Power and Language
In Best Young Woman Job Book, a young writer pursues her dreams under capitalism
Content Note: This review mentions sexual assault in the last four paragraphs.
Being a writer is, quite famously, a difficult path to pursue. Unless you’re born into generational wealth or nepotism, the commitment to pursuing writing seriously takes tremendous sacrifice. It takes years to develop a writing practice at all, let alone a successful one. But one of the greatest sacrifices writers must make to pursue their practice, particularly in the current hellscape moment of late-stage capitalism, is simple: money.
Best Young Woman Job Book, written by Toronto-based millennial poet and essayist Emma Healey, is a memoir about trying to become a writer. The book illustrates the ups and downs of Healey’s personal finances as she pursues her dream career path. Written in short paragraphs like an extended prose poem, the book is a cross between contemporary work memoirs like Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley and literary memoirs like Alexander Chee’s How To Write An Autobiographical Novel.
Following in the footsteps of her parents, both actors and writers who must also take temp gigs to pay their bills, Healey devotes herself to writing and work from an early age. Her time in university studying creative writing is supplemented with gigs: as a “Standardized Patient” for student doctors to practice on, as an intern with a small press and as a barista (“The job is not hard, but I’m also not good at it”).
Once she graduates, the jobs mostly turn to copywriting: writing artist bios for a music festival, captions for daytime talk shows and blog posts for an SEO optimization start-up. Of the latter, she writes,
“One of the most common keyword phrases I’m supposed to insert into the text is best [whatever] Toronto, because it’s a common search phrase: best boxing Toronto, best juice Toronto, best lunch Toronto… Eventually, I come up with a genius solution, a way to make the phrase elegant and seamless: These are some of the best sandwiches Toronto has to offer! This boxing class is the best boxing class Toronto has seen in some time! I am inordinately proud of myself for this trick… Of course, no one ever acknowledges my innovation. And just like with art, the rush of a breakthrough inevitably gives way to self-doubt.”
The memoir’s title comes from her time at the SEO start-up. Best Young Woman Job Book is, in itself, SEO for the book that it describes. It’s an extremely subtle-yet-funny choice, displaying Healey’s matter-of-fact and deadpan sense of humour that pops up regularly in the pages.
Similar to Uncanny Valley, Healey is intentionally vague about some of the specifics of her former workplaces. Rather than referencing people and places by name, proper nouns are turned into common ones. However, readers familiar with Montreal and Toronto in particular will be able to deduce their true names. For instance, MindGeek, formerly known as Manwin, becomes “the porn company” (and yes, their old logo really looked like someone opening their legs as she describes).
If Healey is intentionally vague about the specifics of her workplaces, she is always honest about money, an ultra-rare detail that makes Best Young Woman Job Book stand out from other artist memoirs. Whenever Healey finds a wave of literary or financial success, she always states the amount she was paid, as well as what she used the money for (spoiler alert: it’s mostly rent). It’s an admirable display of honesty when so few writers are willing to share the financial specifics of their lives with each other, let alone the public.
Healey’s honesty is also displayed when discussing her experience with sexual assault, which she faced in her second year of university at the hands of a “real writer,” an older professor in her creative writing program. Although she doesn’t recognize it as assault when it first happens, she eventually names what happens to her. The writing reflects her dissociation: references to the “real writer” pop up again and again and again before both the writer and reader realize what actually occurred.
The violence inflicted on young women at the hands of older men is a problem the art world, and literary world in particular, has grappled with in recent years and continues to reckon with; fellow millennial Toronto writer Fawn Parker’s newly released novel, What We Both Know, also tackles this topic. Healey’s honesty is a powerful contribution to writing about sexual assault by survivors of violence themselves, especially when it has been portrayed gratuitously and salaciously as a plot device by male writers for centuries.
Rather than writing an intricately detailed account of trauma, in Best Young Woman Job Book, Healey is able to write about her life experiences as she chooses to. Although the memoir is at times vague, it’s essential to realize that this was an important and even subversive choice for Healey given the subject matter. When she finds herself at a writer’s residency during the beginning stages of what becomes this book, she writes,
“I tell everyone the truth, which is that I’m here to write a book about work. Not about trauma, or pain, or fear, or memory, or sexual assault… A book about power and language and value, written on my own terms, without reference to anything that makes me uncomfortable or unsettled or unsure of myself. A book that will amplify the things I want to talk about and make the rest disappear.”
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Oh, thank you for this review! It’s just what I need right now, while I’m living as modestly as I possibly can in order to be able to write. Even you writing about it make me feel seen. Thank you thank you.