Text and the city

University of Minnesota alumna Janet Groth worked as the receptionist at the New Yorker for 20 years. Now she’s written a book about it.

Griffin Fillipitch

 

What: Discussion with Janet Groth and Garrison Keillor

When: 7 p.m., tonight

Where: Common Good Books, 38 S. Snelling Ave.

 

When Janet Groth was a student at the University of Minnesota during the 1950s, she began writing her own short stories and poetry. It was something she hoped to pursue as a career.

“I had a teacher, Professor Bloom, that had gotten me a fiction prize for the stories I had published in the Ivory Tower,” Groth said. “They were so inadequate and young. I fear going back to read them now. But at the time, he was praising them as honest evocations of adolescence.”

Years later, long after she had graduated, Groth gave her old professor a novel she had been working on. This time he was not so encouraging.

“He said, ‘I don’t know why anyone could be asked to spend time with these people,’” Groth said. 

“‘You’re not only smoking with a cigarette holder, you’re writing with one.’ That was pretty devastating.”

In the time separating these two critiques, Groth had taken a job as a receptionist at the New Yorker. The people that Professor Bloom could not stand to read about were, in some cases, based on the writers and artists she met while working there.

She held that job for more than 20 years. Though she eventually gave up on novelizing her experience at the prestigious magazine, Groth has chronicled it in a new memoir, “The Receptionist: An Education at the New Yorker.”

“You could say I’ve been writing it my whole adult life,” Groth said. “I kept notebooks and journals then. Going back and reading them was a wonderful way to put those years in order and get some perspective on what had, at the time, been a very blurry sense of self.”

That personal uncertainty was the product of her occupation and a difficult upbringing.

“As a child of an alcoholic, I had those syndromes of pleasing everyone and feeling very inadequate,” Groth said. “Maybe that contributed to me wanting to do that for the often troubled and often drinking writers among whom I worked at the New Yorker.”

In “The Receptionist,” Groth gives detailed accounts of these troubled and drinking writers. She avoids tawdry details and any particularly scandalous anecdotes, but it is full of honest accounts of her friendships with people like E.B. White, John Berryman and Joseph Mitchell.

“E.B. White interviewed me for the job,” Groth said. “I had written this prize-winning story and put it on my résumé, hoping to impress him. He was only interested as to whether or not I’d typed it out myself.”

Literary legends abound, but Groth is still the central character. Her story of remaining in the same position for two decades, occasionally attempting to transition to writer, is a frustrating and relatable one.

“Every once in a while I would disturb myself to give it a try,” Groth said. “I submitted a poem that got a very, very gentle rejection slip… I submitted a story that ended up in a pile of stories and wasn’t seen until it was far too late to use it.”

Writing opportunities for women were difficult to come by, but Groth does not put all of the blame on the New Yorker.

“If they’d had a few assertiveness training classes, things might have gone differently,” Groth said.

It is clear that Groth has mixed emotions about her experience at the New Yorker. She has great affection for most of the people she worked with, but her intention was always to write, not be a receptionist. At least there were some perks.

“Still, I needed those psychoanalysis classes that the New Yorker paid for,” Groth said. “They regarded it part of the cost of doing business to send all of their troubled writers to shrinks. And since I was on staff, I got to go as well.”

Groth jokes about this in the book: “If the New Yorker was exploiting my passive dependency, they paid handsomely to rid me of it.”