Strangers in the night: A note on agents

A couple of months ago, Stephen Akey wrote an amusing riff for the New Republic’s website about literary agents and the weird control they exert over what gets published now. The premise is that Akey has been shopping around a collection of linked essays about poetry and having absolutely no success at it. As someone who sometimes accidentally forgets to procrastinate and actually writes short stories, as well as the occasional literary essay, I was extremely sympathetic to his plight. And as my little rantlet on behalf of J.C. Hallman’s latest book shows, I tend to enjoy books whose location on the shelves of your typical airport bookstore aren’t immediately apparent. We should have shelves and shelves of books we don’t know where to shelve.

Akey says the sad truth seems to be that unless a book has the broadest appeal possible or comes attached to one’s already-cemented, celebrity-level reputation, most agents are not interested. Now I haven’t had many interactions with agents, but even my scant anecdotal data bears this out. Anyone who’s sat in the audience for one of those agent panel presentations — where they talk about how they charmingly wandered into their current gig, how much they love literature, etc. — knows just how quick the whole talk can turn grim. In my limited experience, it seems like what most agents want are, to borrow a quip from Lorrie Moore, abbreviated film plots — a book that is easily summarizable, with well-delineated genre signposts (literary or no), and above all an easy sense of taxonomy. What they want is a novel that has the easy conceptual grip of a piece of nonfiction, something that can not only be discussed as a marketable entity but in a way comes predigested, pre-understood, pre-sellable because already sold. 

A synecdoche of this phenomenon is the activity of pitching your novel to an agent, something I have only done a couple of times and an activity at which I am (admittedly) atrocious. What’s interesting in the lit agent woo-o-sphere is how each interstitial bit of copy is its own genre, with its requisite learning curve. Pitching a novel is exceedingly different from writing a novel. (Personal aside: I still find it hard to pitch something I’ve written without feeling like I have also simultaneously turned into a gigantic human booger.) After another failing attempting at pitching my novel, it’s difficult not to craft pitches for various canonical works of literature:

Absalom, Absalom! is a riveting story of a boy, confused about his station in life, who returns to have a heart-to-heart with his old man, an old lady, and a room full of dust motes. A searing portrait of a family, a region — a world! Also, there’s an unexplained Canadian roommate. Sequel potential!

If a pitch sounds like jacket copy, then all the better because what it is (again: I’m guessing!) is pre-written jacket copy. How would I sell this, the agent wants to know, not entirely unreasonably. How will this be packaged? 

Of course, as a civilian reader, I never read the jacket copy, that distracting, wet mound of verbiage second only to blurbs in its manipulative uselessness. In my dream world of book publishing (eerily like France), there would be no jacket copy at all, no blurbs, no marketing, frankly. Just the author’s name, the title, and no more than three words of taxonomic information. I liked it when books just included a nice fat representative paragraph on the back cover. If this little glop of words rings your bell, then you might like this book, which you can also open and peruse even further right here in the store — still after all this time the best way to ascertain if you’re going to like a book. But all of this other marketing copy is just word noise. The single greatest benefit to buying hardback editions of books is unpeeling that noisy cover off and lining the recycling bin with it. Yes, yes, I realize that we are paradoxically in an era of unprecedented book cover mastery (Mendelsund, Kidd, et al.) But still, nothing speaks better than the mute opaque dignity of a clothbound book. 

Of course the larger problem here is that I’m thinking of this endeavor as an English major, and in some ways a major in English is the worst thing one can get if you want to write contemporary novels. I’m including the MFA degree in this as well, though I don’t want to rehash the whole To MFA or Not To MFA debate — surely the Coke v. Pepsi of the literary world. What I mean is that what you end up studying in your English lit class/creative writing workshop is not the most representative American novel from the 1930s, but the most exceptional novel from the 1930s. That’s what the canon is: a litany of exceptions, a library of shaky notions that for some reason sing to the culture. In fact you could argue that many of our greatest novels work despite the fact that in many ways they are hot steaming messes, in terms of being immediately comprehensible narrative devices. You don’t have to reach all the way back to Melville to see the inverse ratio between novelistic and/or historical greatness and total commercial nightmare, as far as a publisher is concerned. And so after several years of studying the exceptions to the rule — despite the fact that Faulkner or Melville or Munro or whomever would get totally murdered in workshop — you as a writer want to write something that is also exceptional. Nicholson Baker said it well. What you are trying to do, as a writer, is be as completely different from everyone else as humanly possible. But this is precisely what literary agents are not interested in. This to them is commercial suicide (and they’re right!), and they don’t want to assist you. Because of the way agenting works, there is no path to success except to acquire clients along a conservative aesthetic trajectory.

What does this mean? In terms of fiction, this means they are interested in big chunky novels that can be labeled “literary thrillers.” They are not interested in metafiction, short stories, essays, poetry, fiction that eschews plot, anything that tries to address the history of the novel, etc. (Though Hallman’s book found a good home, so I very well might be totally bats.)

Which again, all of this would be fine as wine except for the fact that all of the major publishing houses are inaccessible unless you already have an agent representing your work. They simply won’t accept unagented submissions. And so what happens is that literary agents become subeditors before the great gods of the publishing houses. I’ve heard of writers whose agents go through multiple revisions of a manuscript before sending it out, all of which is fine, good lord one wants to be edited, one needs the help, but what is interesting is that these agents are acting as editors without access to a publication. If your story is edited by an editor at a literary magazine, it makes sense. You are both collaboratively working on the manuscript to make it better for eventual publication in that editor’s periodical. Same thing with an editor at a house. But the agent is an editor without an outlet and no real control over whether or not any house will publish it, so he or she is editing it not to any kind of house’s vision of excellence (or even marketability or commercial viability) but to their imagined chimera of commercial viability . . . somewhere. It’s a weird declension of the editorial function.

But the disintermediation first of manuscript acquisition and then of initial editing from the publishing house to the agents seems like an unfortunate historical accident. Amidst all of the Harper Lee brouhaha over her “sequel” recently, there was a nice long investigative piece about the book, and it showed the editorial records of how To Kill A Mockinbird went through several versions and how the editors at Lippincott helped her revise the book. I was amazed at the level of energy they expended on Lee’s as-yet-unrealized novel. All of this happens now at the agent level, though to be honest I have no idea if it still happens at this kind of back-to-the-studs renovational depth. 

Another consequence: I’ve known writers who have done the agent revisions dance and had the novel submitted only to have it rejected by the houses, after which the agent shrugs and asks when he will have an entirely new book manuscript ready to go. That is, the manuscript goes off to agented-but-unaccepted limbo, like all the babies who died before being baptized. The only person who has lost here is the author, who’s spent four years writing the book, then another two revising it, then another one waiting for people to respond. And that’s a sad situation. It’s a situation that could easily waste someone’s life. The only solution then is to remove the book from the agenting universe and send it yourself to the markets that the agents aren’t interested in — the university presses, the small presses — to try to give your book a life. The agent isn’t interested in these markets because the money’s not big enough. Suddenly the prospect of selling your book is like working with a trial lawyer. Unless he can get a large sum of punitive damages, your case is not worth it to him.

Akey is not against agents. He says they serve a crucial gatekeeping function and that there’s a lot of hokum out there to sift through. (This blog post is probably a prime example.) I see his point; my historical query is why the houses outsourced this gatekeeping function to agents. It seems like the logical next step would be for agents to start publishing writers themselves. If they do indeed already do the heavy editorial lifting and if they do indeed have the keys to the marketing kingdom, then why don’t they call up a printer? They would seem to have more leverage than the behemoth publishing houses. 

But then again, in terms of the business transaction, the agent doesn’t put forth any risk, at least relatively speaking. The agent didn’t take the time to write the book and the agent isn’t going to put $40,000 down to market it, and the agent isn’t going to make the trains run on time to have it in stores on the designated day. The agent is merely the conduit for two insecure and bewildered parties who for some unforeseen reason can’t find each other on their own in this contemporary cultural megalopolis. The agent is a pimp. 

It seems as if publishing houses could acquire new books and their authors more cheaply without agents, since using them drives up the price, though I’m sure there’s a PowerPoint presentation somewhere showing how in the long run it’s cheaper to do it this way. Why else would the publishers do it? But despite this numerical advantage, it distracts from the unseen cost of eroding the publishing house’s editorial authority, which in the end is the only authority it has.

Once, at another entirely different panel discussion, I heard an older, more successful writer quip that agents need writers more than writers need agents; it just doesn’t feel that way. And really that’s about the most intelligent statement I’ve ever heard regarding the agent situation. I wonder if it would make Faulkner feel any better.