There's a certain cache to the New Yorker magazine in the literary world. I remember thinking I was all that and a bag of chips in high school when I first subscribed. I was pretty sure that simply having a subscription to the magazine validated my literary taste. And I know I'm not the only one who has attached such a value to it over the years. Janet Groth, in her new memoir, The Receptionist, takes readers inside the offices of the venerable publication through her own experiences as a receptionist for twenty-one years on the writers' floor from 1957 to 1978.
Groth first took the job as a way to break into the publishing business, taking the receptionist role so that she wouldn't be consigned to the typing pool and so that she could eventually become the writer she wanted to be. Strangely enough, she never did leave the receptionist's desk over that twenty-one years, aside from one brief stint elsewhere in the magazine, and she didn't exactly leave to write either, going back to graduate school after her stint at The New Yorker had run its course. In very brief chapters, Groth talks about the well-known personalities at the magazine starting with her initial interview with E.B. White and intersperses the small scenes amongst the writers on the eighteenth floor with tales of her own personal life and growth in the city.
Somehow given the title of the memoir, I expected more stories from Groth's tenure at the magazine. Whats she does offer up is actually fairly superficial and scant and often feels more like name dropping than substantive and interesting work tales. The lunches and other encounters she details bleed the personalities out of the folks she includes whether out of a desire to be circumspect or respectful to them or something else entirely. There's just something dry here and while I wouldn't have wanted salacious gossip, breathing life into some of the personalities at the magazine would have added immeasurably to the book. As for Groth's personal life, it never did grab me. And certainly she was searching for the life and the person she wanted to be but there were overly contemplative bits that didn't seem to fit the tone of the rest of the narrative. Ultimately this one didn't work for me, which probably negates any early literary validation my magazine subscription might have afforded me, especially given that so many others seem to be raving about it around the internet.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.