Reviewed by Nicholas Havey
A Career in Books
A Novel about Friends, Money, and the Occasional Duck Bun
By Kate Gavino
Illustrated by Kate Gavino
Aug 2022, ISBN 9780593185483, Hardcover, 288pp, $20.00
Publishing is one of those industries that is frequently romanticized. From Hallmark movies (the big city literary agent returning home for the holidays) to sitcoms (a protagonist getting a three martini lunch with her editor friend), the field is rife with stories. Literally. And Kate Gavino’s A Career in Books is a beautiful, if cynical, exploration of publishing and the lives of the workers that keep the industry afloat.
A graphic novel, A Career in Books first introduces the reader to its three main characters: Shirin, Nina, and Silvia. The trio, who became fast friends in college and live together in New York, are about to embark on their entry into the world of publishing. One at an academic press, another at a traditional publishing house, and the third at a niche, ‘indie’ press funded by a whimsical woman with a trust fund.
The novel moves apace, documenting the realities that are tangible to those who have worked in publishing and may seem surreal to those who have not. Each of the characters, all Asian women, experience microaggressions at work. Subtle and not so subtle racism, ageism, and sexism plague the workplace and their personal lives (the judgmental parents of a boyfriend; a caring parent who is also a little concerned; self-doubt steeped in historical marginalization; each other’s scathing but honest opinions). While not as ominous as the workplace aggressions described in Zakiya Harris’s The Other Black Girl, Gavino deftly highlights that publishing is indeed an industry built on the idea of ‘paying your dues’ and taking mistreatment. Even if that means you can’t pay your rent.
Midway through the book, Shirin, Nina, and Silvia, increasingly fed up with their jobs, the just out-of-reach opportunities for upward mobility, and the insane and underqualified (white) coworkers they have to deal with, meet their upstairs neighbor, the fictional Booker Prize winning novelist Veronica Vo. Vo, dubbed the ‘Tampax Tolstoy’ by her contemporaries, is an inspiration to the main characters. Like Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Evelyn Hugo, she has lived many fabulous lives. And Shirin, Nina, and Silvia can’t wait to dissect each and every one.
The trajectory of the novel shifts dramatically after the main characters encounter Vo: they attempt to sell her memoir, they become her de facto granddaughters, and they learn valuable life lessons from an Asian woman in her ninth decade of life. Veronica Vo, like everything and everyone else in the book, is beautifully rendered both literally and figuratively and provides a delightful layer of intrigue to what could otherwise have been a cynical retrospective on a career in books.
Like the varied books Shirin, Nina, and Silvia work on throughout A Career in Books, the book itself is a multifaceted ode to friendship, New York, and your twenties. Gavino’s characters are lived in, relatable, and funny. Their bosses are archetypal, knowable people we have all worked worth (or been). The New York they occupy is similarly vivid, and will likely be familiar to readers who have spent any amount of time in Brooklyn, commuting into the city, or hunting for lunches that cost less than $16. Duck buns anyone?
As the book comes to a close, it is clear to the reader, and to Shirin, Nina, and Silvia, that there is something to gain from experience, even if that experience is a bad one, and that it may sometimes be better to put energy back into something, or someone, that is putting it right back into you. Even if that means leaving a career you had your heart set on, ending a relationship that seemed perfect on the surface, or appreciating the journey while giving up the end goal. Not every book sells. But this one should.
Overall, A Career in Books is a masterfully crafted graphic novel that describes, at the most basic level, what it is like to work in books. It’s frustrating, it’s annoying, but it can be rewarding. But under that surface is a loving exploration and reclamation of Asian American culture, space in the workplace, and what it means to do something you love even when it’s not loving you back. A Career in Books is fast-paced, sometimes gut wrenching, sometimes hilarious, but consistently compelling evidence that Kate Gavino will have a long and happy one as a writer and illustrator.
About the reviewer: Dr. Nicholas Havey is a Senior Manager at First Book, a nonprofit social enterprise focused on improving educational equity, a thriller and mystery writer, and a lover of all, but particularly queer, fiction. Nicholas’ other reviews of fiction are featured in Lambda Literary, forthcoming in the Washington Independent Review of Books, and his reviews of academic work appear in a number of peer-reviewed journals.