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The Holy Agent

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Note: A slightly revised version of this post is now on my new Blockbuster blog.

It does no harm to repeat, as often as you can,’ Without me the literary industry would not exist: the publishers, the agents, the sub-agents, the sub-sub agents, the accountants, the libel lawyers, the departments of literature, the professors, the theses, the books of criticism, the reviewers, the book pages–all this vast and proliferating edifice is because of this small, patronized, put-down and underpaid person.”–Doris Lessing in A Small Personal Voice

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Doris Lessing after winning Nobel Prize

A Hollywood screenwriter arrives home to find his house in flames. Firefighters are waging a battle to save it, ambulances are carting off his wife and kids, a crowd has gathered. As he jumps out of his car, a neighbor tells him: “Your wife was baking cookies with the kids and the doorbell rang. It was your agent, and while she was telling him you weren’t home …” At this point the man interrupted. “My agent?” he asked, awestruck, “My agent came to my house?!?”

Laugh. The truth is, over the past 30 years or so the agent has become one of the most important people in the publishing industry’s chain of command. These days it’s exceedingly rare for a publisher or editor to read submissions from “the slush pile”—unsolicited and unagented manuscripts. For a writer to get anywhere, she needs an agent. And not just any agent, or merely one who works hard: she needs a prestigious agent, one with a reputation and the right connections.

The quest to find this heavenly creature is almost as difficult as finding a publisher. The agent is another middleman, representing yet another obstacle separating a writer’s work from her readers. I’m speaking of books, by the way, not magazine articles or poetry; most agents won’t even bother with small projects, unless you’re Philip Roth and s/he’s been representing you and your best-selling books all along.

During the course of my so-called writing career I’ve had several agents represent my work, none successfully or even very energetically—except for the first one. She was just starting out, a progressive lawyer-turned-literary agent who’d gotten burnt out fighting the good fight for unfairly jailed ghetto kids, and she was hungry for clients. I knew her personally, and chose her simply because I didn’t have to jump through hoops to get her. I was 32, and this was the third novel I’d written: I was convinced this was The One. It was The One the same way as the fantasy future lover who’d prove to be my lifelong soul mate was The One. This book, I thought, was the ticket that would make me rich and famous, and put me on the path of The Writing Life once and for all. It had all the hallmarks of a best-seller: sex, politics, a locale that most people were curious to know about, and what I thought was a commercially hot title. I had not yet learned that a novel can have all these elements, but if the story and the writing aren’t superb, they’re meaningless.

My agent—let’s call her Nina—read my book and raved, positively raved, about it. “You have something to say,” she kept telling me, her voice full of admiration. She believed in my book. I was ecstatic.

At the time I was living in upstate New York, two hours from the city. Nina offered to come to me, saying she’d do whatever I wanted; she’d bend over and do handstands to accommodate her darling new auteur. Shyly I confessed that one of my lifelong fantasies was to be taken out to lunch by my agent, and Nina jumped on the opportunity to fulfill my dream. I confess I was slightly disappointed that, instead of taking me to The Russian Tea Room or some other place frequented by writer and editor types, we met at the Café des Artistes cafe-des-artistes.jpgon Central Park West. Still, it’s an elegant restaurant, and riding the train to the city, grabbing a cab, and dining on mussels and white wine while going over my contract was one of the peak experiences of my life up to that point—and remains so.

Nina sent my novel to every major publisher in New York: Random House, Knopf, Simon & Shuster—they were not yet congealed into one or two big corporate entities then–and my precious book landed on the desks of a dozen editors. Since these were contacts Nina had already cultivated, my book got almost immediate attention. It wasn’t long before my agent had a pile of responses—every one of them a rejection.

Somewhere in my files I have those rejections, but I’m not about to drag them out and quote from them now; it was bad enough the first time, when I dove under the covers and stayed in bed for three weeks—no easy accomplishment when you’ve got two school-age kids. Nina didn’t want to let me see them–that’s what an agent is for, to buffer a writer from rejection—but I begged and pleaded until she gave in. I’ve heard that she never again let a client see a rejection letter. I’ve also heard that she no longer expresses wild enthusiasm for a book before getting editorial feedback on it. Nina was, after all, without experience when she met up with my book, and I paid the price for that unfortunate fact.

Worse than the effect of the letters on my ego was their effect on Nina: she instantly lost faith in my book. She took every line of criticism to heart, almost as much as I did. What she had initially loved about my book—that I had “something to say,” she now saw as “preachiness,” as some of the editors had called it. She had me do a bit of rewriting, but by this time I was so freaked out and insecure that my rewrites were a disaster. I asked her to send the book out to smaller, feminist presses—but there’s not enough advance money in that market to cover a big fat agent fee. Our relationship deteriorated. She stopped taking my calls. Years later I sent the book out to smaller presses myself, without success.

I did not write fiction again for five years.

typewriter.jpgWhen I began publishing anthologies of erotic fiction, they served as my calling card, and I went through a succession of agents, none of whom worked very hard for my various non-fiction projects. One of my publishers (who shall remain nameless) told me, threateningly, that if I used an agent I could forget about continuing to publish with them. (And we wonder why writers need a union?)

Eventually, I recovered from my trauma, and have since written three more novels. With each one, though, I’ve done less and less hustling. I sent the last one, completed almost two years ago, to precisely two agents, and when they rejected it I simply gave up. I no longer have the heart for the submission process. I haven’t the fortitude to research agents, write self-promotional cover letters, and then wait to hear what strangers think is wrong with my writing. I can’t say I’ll never write a novel again—I am passionately in love with the process—but if I do, it will be for my own pleasure, not with dreams of glory. I’m doing it now, actually, with my memoir of mother/daughterhood–it’s not fiction, but it requires the same focus and commitment to the long haul.

I began this post with the intention of asking readers to suggest agents they might know of to possibly represent my memoir—but in the course of writing this, I’ve decided I don’t want to step onto that merry-go-round, at least not while I’m still writing the book. Perhaps I’ll change my mind when I finish. Then again, maybe I won’t. It’s turned out that writing is less a profession for me than, as John Gardner put it in The Art of Fiction:

“a yoga, or ‘way,’ an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world. Its benefits are quasi-religious—a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfactions no non-novelist can understand—and its rigors generally bring no profit except to the spirit. For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough.”

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2 responses »

  1. I have checked two editions of A Small Personal Voice and can’t find this quote by Doris Lessing.

  2. sorry–try googling or go to a Quotation site, there are plenty, and search under her name.

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