“You going to sell poems on the sidewalk?” my Midwest doctor-father joked when I moved to Manhattan to get my MFA.
I’ll show him, I thought. But it turned out, he helped me pay my rent when—after my graduate degree—I could only get low paying clerical jobs. While I published a few poems and the literary analysis I learned made me good at book reviews, they usually paid $100.
Finally, after struggling for nine years, at 29, I landed the most amazing job in the world: book columnist for a major Manhattan newspaper. Coming from a conservative family with three brilliant science-brain brothers who’d never let me get a word in edgewise, I couldn’t believe I’d get paid to read and give my opinion! I was out of my mind excited. I’d only have to be in the office to meet with the editor for an hour every Friday. Although he needed me to review 5 books a week, amazingly, I could choose the titles, a rare perk for a broke freelance critic.
I took to reading everywhere: on buses, subways, my local diner, while doing leg lifts in my exercise class. A new friend I dined with asked, “You have little kids at home?” When I inquired why she thought so, she said I’d cut all my chicken into small pieces, the habit I’d picked up to turn pages easier. When my boyfriend George took me to Jamaica for a week, paperbacks took up half of my duffle bag.
I soon syndicated the column, which meant if I raved about a small press book, my laudatory words were soon seen in multiple papers about the country, including my hometown Detroit News. I was invited to swanky literary launch parties. I relished the little acclaim my paperback column brought. At home I received packages filled with books—every day was Hanukah! I was sent so many reviewers’ copies that I made $8000 that year selling books I didn’t want to the Strand Bookstore. It was just a paperback column; my base payment was $300 a week, some syndicators offering a mere $10 extra to run it. But for the first time I was happy in love and work.
Then George dumped me for a young want to-be actress who could barely read a script. A year of reviewing five books weekly was draining. Instead of the thick novels, fat presidential biographies and Tom Wolfe and Camille Paglia treatises, I chose thin novellas, essays, and short story collections. I threw in art and photography books that were mostly pictures with little text, and gravitated toward slender poetry volumes. Reading suddenly felt tedious and exhausting.
My editor complained about my choices and minor mistakes in my copy, wanting me to apologize for my errors and return to huge political tomes. I admitted that critiquing 260 books in one year burned me out. Most reviewers handled one book a week, two at most, I argued, insisting he reduce my load to four. He’d been a nice boss so I expected compassion. “This isn’t working out,” he said, firing me.
As if that weren’t hurtful enough, the next day he hired a replacement that only included three books. When I tearfully asked another editor why, she confessed: The newbie tried to review five books but couldn’t handle it. When she told Abe three books was her limit, instead of admitting he’d been wrong, he saved face by pretending the switch was his idea. She was being paid the same amount I’d been—to review a hundred fewer books!
George had dumped me for another woman, now my editor had too. A literary web-stalker, I looked up the bio of my book review rival. This pseudo-intellectual thief who’d swooped in to steal my beloved newspaper space had an MFA in poetry, like I did. The editor had obviously figured out that poets could review books and worked cheap. She’d published her own poems in highbrow journals and worse—they were great.
I told my shrink (who only charged me $20, on a sliding scale) that I didn’t know which was more agonizing—seeing my ex-boyfriend with a younger, thinner girl, or reading a shorter version of my column written by a better poet.
She was more interested in hearing about the new guy I was fixed up with—a screenwriter named Charlie, especially after I told her that he’d been a big fan of the column I was still mourning.
“I can’t envision any other work I could ever do that I’d like as much as being a book critic with my own column,” I lamented. “Didn’t you once tell me you really wanted to be the author your own books?” she asked. “Someone told me that writing is a way to talk without being interrupted,” I recalled. “Perfect, coming from your family,” she added. She wound up dancing at my book party and my wedding to Charlie and sharing the thrill of reading the first (luckily great) review a critic wrote about my debut book.
So getting dumped and losing my favorite job led me to my dream life.