Sparking joy: Younger’s effervescent take on book publishing

White professional woman sitting in front of a computer. Set in a publishing office.

By Heidi Waechtler, Instructor, PUB 800/Fall 2020

I’ve spent much of this pandemic summer preparing to teach PUB 800 for the first time: wading through dense treatises on publishing and working out how to deliver an engaging remote seminar. So you’ll forgive me for devoting my introductory post for SFU Publishing to a delightfully frothy show that I’d like to recommend as a companion to your quarantine reading: Younger.

If you aren’t watching it already, Younger is a romantic comedy/drama series, based on a novel by Pamela Redmond, now heading into its seventh season. The premise: a 40-something woman attempts to reenter the book publishing world after taking a hiatus to raise her family, and finds she’s better received when she presents herself as a millennial industry neophyte. So she commits to the lie.

Younger’s ostensible focus is its love triangle (#TeamJosh all the way), but it’s actually a Trojan horse for plotlines ripped from the headlines of Publishers Weekly; Jia Tolentino, writing for The New Yorker, described it “a Gossip Girl for the publishing industry.” Publishing personalities who’ve been lampooned include George R.R. Martin, Karl Ove Knausgård, Marie Kondo, John Green, Kathryn Stockett, and Jeff Bezos (Paste Magazine has a full rundown of who’s been trolled). There are knowing nods to trends (colouring books! hygge! influencers-turned-authors!) and scandals (bulk-order bestsellers! plagiarism! #MeToo!); with a real-life New York book editor serving as a consultant, the show feels firmly grounded in reality. Empirical Press, the venerable yet scrappy book publisher where the show is set, is hopelessly cash-strapped—perhaps in part because their publisher, Charles Brooks, is a self-professed romantic better at making speeches about how “great literature will survive, because we need great stories,” than he is at publishing said stories. Empirical is forever courting investors, considering a merger, or else being bested by Amazon—or, ahem, “Achilles.” Like I said: the verisimilitude is there.

Sure, there are quibbles. There’s the episode where the team decides to go to the Frankfurt Book Fair…the week before the Frankfurt Book Fair, or the instant-book pace with which every new acquisition hits the market, or the fact that there seems to be only one literary agent in this version of New York City. And the show is sorely lacking in racial diversity, which you could say is actually a little too accurate for a show depicting book publishing today.

Still, I’m predisposed to like any series with a publishing angle, and Younger offers those of us in the trenches an escapist rendering of the industry, where the untenable P&Ls and the massive returns happen off-camera. Even real-world publishers are getting in on the fantasy: Simon & Schuster published Marriage Vacation, the roman à clef written by in-show character Pauline Turner Brooks. Besides, it’s been a few years since the CBC’s Being Erica, where the perilous trade was always more of a backdrop to the protagonist’s time-travelling journey to self-actualization. And Gilmore Girls, for all of Rory’s bookishness, never quite got it right: remember the Yale prof who confidently asserted, about the assignment of her own book as course text, “I get full royalties whether you buy the book new or used”? (No, she doesn’t.)

If you’re enrolled in my PUB 800 seminar this fall, we’ll talk about how publishers accumulate, deploy, and signify cultural and economic capital, publishing’s colonial roots, and the future of the book, among other topics. And I look forward to those spirited discussions. But, if I could add a “recommended binge watch” to my syllabus, it would be Younger, which has some surprisingly trenchant commentary on publishing to offer as well. As Rachel Syme observed, writing for The New Republic, “Publishing, at its heart, is about trying to capture and disseminate the zeitgeist; many of the conversations that the characters end up having on Younger are about how best to shepherd these new stories into the world and about the bumps they hit along the way.” May publishing provide enough industry gossip to sustain the show for years to come.

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