Janet Groth’s The Receptionist: A Reflection

The receptionist receives. Receives what? An education, a memoir. One purpose of a memoir, a narrative of memory, might be to raise eyebrows, for it’s a tool to talk back, to reflect not only on what was taken in but to evaluate and tell on the givers, the repellers, those who dismiss, to give back some sass. One may also be received, received into, into the club; but not in Janet Groth’s case. Miss Groth, to use the New Yorker office convention of the time, was the receptionist on the writer’s floor for a little over two decades, and, never having been promoted or published or even encouraged, finally left, graduating on her own terms, storing the education for a later memoir, much later – 30 years later. Groth’s memoir has already been discussed by those in the know, but here’s a view from a different coast.

Why was Miss Groth never given “a better job” (224) at the magazine? She offers four possibilities: 1, nepotism; 2, lack of Ivy League connections; 3, lack of submissions (only three in twenty-one years, an output Joe Mitchell would however have understood); and 4, she was kept a receptionist because she was a kept receptionist – she was good and that’s where they wanted her. None of these explanations by themselves sound all that convincing, but maybe all taken together they amount to a decision deferred that becomes the dream deferred. And receptionist, in the world of business, is a feminine noun, while what’s needed to push the business forward is a masculine verb.

For a memoir to be successful, the main character must be a dynamic character; she must change from the beginning to the end. Throwing her change into relief are all the static characters she receives over time, characters that don’t change, but that remain their dismissive selves throughout, and the photos of static characters are rarely charming or lovely, and may even offer unflattering profiles.

When I think of memoir, of the self-important profile it proclaims, I also think of P. G. Wodehouse’s “Heavy Weather,” wherein “…the Hon. Galahad Threepwood, brother of the Earl of Emsworth and as sprightly an old gentleman as was ever thrown out of a Victorian music-hall, was engaged in writing the recollections of his colourful career as a man about town in the nineties, the shock to the many now highly respectable members of the governing classes who in their hot youth had shared it was severe. All over the country decorous Dukes and steady Viscounts, who had once sown wild oats in the society of the young Galahad, sat quivering in their slippers at the thought of what long-cuboarded skeletons those Reminiscences might disclose.”

Not to worry in the Wodehouse world, for Galahad has already sent a note to his publisher:  “Dear Sir, Enclosed find cheque for the advance you paid me on those Reminiscences of mine. I have been thinking it over, and have decided not to publish them after all.” But what then develops is indeed a bit of nepotism in the publishing world as the memoir in question becomes a pig to nobble, even as there are real pigs to nobble as the plot unfolds.

We don’t know what Groth has held back, of course, but she wants to persuade us she’s told most of the story. That story is not only about a receptionist, but about an existential (she confides she once wanted to be a female Camus) question: shall we be defined by the roles received from our parents, where we come from, or from our employers, our tribe or our set, or will we, like Huckleberry Finn, “light out for the territory” and define for ourself what it means to be ourself, refusing to receive any other’s limiting or corralled view of us? Yet what of the receptionist who can’t stop receiving? Who will tell her memoir?

The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker,” by Janet Groth. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2012. 229 pages.

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Jeeves and Bertie Wooster in Facebookland

If Facebook was a country, it would have the 3rd largest population in the world, and the least privacy, so why do people continue to move there?

Inside Facebook, a site that tracks Facebook demographics, shows the Facebook population growing like aphids on a primrose. The fastest growing segment is the female age 55-65 group, but it’s still a young country, with 35% of its citizens between the ages of 18 and 25. The Facebook Pressroom census shows over 400 million citizens living in Facebookland. The US, with about 4.5% of the world’s population, represents about 6% of Facebookland.

There are certain advantages to living in Facebookland, no morning commute, for example, and though one occasionally receives the message, “something went wrong,” and things often change without much notice, the infrastructure generally works about as good in Facebookland as it does in other countries – sometimes things go wrong, other times things go on swimmingly.

One easily imagines P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster living in Facebookland. Bertie’s the kind of fellow who would create the occasional heavy weather in the local neighborhood with the ill-thought comment, offending the odd, aged aunt, or posting an unflattering photo, tagging, and upsetting the potential fiancé; but Jeeves would be on hand with the correct password to amend and refresh the errant post. Bertie likes living in the moment; looking neither before nor after, he does not pine for what is not.

Yet, “One always has to budget for a change in the weather,” Bertie observes to Jeeves, opening another episode with the plate of eggs and b., coffee perfect, at the beginning of Much Obliged, Jeeves. “Still, the thing to do is to keep on being happy while you can.” “Precisely, sir. Carpe diem, the Roman poet Horace advised,” Jeeves fills Bertie in on the classical references. “The English poet Herrick expressed the same sentiment when he suggested that we should gather rosebuds while we may. Your elbow is in the butter, sir.” “Oh, thank you, Jeeves.”

“I’m thinking of leaving Facebook for Twitter, Jeeves.” “Indeed, sir?” “Yes, Jeeves. Twitter’s the place for the busy metro-man such as myself.” “Yes, sir.” “And rarely do I need more than 144 characters to say what I need to say.” “Indeed, sir.” “Modicum of expression and all that sort of thing, you know.” “Precisely, sir.” “And one can always pop back in and say hello to the Facebook friends, renew and restore and all that, what?” “Indubitably, sir.” “All these newfangled electronic devices, Jeeves, permit one to live in the moment as never before.” “No doubt, sir.” “Might as well give all these musty books the heave ho, what?” “What, indeed, sir.” “Really, Jeeves, we ought to at least get you an email account. Have you heard of Google?” “Oh, yes, sir, and while we haven’t actually tried googling, I believe is the expression, we did early invest a prudent amount in the Google corporate venture.” “Very good, Jeeves.” “Thank you, sir.”

Where Sarah Palin Meets Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol is everywhere. That sentence is everywhere. Andy’s fame has lasted longer than his predicted 15 minutes of world-wide fame for all of us. But one place he’s currently not to be found is on the New York Times bestseller list, which is full of Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue, already topping the million mark, according to the CSM’s tomatoes and books review.

What is fame? These days fame appears to be some light travelling in a motor home coach across the malls of America. The ubiquitous mall is where we might all go to “look for America,” as Simon and Garfunkel sang.

But a book purchased is not always a book read, as a review of our own bookcase shows. There sits Nabokov’s Ada, added to the stack decades ago and still not cracked, and McEwan’s Atonement, a paperback picked up at a garage sale last summer, the first few pages read a few times. Still, most do show signs of reading’s wear and tear. Our 1966 Love’s Body is falling apart – we’ll need to replace it soon.

We would like to think that the teens with their moms in lines at the malls to get Sarah’s book autographed will actually read it, but as Flannery O’Connor said: “I would be most happy if you had already read it, happier still if you knew it well, but since experience has taught me to keep my expectations along these lines modest, I’ll tell you that this is the story of a family of six which, on its way driving to Florida, gets wiped out by…” some misfit’s ill-tossed tomato. For “Words can be overlooked,” P. G. Wodehouse said; “But tomatoes cannot.”

The word value, often abused, as in “family values,” or “good, old fashioned ‘Good Country People’ values,” means nothing but what we desire, what we want. And what we want, as individuals and as communities, isn’t always what’s good for us.

Reading is good for us, but we doubt that many of the millions who have purchased Sarah’s book want reading. It takes longer than 15 minutes to read a book. Still, we hope they do read the book. We wish the book well, for in the midst of the Reading Crisis, it’s a rose in winter. We don’t want to read Sarah’s book; but we hope that the millions of shoppers who did buy it do read it – such is our faith in reading; such was Andy Warhol’s faith in art.