In “Vintage Contemporaries,” A Young Woman Reconciles Her Idealism With the Realities of Adulthood in New York City
Dan Kois on being a bad literary agent, writing about race as a white person, and how the working conditions in publishing have only gotten worse
In 1991, 22-year-old white Wisconsinite Emily is the beleaguered assistant to a literary agent. She wants to be a writer, she loves Literature with a capital L, and she’s unimpressed by the feel-good writing of her mother’s college friend Lucy, who wrote a few novels for a small press. But Emily appreciates that Lucy is a real author who she might be able to take on as a client—and that Lucy acts as a sort of adulthood midwife, taking Emily to cocktail parties and teaching her to cook. Meanwhile, Emily becomes friends with another Emily, a brilliant, volatile, and effortlessly cool aspiring theatre director who lives in a formerly abandoned East Village squat that was rebuilt by its tenants, and that always seems to be just days away from being seized by the NYPD. In deference to her intense new friend, Emily becomes Em.
15 years later, Em is estranged from Emily, focusing her attention instead on her new baby and feeling simultaneously wondrous, panicked, and exhausted about motherhood. Em, who checked in with the office every day of maternity leave, goes back to work as a senior editor at St. Martin’s Press, trying to publish reprints of Lucy’s books and discovering the problems at her workplace, as well as her place in them—that a thick skin developed from crying in the office bathroom might not be the badge of honor she thinks it is. As Em ages and the city gentrifies, she figures out what she wants out of friendship, work, and art, and her responsibilities to each.
As a suburbs-to-NYC transplant who was an assistant at St. Martin’s in 2006, and as the mother of a young child, much of the book rang true for me—the shitty apartments, the alternating stress and excitement of being a publishing assistant, the pretension about what constitutes coolness and art, and the “I love my baby” mantra of a doting, flailing mom.
Dan Kois and I talked about writing Vintage Contemporaries, his previous career as a bad literary agent, the gendered assumptions in stories of female friendship and new motherhood, writing about race as a white person, and how the working conditions in publishing have only gotten worse.
Katy Hershberger: I really liked Vintage Contemporaries. One of the reasons that it resonated so much with me, I think, is because I worked in publishing for a long time, including at St. Martin’s at the time when Em was there.
Dan Kois: Oh my gosh. Please tell me what errors I made.
KH: You didn’t! I think that your descriptions of the [publishing] houses and those jobs was really spot on. Like St. Martin’s being less formal and less respected, more commercial, than a lot of other publishers. I’m curious how you captured all of that.
DK: It’s totally imagined. In terms of the very specific St. Martin’s of it all, I worked in publishing long, long ago and sort of have this image of St. Martin’s as a slightly scrappy, slightly less formal place where it might be a little bit harder to smuggle the literary into what seemed like a publishing mandate that was more commercial. But that was purely my external view. And so I was trying to sort of imagine my way into what it would be like to work there if you were a slightly literary person who also acknowledged the realities of commercial publishing.
KH: What was your experience in publishing? You worked as a literary agent?
DK: While I was doing an MFA in the late ‘90s, I was an agent’s assistant in Washington, DC. And then a junior agent sort of trying to get my own clients and my own projects. I had a few minor successes and one sort of large success that turned into an enormous personal failure. And then within a few years, I stopped working and publishing because it seemed clear that being an agent specifically was not for me, and I was not good at it. I took it too personally when I was unable to sell things that I really believed in. And I really struggled with the way that it required a certain kind of knowingness—a certain kind of always seeming like you are a step ahead of things and that you were constantly playing a game, and I felt like I was not good at playing that game. And I didn’t enjoy faking at parties that I’d read every book that everyone mentioned, or navigating lunches that were semi-social but also actually commercial. I just didn’t feel good at that. It made me unhappy. And also my clients were not that happy because I was not securing good deals for them, because it turned out I wasn’t a good agent.
KH: Do you feel like some of that feeling is specific to publishing or specific to agenting? Maybe it’s because I started out in publishing and I’ve done it for so long, but in some ways that sort of feels like all of New York or maybe just adulthood and business.
DK: Maybe, and I’m sure that there are aspects of any business environment you get into where there’s a certain amount of faking it ‘til you make it that is involved. But I think that I’ve been lucky enough to end up in a professional world now in which curiosity and a willingness to admit to stuff that you don’t know is actually an advantage rather than a liability. In the sense that journalism tends to reward that kind of curiosity. And also, maybe, I do wonder if the fact that the things that I was having to fake and the people I was having to disappoint were in the realm of literature and books, things that really, really, really mattered to me, made it harder for me to stomach the baloney that I had to go through in order to feel like I was making some kind of difference.
KH: That it might be a little bit too close to how the sausage is made?
DK: Yeah, maybe. I certainly was not good at writing. For example, when I was in that world, I really didn’t feel like I could write anything of my own because every day I felt like I was being exposed to this universe of people who are constantly engaged in analyzing and critiquing, and judging the worth of writing, and I couldn’t even bring myself to make something in the period when I was working in publishing. And that was very frustrating to a person who, I should add, at that time was in an MFA program completely failing to write fiction.
KH: It’s such a disconnect, trying to be a writer and then working with writers.
DK: Yeah. You know, in journalism I haven’t found it as hard, maybe because journalism is so specifically process-oriented. Like in journalism, there’s very little of “I am being precious about my precious words.” Because that is not the way journalism works and no one has the budget to be precious with your precious words. And so I’ve been able to make my own stuff while doing journalism in a way that I wasn’t able to while I was working in books.
KH: You’ve written about the awkwardness of publishing and promoting your book during the HarperCollins strike [which lasted 66 business days before reaching a deal with management], and your support for the union. Reading this book and being in this moment during the strike, publishing feels very “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Employees are asking for the same things that they were asking for decades ago and that your characters are dealing with, or in some cases perpetrating. I’m curious about your view of this moment in publishing, in the context of the book.
DK: I don’t think it feels like “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” They seem worse. I don’t know if you noticed, but the characters in my book have their weekends off. They don’t really have to deal with a lot of email at night. So it kind of seems worse now. It certainly seems worse than when I was in publishing. And it is true that the things the young publishing characters in the book face—having their work feel unappreciated, and being underpaid, and facing low-level or high-level kinds of abuse in the workplace—are definitely not gone, but they also seem to have been added to, in the way that almost every job I know of has been made substantially worse in the last 20 years by having to be constantly available, and the shrinkage of every industry but the growth of every individual job so that everyone now is doing the job that once upon a time would be done by seven different people. So that all seems way worse. Sorry, that’s depressing.
KH: It doesn’t make it not true.
I also thought a lot about how this book fits in with this long history of stories about female friendship, where there’s sort of one wild alpha friend and the other one’s more of a follower. Toni Morrison, Elena Ferrante, Julie Buntin’s Marlena… Do you think this kind of friendship is specific to women?
DK: I’m sure that can’t be universally true. I do think—and my agent made this argument to me when this book was in revisions—that thinking of these particular kinds of friendships, in the context of their literary precedents, is something that is somewhat unique to young literary women. That thinking to yourself, “which Ferrante character am I?”, thinking of yourself in the context of which one of this universal diametric am I that I’m intimately familiar with from the books that I’ve been reading all my life, does seem in some ways specific to women. At least I’ve never had that experience when I was in friendships that resembled these in different ways. So I don’t know that the friendship is specific, but I do think there’s something a little bit gendered about having these kinds of friendships presented to you over your cultural life, and then finding yourself inside one of them and having this way to contextualize the thing that you find yourselves in.
KH: So it’s more that women might be mapping their own experiences on to these kinds of narratives that they’ve seen.
DK: Right, or mapping the narratives on to their own experience. Finding in the narrative the way to contextualize an experience that they suddenly find themselves in.
KH: I have a similar gendered question about motherhood. Em’s experience of motherhood also felt very familiar to me. I have a toddler, and I think there’s a lot of writing about motherhood recently that kind of explains this feeling of love mixed with ambivalence and exhaustion, boredom and trying to figure out who you are in the context of this new role. Do you think that’s an experience specific to mothers, or is it similar within fathers?
DK: It certainly was my experience. I don’t know how it is for all fathers but that section, minus the very specific nursing complaints and the gendered return to work situation that she finds herself in, maps a lot of the feelings I had, the panic and anxiety and love that I felt during that time when my kids were really little. And which I think, in a lot of ways, my wife also felt and which tons of new parents feel. There are certain expectations and pressures that come in that time and remain incredibly gendered, and certain judgments that moms face that dads don’t seem to face. That’s very woman specific, I think, but this general sense of being overwhelmed with love and happiness, but also anxiety at the same time, definitely came from my own experience.
KH: That’s really interesting. I’ve wondered that a lot personally. There’s, blessedly, so much talk now about the challenges of motherhood and the sort of Nightbitch of it all. But knowing that that’s not necessarily specific to women is really interesting.
DK: I do think it’s like a lot of things: It is a universal human experience that is made 30% worse because of the patriarchy. But it’s nevertheless universal.
KH: I really felt like within this book, Em was sort of realizing her own whiteness, which comes in fits and starts. She starts out this uncomfortable girl from Wisconsin who’s never spent time around Black people, and then becomes closer to people who don’t look like her in this neighborhood, and then eventually marries a Black man, but has to be reminded that she’s still white and still makes white people mistakes. And I was curious about this part of her character and what that was like to write about as a white person.
DK: I think it has been a shared experience for many white people of my generation, coming to terms with the environments in which we were raised and our own discomfort with even talking about racism and our race even more broadly. I think it’s funny in a way to think about it as a bunch of old white people becoming woke. But in fact, for many, many people, one of the journeys into adulthood is truly understanding the way that other people live and view the world, or at least starting to, and starting to understand your own blind spots and shortcomings.
I was writing a book that was in some ways about starting out 20 and becoming older and learning about all the things that you didn’t understand when you were younger. And that’s been, I think, a really universal experience for a lot of people, that particular kind of learning and understanding. So it was fun for me to explore that and see what it means to grow at least a little bit on all these different fronts. It didn’t seem like you could write this book about this particular kind of generational change without thinking through that aspect of it.
KH: There really is so much of Em reconsidering a lot of her younger life and realizing her own missteps.
DK: Realizing the things that she was right about, and also the things that she was wrong about. And even reconsidering from the context of 38, the person you were when you were 33. A lot of her work experience in the later sections of the book is about her seeing her older self from the perspective of young people and coming to understandings that she didn’t think she would.
KH: Speaking of things that she was both right and wrong about, Lucy’s writing is something that Em didn’t respect a ton at the beginning. It wasn’t considered high art, and she eventually came around on it. And I was really struck by Lucy’s commitment to writing about good things. I’m wondering if that’s a philosophy that you share.
DK: It certainly was while writing this book. That was a pretty personal decision that I had to make in order to even get this book written. A lot of this book happened in very busy times in my life, when I had small and medium-sized children, when I was working hard jobs, and sort of fitting this into the cracks whenever I could. And I found, sort of like Lucy, I simply was not in a place in my life where I was willing to devote a lot of psychic energy and artistic work to shit that made me feel bad. And in some ways that felt a little bit like a cop-out to me, certainly to my 23-year-old self whose feelings about art were way more like Emily’s. I would have viewed it as a huge cop-out, but it was the only way I could do the thing that I wanted to do. And so I just decided that that was the kind of book that this was going to be.
One of the things that made me happy while writing this book was embedding within the book that particular argument that books like this have value and are not necessarily lesser works of literature than books that reflect a different kind of anxiety or misery about living, or that confront an audience or even challenge an audience emotionally or psychically, in ways that this book simply was not interested in doing. I read a lot of challenging and confrontational books and really love them, but I also am coming as I get older to recognize the value in my life of cultural products that are about happiness, that soothe, that assuage, that don’t pander but that do meet an audience at the spot in their lives where they maybe are.