They are the caretakers, soon to be inheritors, of a sublime patrimony. Their proximity to literary creation . . . suggests they possess a cultural credibility they couldn't acquire in, say, Chicago, or on Wall Street. Underpaid but brimming with hope, they, like the people they assist, will one day run this town and steer the course of American literature." If you care about what you do, if you believe what you're doing has worth, you will take a great deal of pride in it. I freely confess that, because I work in an industry that values intelligent voices and finds ways to promote them in the public cultural sphere, I think what I do has an intrinsic value and it gives me cultural credibility. People who work in publishing are part of a tradition (which is vastly different than a patrimony) of finding ways to disseminate great thoughts by great writers, and if that's what Stoeffel wants to call arrogant, then fine, we're arrogant. (And so are all the folks in the denigrated Chicago or Wall Street communities she mentions, since I'm sure they often take as much pride in their work as we do in ours.) And as far as her pithy remarks regarding the attitudes of assistants across different departments, it seems the antipathy she perceives comes from the pettiest of interviewees. When the assistants in our office gather every Friday for a glass of wine and an hour of laughs, it doesn’t matter whether their author is a Twitter phenomenon or a poet of critical acclaim, or if they wear the elegant heels of a publicist or the papercuts of an editor. They all earned the right to be there for a drink, to celebrate the tremendous work and dedication they do every day.

3) Why they ended up getting hired, and what they actually do: Stoeffel says that, while the Assisterati may have lofty dreams of controlling the literary world, their cultural cache is rarely put to work. “Once they settle into their cubicles, these traits are about as valuable as perfect punctuation in the cover letter of a slush submission.” She goes on to quote assistants who are daunted by administrative tasks and secretarial work such as arranging travel plans, mailing packages, and Xeroxing manuscripts. Most egregiously, she suggests that many assistants continue to do these tasks as the only method of harmoniously bonding with their bosses, who serve as “gatekeepers to the kind of meaningful work—acquiring or editing books—that they must master in order to move up the ladder.” Yes, any entry-level assistant will have some level of administrative work to do, and unless they’ve worked in an office setting before, some of it will be new to them. (I’ve often wished that colleges would create seminars for graduating seniors called “Office Etiquette and Paperwork 101,” just so you could learn the multitudes of UPS and FedEx mailing options before your first interviews.) But every office environment requires this. Until publishing becomes an all-electronic industry (god forbid), someone has to mail galleys and xerox manuscripts, circulate jackets and turn over the foul copy. These are all steps in how a house functions from day to day, and demonstrate what it means to be entry-level: to see the work from the ground-floor up. And the bond with the boss is not just about sucking up or playing a “shell game,” it’s also sometimes about having a true mentor-protégée relationship that can benefit both participants. I can show my boss how I learn about breaking media news by way of Facebook, Twitter, and my Google Reader; she can fill me in on meetings regarding developments in the e-book world and new acquisitions. The difference between the Mad-Men-esque secretarial role that Stoeffel imagines, and the reality of the symbiotic relationship between established editor and aspiring assistant, couldn’t be more stark. Stoeffel is writing from a perspective that says apprenticeship and grunt work doesn’t matter—strange, given that she seems to have skipped into her Observer position by way of three internships (the majority of which are unpaid and entirely made of grunt work). Curiouser and curiouser…

4) The ones that stick around: Stoeffel notes that many assistants harbor other dreams—of writing, of traveling, of becoming pastry chefs—and some eventually leave to pursue those dreams. This is hardly news—every profession experiences some turnover. But who Stoeffel forgets to address—the population she leaves out entirely—are the many, many assistants whose dreams are to become champions of great writers through deliberate scouting around the world, dedicated representation of an author’s potential, nuanced editing of an important text, and spirited publicity of a great finished product. Those who figure out that this business isn’t for them will often leave early, and we wish them well. But for those of us who are deeply committed to this business, to this process—the making of books—it’s deeply offensive to see our dedication branded as naiveté. For those of us that threw ourselves into high school and college English courses, edited our local papers and magazines, took on unpaid internships while waiting tables, and now spend nights and weekends reading manuscripts and magazines and attending literary events, this was anything but a light, romanticized career choice. And when a reporter writes a glib, poorly researched, and intentionally inflammatory article just to get the media community talking about how offended they are, it’s more than just a raspberry being blown our way. The Observer is not meant to be Stoeffel’s personal LiveJournal on which to snark and speculate and insinuate that other people are wasting their time. If anything, her article was a profound waste of our time. We, after all, have real work to do.

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