Business Books

Layoff lit: in publishing, sudden unemployment begets a fashionable genre. How two victims handled their career crashes

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Peter Arkle for TIME

Your industry may have been in recession the past few years, but mine was in a free fall. Lee Kravitz, editor of Parade, was fired on a Monday morning during a one-minute hallway conversation. Dominique Browning, who ran House & Garden for Condé Nast, magazinedom's most glamorous company, was also a Monday-morning casualty. She was told to be out of her office by Friday because her 106-year-old magazine was folding. No time for niceties when 400 magazines a year are going dark and thousands of journalists are joining the unemployment line.

One thing about being a journalist is that your life can always provide story fodder. Manhattanites Kravitz and Browning got the last laugh by getting juicy book contracts, and they have each produced worthy meditations about work and the sudden lack of it. Neither author uses the occasion to settle scores. Too bad. I really wanted to hear them dish. Happily, neither asks, Whither journalism? We've already heard way too much moaning about that. And you probably don't care. Rather, the authors explore what it means, emotionally, to be self-described workaholic achievers when the work spigot shuts off and the checks stop.

Their viewpoints are diametrically opposed. Kravitz initially feels himself retreating ("Instead of seeing friends again, I stopped taking their phone calls. Instead of playing with the kids, I took naps.") but pulls back from the brink with a bold plan of action: he moves on. Browning, on the other hand, unravels in witty, Nora Ephron--ish prose. ("Now I'm faced with two possible responses. Either I crack up, or I use this trauma as an opportunity to grow. Of course I crack up.")

Kravitz sets out on a mission, devoting a year to completing the unfinished business in his life, including making amends to the people he has hurt. Self-effacing, self-aware, he embarks on a journey in which he reconnects with a schizophrenic aunt neglected by their family, forgives a high school nemesis and honors a forgotten promise to an underprivileged African boy. What could have turned into a self-congratulatory, Disneyesque odyssey becomes an occasion for real kindnesses and growing sensitivity.

Like many of the unexpectedly unemployed, Browning is crushed by her job loss. She tells a powerful tale of going into a "whiplashing tailspin ... Work had become the scaffolding of my life." Simultaneously, a longtime romance ends, intensifying the agony. The result: she eats for comfort (to excess), forgets what day it is (to her embarrassment) and fantasizes that a man will rescue her (to her feminist chagrin). She contemplates Kravitz's route of doing long-neglected tasks and rejects it tiredly. Concerned about money, she sells her large suburban home and moves to the coast of Rhode Island. Her life takes a Thoreau-like turn as she makes peace with nature and solitude. It's a resolution that seems unlikely for such a type-A urbanite. It is hard to believe that the sight of a Starbucks wouldn't derail her.

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