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My Book Is Not About Vampires or Childhood Trauma. I'm Doomed.

The problem with literary agents

Looking for literary “representation”? Have you written, oh, let’s say, a collection of linked essays about poets and poetry, published in online journals, that would make an elegant and modestly remunerative little volume to be shepherded through the publishing process by an astute and learned literary agent? In that case (or as you might have guessed, in my case) you might consider recasting your mediations on Sylvia Plath and Catullus as a teenage vampire novel or as a memoir about your triumph over bad parenting, because, as far as the vast majority of American literary agencies are concerned, the book you’ve written is radioactive.

Everyone’s trying to make a buck and literary agencies can hardly be faulted for interesting themselves in what sells rather than in what doesn’t, or at least not so much. The problem, as one bracingly honest agent confided to me in the course of one of my innumerable rejections, is that the notion of “sales” has narrowed nearly to the vanishing point. Almost all agencies, he told me, are looking for one of two things: bestseller potential or the possibility of media adaptations. Although Edmund Wilson once contemplated a movie version of Axel’s Castle that would have featured Adolphe Menjou as Marcel Proust and the Marx Brothers as James Joyce, he could afford to joke about it. Would Axel’s Castle even be published today? I'm not so sure.

Let us hope that what that agent told me was a gross exaggeration born out of personal disenchantment. (Everyone in the publishing industry these days seems pretty disgruntled.) After all, good and serious books still manage to get published. Yet after plowing through hundreds of agency websites, I find it hard to believe that many other good and serious books aren’t being stopped dead in their tracks. The nomenclature is the first tip off. Nothing wrong with a little business jargon, but must they call themselves “boutique agencies” or, even worse, “full-service boutique agencies,” which, rather than lending the snob cachet so obviously intended, makes them sound like massage parlors? Far worse than any unfortunate phraseology is the resistance to ideas that contradicts the otherwise high-sounding claims made on so many of the agencies’ websites. “Character driven fiction,” “concept driven nonfiction,” “narrative nonfiction,” “exceptional stories,” “inspirational memoirs”: all of these things have their place in the literary universe and have made for many, many wonderful books, but with one or two honorable exceptions, you will find no equivalent wish lists for “language driven fiction,” or “tightly reasoned argument,” or “uninspiring memoirs.”

Unlike furiously anti-establishment bloggers, I have no problem with the role played by literary agents as cultural gatekeepers. There are far too many writers out there, and if the good ones are not to be buried by the bad ones, agents have an obligation to recognize and nurture talent that might otherwise go undetected. Economies of scale, to which the publishing industry remains bound, tend to favor the mass publication of trash, and the trash isn’t always so trashy. Only the sourest puritan would disdain genre fiction as inventive as George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones saga merely because there are five clichés to a page. But economies of scale also allow for the publication of midlist books supported by all that trash, not to mention by all those indispensible guides to gastro-intestinal disorders, college entrance exams, and the rest.  

Or used to allow. Really, some of what I read on those agency websites was enough to make a grown person cry. “What type of platform do you have for speaking about the issues in your book?” “What is your access to the media or to major experts in your field?” “Have you written the next such and such?” “Would your story fit perfectly on the blank cover of a magazine?” My answer to all those hopeless questions was None, none, no, and no. Why would I want to write a book just like one someone else has written, and couldn’t I go on the Charlie Rose show after my book has made me an international celebrity? No Jonathan Franzen-like crises of conscience for me. I would gladly whore myself out to sell a few copies of my nonexistent book even if that meant speaking to sullen high school students or the National Rifle Association. But I'm not a “brand,” I don’t have a “platform,” and if literary agencies are going to insist on such things from all of their clients, some very good writing—much of it undoubtedly better than mine—will never be published in book form.

So who are these wicked literary agents scheming to turn dreams into nightmares and corrupt our literary culture? Well, many of them are erudite and passionate advocates of writers and writing. And many are not. For the latter types, there’s no real balance between commercial imperative and literary ambition. The writing is merely part of the package, not necessarily more important than the “platform” and maybe less so than the “brand.” But let them speak for themselves. Agent W “is open to practical nonfiction and memoir, but only if the author has a strong platform.” Agent X’s “clients include nationally known journalists, management consultants, academics, and people who spend a lot of time in front of television cameras.” Agent Y “views his relationship with his authors as being pro-active career building and career management on a global basis.” Agent Z “looks for fun, fresh, and exciting reads.”

As I’ve said, significant books still get published, and there are inspiring literary agents helping to make such works a reality. I'd like to see more of such books, yet the grotesque philistinism of so many literary agencies works against that outcome—and you can’t get to the publishers without the agencies. It’s no accident that much of the best American writing today is to be found not inside the covers of a book but in magazines and online journals. (A case in point: William Deresiewicz, the author of unapologetically brilliant essays in The New Republic and The Chronicle of Higher Education, is also the author of A Jane Austen Education, a good book that would be a lot better if it didn’t have “proposal” written on every page.) True, most of the writers publishing in those forums can’t make a living at it anymore, but at least their editors are committed to publishing the best of what they can find rather than the most marketable or the most “concept driven.”

So why beat up on literary agencies? Aren’t publishing houses equally risk averse? Possibly so, but in mediating between writer and publisher, the agencies build in an extra layer of exactly what is not needed: more conservatism and caution. Am I naïve in believing that publishing houses might be slightly more receptive to innovation than most literary agencies imagine? A literary scholar of my acquaintance told me he knows of three first-rate studies of W. H. Auden that have no chance of getting out of manuscript. Never mind my book. I want to see the ones about Auden.