Such, Such Were the Joys
December 24, 2010

 

In the nearly two years I’ve been blogging, I’ve rarely written about the thing that, until this week, occupied nearly all of my time and energy. It wasn’t food, it wasn’t nutrition, and it wasn’t blogging. It was book publishing. For six years, I worked at FSG book publishers in New York, first as an editorial assistant, and ultimately as an associate editor. I lived and breathed the industry, and if you’d asked me a few years ago whether I’d ever consider leaving, I’d have said “no” in an instant. Life is nothing if not surprising.

I’m not quite sure what I’m hoping to achieve with today’s post. A glimpse into the publishing world, perhaps? A farewell tribute? A slice of memoir? Probably all of these things. A lot of you guys have asked me about what it’s like to be an editor, and I suppose that I’d like to give you a sense of the hard work that goes into making books. As bloggers, we have at least a passing appreciation of the written word—for most of us, it’s a lot more than passing—but even devoted readers fail to consider the sheer amount of work that happens before you turn the first page. Multiple rounds of meticulous copyediting, decisions about minutiae of font, spacing, and page layout; binding, printing, and shipping; and, of course, there are the weeks and months—sometimes even years—in which an editor and her author transform a rough manuscript into a polished novel or biography or work of narrative nonfiction. (All this for scant pay, long hours, and the challenge of remaining intellectually engaged at all times.) Publishing ain’t easy, and we readers are deeply indebted to the editors and production editors who labor behind the scenes of glossy covers and Kindle downloads.

The life of an editor, though, extends far beyond production schedules and red pencils. Publishing is and always has been a lifestyle: a culture shaped by the tastes and sensibilities of people who love to read. Flip through any literary memoir—especially those written in the 60s and 70s—and you’ll hear references to the golden days and grand old days of publishing, the days of three martini lunches, parties that lasted until some famous literary persona or other had passed cold, and infamous liaisons between editors, agents, and writers. Times have changed, and lunches have gotten more sober, but publishing remains touched by the promise of glamor, gossip, and intrigue. For most of the young people who know the world of letters well, and vow to infiltrate it, that glamor is a part of the dream.

As I consider my choice to leave the industry, it occurs to me that I both did and didn’t fit into this culture, and perhaps that’s why it hasn’t been more difficult for me to leave. I started to sense that the young people who seemed happiest working in publishing were people who wanted their careers to envelop their personal lives, too. I do want my career to envelop my personal life, but the problem was that I had another burning passion in the form of health care that took up a lot of the space publishing fought for. What occupied the corners of my mind when I wasn’t working wasn’t book talk or book functions or even scheming about how to find the next big writer; it was veganism, and health. This doesn’t mean I don’t care deeply about books and reading; it simply means that my passion for literature turned out to be a personal passion, rather than the passion that would encompass my professional life. Health care, on the other hand, moved from the periphery of my professional life into the center.

In my last two years as an editor, it became easy to take for granted much of what makes publishing great. I think that what I really hope to resolve with this post is my feeling of appreciation for the best of what publishing gave me; for the moments in which it met and then surpassed my wildest dreams. What makes publishing great is the challenge of putting a pencil to paper, and editing a book. It’s the trickiest puzzle you’ve ever solved, and also the best. It’s the joy of meeting a famous writer whose work you’ve always revered; the tremble of your hand as you reach in to shake his. It’s the joy of being surrounded, day in and day out, with words.

Gena FSG 2005 (2) Gena at FSG, 2005

Most of all, it’s the joy of working with people who care about books as deeply as you do. Growing up, I felt—as I think many quiet and readerly types do—an occasional sense of unbelonging, a premonition that the things I loved most were a little different than the things that other kids my aged loved most. They loved games and sports and summer camp and birthday parties; later on, they loved house parties and dances and youthful misbehavior. I just really loved books, and the things that live in books: ideas, representations of human character, portraits of love and tension and tragedy and loss. These ideas and sketches of the human experience occupied every inch of space in my consciousness at any given time. I didn’t think I was any better than my peers for liking things that seemed so intangible; if anything, I sometimes found my preoccupation with fiction a little isolating. I didn’t know a great many others my age who felt that way; only a few dear friends in high school, and only a few in college.

And then I started working in publishing, and they were everywhere. All around me were men and women who felt exactly as I did about books and art and ideas. It was the thing we all all strive for in our younger years—a sense of belonging—writ large in every handshake, every new person I met, every email I exchanged. We were young, we were brimming with passion for books, and we were infatuated with the people who made them. We were hungry, determined, and undeterred by the prospect of abject poverty. We were entering an industry that everyone said was dying—really, we were the last generation to enter book publishing as it existed before e-books and social media—and we didn’t care. We were going to publish books, and those books were going to be famous.

Plenty of things changed for me as the years went by. I got tired of the meager paychecks; the weekends spent at home with manuscripts as my friends frolicked at parties or weekends away; the pretentions; the feeling that I was doing something intellectually rewarding that nevertheless had little impact on the world. It’s hard to publish books and watch as no one buys them; it’s hard to watch an art form be assaulted by the march of technology. I got into publishing because I believe that art improves the world, and I still do, but I’ve also been lured away by the sense of satisfaction that comes from having a direct impact on another person’s life. Counseling reminded me how good it feels to help others, and I hope that medicine will keep that feeling alive. In some ways, I resent myself for choosing that kind of direct reward over the thankless labor of bettering the world through the written word; if I don’t do it, who will? Will the novel really die? Who will still be buying books in a decade, and if the numbers are declining, will I blame myself for having given up the fight? Maybe. But I know that there are great young editors still at work–truly, the best and the most energetic and the brightest–and that they’ll keep the flame alive.

And so, as I begin a new chapter of my life, I bid goodbye to this one. Goodbye to the smell of freshly bound books and catalogs. Goodbye to book chatter over drinks and lunches. Goodbye to late night parties, laced with sexual intrigue. Goodbye to intense, exhilarating conversations about art and ideas with wide eyed peers. Goodbye to the starstruck awe we felt when a famous author entered the room; goodbye to the touch of a red pencil between my fingers as I sat down to edit a page. Goodbye, goodbye to all that. And thank you, publishing world, for a great six years. Until we meet again.

xo

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    45 Comments
  1. Gena, you are such an inspiration!
    I would love to read a post about your career path and tips for succeeding job wise, (especially in competitive NYC, I imagine it’s pretty cutthroat). I suppose a little off topic to the blog, but it’s obvious that you are one to look up to in terms of focus, ambition and goal achieving. I am just about to graduate from university so these thoughts are on my mind. I don’t comment often, but you are someone I think about and admire as a successful and hardworking career lady! It says a lot that you are switching from a career that you worked so hard for, knew and loved, to move on to something more appropriate for yourself now.

    Also regarding your Shepherd’s Pie: I made this for a New Years Day dinner for my boyfriend’s French Canadian family who are very carnivorous (I think Quebecers invented Shepherd’s Pie except they call it Pate Chinois), anyway they loved it! Merci!

  2. Wow Gena, you have made your own way! I guess that “following your bliss” is true. It is a challenge, a lot of hard work and concentration … hey, the “road less traveled.” I have seen the courage you have to take that fork in the road. Good for YOU!!!

    YOU ARE SUCH AN INSPIRATION TO SO MANY HUMANS!

    ps: Your shepherd’s pie was a delicious surprise and I loved it. Thanks

  3. What an interesting glimpse into your profession! I don’t know much about editing and it sounds like a wonderful niche environment. Love that pic of you, too. It is definitely so wonderful to find people with similar interests and ways of thinking in professional life.

  4. What a beautiful post – thank you for sharing that with us. It’s so valuable to have friends that understand the power of the written word, the intensity of emotions that a novel can bring with mere text. As someone who almost got into publishing, instead went for PR, and then left it for dietetics because, like you, I wanted to more directly impact people – I really “get” this post.

    xoxo – cheers to a new adventure, my friend 🙂

  5. So glad I read this post. I think book publishing is so fascinating and I always had an interest in it too, but I don’t live in NYC. I definitely understand your self quarrel about wanting to do something to help others but not wanting to abandon the publishing world. Have you read Final Exam by Pauline Chen? Great book about medical school.

  6. wonderful writer, you are.
    I am truly excited for you.

    You are an inspiration, to many. And as stubborn as I am, inspiring to me too. 🙂

  7. Medicine may be a science, but healing is an art. It is no coincidence Apollo is god of poetry and medicine (and music too). I think as you embark on your career in medicine, you’ll find everything’s more connected than you ever imagined – one day it will all come full circle.

  8. beautifully written, and i could relate to very much of it. thanks for putting your experience down so eloquently. can’t wait for the book talk posts.

  9. It amazes me that you always said you were an editor, not a writer. Clearly you ARE (were, I guess) an editor, but damn, girl: You can write. Always so fun to read.

  10. Gena, I really enjoyed this post. Thank you so much for writing it. As someone who is still trying to decide what to do with her life and is really interested in books/publishing, I was really touched by the paragraph you wrote about how you felt growing up – really loving the world and ideas you found in books – things that seemed to sequester you from the rest of the world. It is comforting to hear about your own experiences and insights, and I think it is really beautiful to see a person in light of not just one of their interests (i.e. nutrition/health) but of different, broader aspects of their life. Best of luck with med school – I am excited for you and I am sure you will be blessed with so much new knowledge and new experiences. Can’t wait to hear more about it all.

  11. Nice post! I have not purchased or used an electronic reader. I will still be one of those people, 10 years from now sitting on a plane reading a “real” book… where I can turn the pages. I can’t imagine not getting excited when a book from Amazon greets me at my front door or them lining my shelves.

    Have a wonderful holiday!

  12. Your reflections are so eloquent as always, Gena. This was deeply moving. You are just brimming with writing talent.

    I’d love to hear some book-chat from you in future posts.

    Wishing you and yours the merriest of Christmases. I am so very excited for you as you embark on this new fork in your professional trajectory.

  13. Gena, I am so proud of you. This post is so beautiful. I think you are a rare, dear person who maintains an intellectual persuasion that so few our age do, and to me, that is one of your most charming characteristics. Happy holidays!

  14. 1. Please come to the Tree of Life in Patagonia, Ariz.

    2. Please do blog about books, art, raw food, or whatever else inspires you. You’ve got undeniable talent!

    3. You’re so pretty to boot! Let’s get you on the cover of a memoir soon, ya?

    • Ha! Thanks Sarah, and for your comment re: Dr. Cousins. I’d love to chat more; I’ll be in touch following the holidays.

  15. You are such an amazing writer. I so relate to you and this post. I can smell the paper and the ink on the pages. I can hear the crackling of the spine. And I somehow felt some much more comfortable in the world inside my books than I did in the world outside of them.

    This isn’t an end to your relationship with the literary world. I’d just say, you’re on a break. 🙂

    Merry Christmas, Gena.

    • Yeah, I think you’re right about that. And I get to live through you as you enter that world! And dominate it 🙂

  16. Hi Gena! I look forward to your book recommendations. and I love your hair with a bit of wave in it!! so pretty.

  17. I too was a reader growing up. I really appreciate the work you’ve done for book-lovers, I just can’t bring myself to move to using an electronic reader. Part of the joy of reading is holding the book in your hands and turning the pages, the smell and weight of it. I’m sorry this phase of life has ended for you but I’m excited to hear some of your book recommendations.

  18. cute pic! this was very thoughtful and interesting to read about your transition and evolution about publishing and your role across the years.

  19. Always inspiring to read about those who bravely follow the whispers of their true calling. Can’t wait to read more about your journey! I’m sure you’ll find your experience at FSG somehow fits perfectly with your new passion.

  20. Thank you for the glimpse into your world and for sharing your thoughts and insights about your job, what you loved about it, what you didnt, and for being brave enough to CHANGE your life, change your job, basically shake your world up in one of the biggest ways possible…going back to school, to become an MD, no less.

    I appreciated reading about your past life and it gives me insight and perspective into Gena the person, so thank you for sharing.

    And I completely understand that talking about one’s work on one’s blog, or in other social situations, isn’t always fun or enjoyable. The sentence you wrote about using Choosing Raw as your release valve from your work and not wanting to talk about work, i.e. books, anymore, totally resonated with me. But now that you arent working in the book world anymore, grace us with your literary thoughts once in awhile 🙂

    Merry Christmas, Gena!

  21. Beautiful, Gena, as always. And I have no doubt that we’ll be reading YOUR book, the one you write as a holistic physician! 🙂

    Have a wonderful holiday! xo Ricki

  22. What a beautiful post, Gena. Not only did you give insight into the foggy world of publishing, but you did so with such poise and true heart.

    You will be missed when I (someday) join the ranks of that world of such joys 🙂

  23. I’m so happy to get this glimpse into your work at FSG– I was very curious. As we change our career paths, our love of books never leaves, our way of expressing our love of books simply shifts. I was the director of a literary arts organization for three years where we provided writing courses and workshops for professional and amateur writers and I worked with publishers to feature established and emerging writers in a reading series. I loved that job. And now I simply love reading new (and old) literature and attending readings as a guest, not a host. It’s still all good 🙂

  24. What an experience – thank you for sharing your past with publishing. So honored I’ve gotten to know you over the past few years.

    Merry Christmas (soon!), dear Gena.

  25. Beautiful.
    I’m really proud of you for doing what you think is right. Even if it will take a lot of time, money, hard work, and a sense of loss of your former career and passion.

  26. A wonderful goodbye to one chapter in your life, and I appreciate how you gave us the new chapter first.

    I can relate to your feeling a bit out of place with your peers, I’ve never really fit right in at certain times in my life. I was a huge reader as a kid and even hid in the bathroom to read a few lunch periods when I was in the middle of a good book.

    I hope you do share some reads with us. Although reading blogs is very fun, I think too many of us have pushed longer novels aside, which we shouldn’t!

  27. So much of this post resonates with me. I really appreciate you sharing your words and story.

    My dad retired recently, but had been involved in book publishing and selling (especially rare and esoteric books) in London for years, and was quite down about the whole infiltration of Amazon et al, electronic media, in terms of affecting the trade and the level of choice available.

    But I totally agree that staying in that world out of a sense of obligation is not the right way to support it. I felt that sense of obligation toward Classical Literature for a time, and thought I’d ‘have’ to become a professor. Eventually I realized that if I do want to have an involvement in academia, it isn’t in that capacity, and I aim not to feel guilt about that. Conversely, I just shared on my blog my own exciting ‘back to school’ news and I have to refuse any thoughts about it being ‘non-useful.’ But health and nutrition are things that my mind regularly reverts to also, and especially having been to hell and back with an ed, I’m holding some hope of being of some service teaching writing workshops to ed sufferers or something like that.

    Your path is awesome and I wish you the best of luck.
    love
    Ela

  28. I love this post Gena!! I’m sure you will be missed by the publishing world as much as you’ll miss it. This here… you must write a memoir at some point!!!
    I hope you have a very merry Xmas 🙂
    xoxo
    Lola

  29. Gena, this was so lovely to read. Your passion for books can never be lost, nor your contribution to the literary world as you will carry meaningful words with you through you blog and medicine endeavours.
    Congrats also on your decision to change career…how wonderful! I look forward to hearing much more about your journey.
    Love,
    Casey

  30. A fitting eulogy, and real books won’t die. They can’t. There are too many of us who spent nights alone under the covers with a flashlight and a book, too many who lived like Bastian in “The Neverending Story”.

    And don’t be so sure about what you’re giving up… You’ll still have late night parties, laced with the whiff of sexual intrigue; intense, exhilarating conversations with wide eyed peers, and starstruck awe – they’ll just all now be about famous neurosurgeons. 😉

  31. Beautiful, well-written post. I am watching with sadness as books go out of style, to be replaced by ebooks and audiobooks, and I admit that I just can’t participate. I am an enthusiastic reader who buys books whenever I can, and I can’t imagine that changing. I am scared of the prospect of a future where books are only in electronic form. I’ve been told that it’s simply an inevitability by some, whilst others argue that there must surely be others out there like my husband and me, who need to hold a book in our hands, underline and dog ear it, and write notes in the margin. I loved reading about your love of books, and I look forward to more posts in which you share that love.

  32. Hi Gena – Ever since I started reading your blog, I thought you should write a book – so of course my hunch is that you will meet the book industry again as an author. I did very much appreciate the glimpse you gave us to the publishing world. I think reflection is so important to process a transition and I love that you are sharing this with all of us 🙂

  33. Gena, so lovely to read and get closer to you as you share more of your life. Congratulations on your choice of change… Exciting to be sure.

    XO

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