Groth, Janet. The Receptionist: An Education at the New Yorker.

Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2012.

I’ve been a regular reader of The New Yorker for close to fifty years (having been hooked in college by the high-quality cartoons), so I was delighted to learn about this recently published reminiscence. Unfortunately, it’s not really what I had hoped for.

In 1957, Janet Groth was a newly graduated English major from Minnesota with dreams of becoming a writer, but in more immediate need of a paying job. A brief educational TV gig in Minneapolis led to an interview with her boss’s fishing buddy — E. B. White, one of the most important contributors to the country’s most important literary magazine, among many other things. Groth found herself hired as receptionist on the 18th Floor (the “writers’ floor”) and assumed she would be moving on in a year or two to a more creative research and writing position. This was the pattern at the magazine. But somehow, she remained a receptionist until 1978. Along the way she managed to earn a Ph.D. from NYU, and later in life held several posts as an English professor at important Eastern universities and wrote several noted biographies. But why did she never move up at the magazine? She doesn’t seem to know.

The thing is, Groth became acquainted with a great many members of the American literary establishment during her twenty years there, but the book reads almost like a fleshed-out diary — who she went to the movies with, and who asked her out to dinner, and occasionally who proposed marriage. We hear about Stan Getz and Nina Simone, we’re treated to detailed histories of her several romantic relationships with relative nobodies, we learn that she got into Columbia’s grad school because of a letter Dwight Macdonald wrote to his buddy, Jacques Barzun, and so on. So there’s lots and lots of name-dropping but she actually imparts very little of substance. Frankly, it’s like the less-readable sort of Hollywood ghostwritten autobiography. I was hoping for a behind-the-scenes literary memoir but it never remotely reaches that level.

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Published in: on 30 April 2014 at 6:28 am  Leave a Comment  
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