Among the Assisterati: Bottoms Up with the Highbrow Bottom Feeders

On a Tuesday evening not long ago, a group of publishing assistants in their early 20s gathered in a well-appointed apartment on the West Side of Manhattan.

“Assistants: Meet the person on the other end of the telephone,” the email had said. Still in their workday Moscots and belted sweater dresses, they found live human beings and an assistant’s paycheck worth of cheese and wine, along with a gestural six-pack of beer that would go untouched.

Most of the guests were already connected through a network of private colleges on the East Coast. The prospect of an endless name game loomed. Some were on intimate terms, having attended the same summer camp, the Columbia Publishing Course.

For six weeks, at a cost of $7,000, Columbia University offers recent college graduates forgettable workshops, fleeting encounters with important editors and access to the best unlisted job openings in book publishing and magazines. After swift job placement, these hyper-literate 20-somethings occupy a peculiar professional class: the Assisterati. Their institutional affiliations lend them a sense that they are the caretakers, soon to be inheritors, of a sublime patrimony. Their proximity to literary creation–via email, telephone or fax–suggests they possess a cultural credibility they couldn’t acquire in, say, Chicago, or on Wall Street. Underpaid but brimming with hope, they, like the people they assist, will one day run this town and steer the course of American literature. That is, if they stick around with their egos intact.  

THE ASSISTERATI ARE hired for their taste, their poise and their pedigree, but once they settle into their cubicles, these traits are about as valuable as perfect punctuation in the cover letter of a slush submission.

“The things that are the hardest, or maybe scariest, for me are admin things, like phones, paperwork–especially tax forms!” a 22-year-old assistant to a literary agent told The Observer from her office, over Gmail chat.

A distinguished if not currently prominent author recently took a meeting with the assistant’s boss and upon arrival, standing not three feet from her desk, said, “Have your girl print my boarding pass for my flight this afternoon and bring me a coffee.”

“I felt like I should be wearing a tight, white sweater and stenographer headphones,” she said.

That writer’s expectations weren’t far off. Thanks to industry-endemic budget tightening, the publishing assistant’s duties have steadily declined on an asymptote toward the menial. More and more time is spent scheduling lunches, taking minutes and mailing galleys (often to the other members of the Assisterati, with chatty notes on their personal stationery). They may be drafted into bartending a party–a debasement of one of the job’s few perks. Little of their workday is left to discover the next Lorrie Moore; to read the thousands of manuscripts you have to mine to find The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, they sacrifice their weekends.

The Assisterati’s bosses are the gatekeepers to the kind of meaningful work–acquiring or editing books–that they must master in order to move up the ladder. Even the most effete or doddering editor exerts the power of a colossus over his charge.

“You definitely have a certain worshipful attitude,” a 23-year-old editorial assistant explained. “If they sucked, where would you be? You play a shell game when you fuck up, so you can fix things without your editor knowing they went wrong.”

“I spent easily 80 percent of my workweek with my boss,” remembered Lilit Marcus, author of Save the Assistants. “He would talk to me about his kids. I knew his Social Security number. I still know his doorman’s cell phone number by heart.”

Assistants who fail to form a productive connection with their masters often make a lateral move, to try again under another editor or with a different company, as Ms. Marcus did. Others defect for M.F.A. programs, law school, a journalistic stint in a Third World country or a follow-your-bliss move like pastry school.

Only one of the mostly early-stage Assisterati The Observer spoke with at the party betrayed such fatigue. She likes the work, but it’s not a good fit personality-wise, she said with utmost diplomacy. She’ll consider leaving after the one-year mark.

The rest of the crowd still wore a honeymoon glow. One had started a literary magazine! Another had contributed his fiction to said magazine, thanks to a referral by the hostess.

Two assistants discussed the dinner their bosses have planned, delighted that both had logged it in their calendars as “Bros’ Night.” Another could barely contain his affection for his imprint’s most well-known editor.

“He’s the man,” he said, reeling back. He, too, stands the chance of being the man one day, but that night he looked like a boy.

Among the Assisterati: Bottoms Up with the Highbrow Bottom Feeders