Every year, with the anti-climatic regularity of the cuckoo clock’s chirp, another gaggle of English graduates is turned loose upon the world to seek out the employment for which that area of study has, theoretically, pre­pared them. With eyes wide as soup bowls, and heads churning with a sinister salad of romantic poetry, rudimentary literary theory and a garnish of Shakespeare plays, these earnest masses apply for jobs in publishing, editing and (worst of all) television. A few driven and discerning ones may, perhaps, force their way into one of the handful of internships available at our increasingly underfunded literary magazines, while the remaining mostly retreat back into the equally ill-funded arena of academia.

Seven years ago, I was just such a one. I had recently completed a BA at Yale University in the US, and achieved a Grade Point Average that was somewhat castrated by Yale’s requirement that even English majors finish at least 3 science courses (I would suggest, rather, that they finished me).

I decided I would attempt to chisel out a corner for myself in that most se­ductive of cities, New York. I had become not a little obsessed with the city as an undergraduate, frequenting such obviously attractive literary haunts as where Dylan Thomas pitted his remaining life force against whiskey (with the role of the drink being played by Mike Tyson), and Auden seasoned his coffee with booze and Benzadrine. So I scanned the various online sites, and Yale careers emails, for news of possible jobs that in someway per­tained to literature. At last, I fastened upon an advertisement for a junior lit­erary agent at a firm in Midtown Manhattan (for the purposes of this essay, let us call it the Monarch Literary Agency). I wrote a short email, with my rather malnourished CV attached, detailing my academic history and how I had done an internship at a London publishing house for a portion of one summer while an undergraduate. To my astonishment, I received a fairly quick reply informing me that I sounded perfect for the job and asking me to look over a few book outlines, and then send back my comments. Was I to be spending my time reading submissions and writing notes on them at this mystical job? What heaven! Anyone who knows anything of the way that Literary Agencies actually function will no doubt already be curling both their lips and toes over my reprehensible innocence. In my defense, however, the job description contained little more than what I inferred. There was some vague allusion to helping with contracts but I naturally assumed that a firm with such an imposing name would have some sort of house lawyer on retainer, who drafted and finalized such things. Two days later I received an email formally offering me the job and giving me a start-date for early in the New Year, so I mustered my books and belongings and flew, with two morbidly overweight suitcases, to New York on January 4th, 2009.

The office building itself was somewhat bedraggled, though I in no way held it accountable for the fact that it was sandwiched between two appar­ently identical Delis (most of New York is sandwiched between two identi­cal Delis). Upon entering a grey and poorly lit corridor, adorned with a car­pet that must have been new around the time of the Kennedy assassination, a kind and threadbare lobby man directed me to the 7th floor, where resided the offices of the Monarch Literary Agency. I knocked on the door and, after a series of shuffling and clattering sounds, it was opened by a middle-aged woman who looked rather as though she had assembled her wardrobe in the dark at an early 90s hippy bazar. She greeted me with the uniquely disconcerting words, ‘Are you Serena? Have you come to save my life?’. I can’t recollect what I replied, but I think it was something hopelessly English along the lines of how I was quite sure her life needed no saving. She then led me into a room, also replete with a carpet that might once have been a warm shade of beige but would now have shamed the decor of a Bronx crack den. In front of me was a desk so submerged in bulging files and orphaned sheets of paper as to make me gulp three times in an effort to ensure that my breakfast remained in its digestive resting place.

‘This was Sophie’s desk,’ my apparent boss intoned, Sophie presumably having been my hapless predecessor. ‘Try and sort it out and see what needs doing first, then you can get on. That pile over there will need con­tracts by the end of the week. I have to make some calls in my office now, but our accountant will be in later. Ask her if you need anything.’ I think I can reasonably claim this as one of the most discouraging entrances to a first job of anyone in my graduating class.

Over the course of the following days I attempted to conjure a filing sys­tem out of my blitzkrieg of a desk and was, eventually, able to see that the colour of said desk was in keeping with the ex-beige theme of the office in general. This task, however, was protracted somewhat by the fact that my new boss would occasionally dazedly meander in from her office and drop a small filing cabinet’s worth of submissions in front of me to, ‘Read in my spare time.’ Spare time . . . what spare time?? My second evening I had remained in the office until 11:30pm, with the charming, septuagenarian accountant, vacuuming, cleaning and generally purging the entirety of the visible area and stationary cupboard, in an effort to make it look less like a Tracy Emin rendition of office space. This accomplishment was not even commented on the following morning by my boss, whose casual immunity to mess and dirt ought to have made a Dung Beatle feel compelled to step up its game.

Over the next few weeks, however, it was becoming increasingly obvious that I was doing my employer about as much good as she was doing me. Her sole preoccupation was with the small print of her various contracts and, knowing nothing of contract law or the prototypical nature of literary representation agreements, I was worse than useless. This, she would make clear by occasionally manifesting at my desk and saying things like, ‘This isn’t really working out, is it?’ or, ‘I can’t understand why you don’t know what you’re doing?’ To this I could have returned the eminently reasonable reply that I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing because she had never troubled to explain it to me. Furthermore, had she wanted someone with an expertise in contract law, she might have done better not hiring an English major after a vetting process of only four emails! By this time, she had also begun to leave empty yogurt pots in various prominent positions on my desk throughout the course of the day (presumably a dippy Midtown literary agent’s version of a severed horse’s head between the sheets)! Ei­ther way, the writing on the wall was becoming sufficiently etched – albeit in the form of unrecycled garbage – and I knew it was time to either look for another job, or return to the UK and apply for graduate degrees. I de­cided on the latter, and informed my boss of this. Far from exhibiting any semblance of polite regret she announced that graduate school seemed like a good idea and I should leave the day after tomorrow so that she would not have to begin paying me for another month. Fortunately, the following day was her birthday so I took a uniquely English form of vengeance by presenting her with an enormous bouquet of pink roses, accompanied by a saccharine note, and then casually informing most of her callers for the rest of the day that she was out to lunch because it was her birthday. One of those callers happened to be the fabled Anthony Haden-Guest, about whose booze-fueled antics in New York I had heard much. I felt he, of all people, would not be surprised at being told, at 9:30am, that a person was already out to lunch celebrating.

During my final two days I also thought I would glance over the various submissions that I had once so fondly dreamt of reading and offering notes and advice upon. These, I soon discovered, consisted of a series of soggy, self-help dribblings, interspersed with the odd celebrity chef memoir, and an occasional autobiographical nightmare of narcissism, penned by some­one radically obscure. I remember one in particular, ‘The Farming Soul: my encounter with spiritualism in the Napa Valley’, which struck me as a dismal euphemism for tripping on acid in a picturesque vineyard. I was tempted to paraphrase the great polemicist Christopher Hitchens and return it with a terse note saying that, while most people might have a book in them that was no reason to inflict it on the rest of us.

This peculiar interlude in my life drove home to me the near parodic dif­ficulty of finding any kind of satisfying literature-based work straight out of university. The days of landing feet-first in the fabled Fleet Street caul­dron are long behind us, and the chances of getting an entry job at the New Yorker makes first year analyst jobs at Goldman Sachs look as cheap and profuse as wedding confetti. These days, hopeful young writers are either expected to starve to death on the sofas of various friends while they un­dergo a year of unpaid work at the publication they ultimately want to write for, or to return to university to navigate a business degree, which might make them fit for publishing or literary agency work. The alternative, of course, is academia. I leave it to you to guess where I ended up.


Serena Godsen-Hood is a freelance writer with a PhD from Durham University. She completed a BA at Yale University in the United States in 2008. She now resides in London.

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