Just Two Questions: ‘How To Be Useful’ Author Megan Hustad Explains How To Succeed In Publishing By Actually Trying

By Glynnis Comment

htbucover.jpg Megan Hustad worked at Knopf, Basic Books, and Counterpoint Press before leaving publishing to write a book about the unexpectedly actually-relevant lessons of what she calls “success literature,” so naturally her book — coming in May!– is full of what-not-to-do examples that will sound familiar to anyone who’s had similar jobs. Like the time Hustad “innocently typed up a dismissive reader’s report for a manuscript, stating something to the effect that I had a hard time caring about the troubles of a privileged Connecticut boarding school girl — and promptly handed it in to a boss who, lo and behold, had been a Connecticut boarding school girl.” Oops.

Hustad isn’t just interested in cataloging office bloopers and culling the highlights of ‘How To Win Friends And Influence People,’ though. Her thesis is at once ‘duh’ and revolutionary: She posits that “middle-class young people have been suckered into adopting a cynical detachment that they can’t afford,” that we “get pushed towards a mindset that privileges being cute and clever, plugging away, and uh, yeah, that’s about it.” Also, she says, we’ve been fed the dangerous misinformation that “just being ourselves” is a good thing in an office environment. The solution: We must reclaim the word “ambitious,” which has become something of an epithet, and recasting it as a positive description of people who hope to actually enjoy their working lives. It seems obvious, but the thing is, no one else is saying this.

Long story short: This is the book you’ll want to travel back in time and press into the hands of your 22 year old self so that she doesn’t, say, respond to a question from her boss about whether she knows so-and-so with, “Oh, yeah, I smoked pot with him once!” You’ll probably also want to give it to your intern. (You know, the one who rolls in at 10:00 and takes three hour lunches.)

After the jump, Hustad reveals the surprising secrets of (real) success.

Emily: I am going to sound fogeyish here, which is BIZARRE because, well, I’m not so old! But I really do feel like KIDS THESE DAYS need your book. Reading the anecdote in the intro about the architect’s assistant who wondered whose job it was to break down the boxes in the hallway and was shocked to learn that it was part of his job description reminded me of some the interns I ever had at Hyperion — totally nice and talented and smart kids who didn’t hesitate for a minute to let me know that they were only interested in learning about the inner workings of a publishing house so they’d have a leg up when it came time to publish their novels. What is it that leads people to think they can get away with acting entitled and too good for their jobs?

Just a cursory overview of mainstream messages about work suggests expectations are MESSED UP today. I mean, the idea you have when you’re 19 that everyone older and more settled than you is an unimaginative drone, that’s as old as time. What’s taken that very normal and very human impulse and curdled it into feeling entitled — or the idea that, well, working up through the ranks was o.k. for those sad sacks but not me — is…a lifetime of being told you’re special? Should we blame parents? Bravo TV, for making kids think it’s socially acceptable to do finger-guns at the camera and announce “I’m the best!”?

I dunno. But I do know that, for the vast majority, this ‘feeling too good for their jobs’ doesn’t come from a bad place. It’s only naivete that’s been enabled a little too long. (In the past, more people had mindless and humiliating service jobs at 16 — there is data on that, actually — and that experience tended to wipe up excess…energy, let’s say.)

Anyhow, some don’t realize that announcing their intentions to get their first novel published at age 25 might sound cute, i.e. more than a little annoying, to older ears. Case in point: I was having lunch with an aspiring author who said that he’d written his last novel “in about six months.” (This is after I’d mentioned that I was really, really struggling with my book.) “Wow, that’s not a long time!” I said. His response? “For me it’s not.” And then…yeah, I was thinking, oh boy oh boy oh boy….

Emily:What lessons from your extensive readings — and your experiences — are most applicable to kids who are looking to get ahead/not hate their lives in book publishing?

Megan:I think I’m supposed to respond with something like, well, buy my book. But quickly, broadly speaking, I’d say that even though it seems like you’re spinning your wheels / doing useless grunt work / lagging behind career-wise, you’re not. Not if you’re really paying attention. There’s life around — look at it. There are things to be grasped about human nature, human nature in groups, the fragility of egos, the use and abuse of power, the use and abuse of tenderness, even…the office (esp. an unhappy one) is a good place to study these things. May be my own brand of naivete, but I’m convinced that people who notice and understand these organizational dynamics will wind up more successful. And write the best novels.