A Career in Books: A Novel about Friends, Money, and the Occasional Duck Bun
“sharp and funny”
Kate Gavino delivers more than one career in books, she describes four. This graphic novel starts out with Nina, Shirin, and Sylvia, three Asian American women who met in college at a freshman writing workshop. The only Asians in the class, they end up gravitating to each other and become good friends. After graduation, it’s only natural that they live together in New York, determined to make it in the world of publishing. They end up with jobs at different places, one a university press, one a mainstream publisher, and one a small press run by a wealthy editor out of her home. The differences give them a broad basis for comparisons between the three, each having its pitfalls. With all of them employed (though not gainfully at their pitiable salaries), they go out to celebrate:
“Let’s toast to health insurance and easy access to office supplies.”
“To finding jobs tangentially related to our degrees.”
“To not being broke!!!”
Gavino, and her characters, dissect those they meet by identifying the cost and brand of the clothes they wear. Apartments are similarly labeled, whether furniture comes from Ikea or Restoration Hardware. Diving into the illustrations and text are like entering their mental worlds, literally the way they see things. The bathroom of the wealthy editor, for examples, gets this description, with the art appropriately labeled:
“Coyuchi hand towel, $28. Diptyque Baies candle, $68. Restoration Hardware iron & rope mirror, $945. Cy Twombly sketch, gift from Deb’s godmother, estimated value at $350,000.”
The book opens out into more literary concerns when the young women meet one of their neighbors, a 92-year-old woman. Veronica Vo, it turns out, was a Booker Prize winner, and went on to write many novels, all now long out of print. She provides the fourth career in publishing, a rich and varied one. The relationship between the 20-somethings and the older woman is beautifully portrayed. Vo becomes more than an inspiration, she’s a catalyst for their own writing and for taking themselves seriously.
The book is long, and some of the descriptions of the women’s attitudes toward the authors they work with will make aspiring writers wince (they’re described as whining, needy, demanding—all of which may be true, but one expects more sympathy from those trying to get published themselves). Their descriptions of their colleagues can be equally quick and dismissive. At a publishing event for women of color, they quickly size up the people there:
“Once inside, they surveyed the bar, which was mostly full of Asian girls with tasteful sweaters and loafers. Almost every variety of publishing assistant was present and accounted for.
Editorial assistant: shops at Modcloth; crushes on Mr. Darcey; drinks white wine.
Production assistant: shops at Madewell; crushes on Hilma AF Klint; drinks tecate.
Publicity assistant: shops at J. Crew; crushes on bubble mailers; drinks mojitos.”
But the writing is sharp and funny, the trials and tribulations real and rewarding. For anyone who has a romantic notion of working in publishing, this book provides an antidote. Waiting tables while working on a novel seems like a better idea than the soul-sucking misery these women endure. What bolsters them is their friendship, and the way forward that Vo shows them. Do any of them end up getting published? You’ll have to read the book to find out.