The Holy Agent

“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

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 publishing’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. It doesn’t hurt if the agent believes in the writer, and gives her time and attention, either.

The quest to find this godly creature is almost as difficult as finding a publisher. This middleman represents just one more 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 a progressive lawyer-turned- literary agent who’d gotten burnt out fighting the good fight; she was hungry for authors. 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. My fantasies about the novel that would put me over the top very closely resembled my adolescent fantasies of the lover who’d prove to be my lifelong soul mate. This book, I thought, had all the hallmarks of a best-seller: sex, politics, a locale that most people were curious 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. She really 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 see me, saying she’d do anything I wanted; she’d bend over and do handstands to accommodate her darling new writer. Shyly I confessed that one of my cafe-des-artistes.jpgfantasies was to be taken out to lunch by my agent, and Nina jumped on the chance to fulfill my dream. I confess I was slightly disappointed that, instead of taking me to The Russian Tea Room or Michael’s Pub, both frequented by writer and editor types, we met at the Café des Artistes on Central Park West. Still, riding the train into New York, grabbing a cab up to the restaurant, and dining on mussels and white wine while going over my contract was one of the peak experiences of my life.

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 conglomerates–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 feat 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. Nina was a novice when she met up with my book, and I suffered for that unfortunate fact.

Worse than the effect of the letters on me 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, 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 area to cover a big fat agent’s fee. Our relationship deteriorated. She stopped taking my calls. I sent the book out to smaller presses myself, but nothing happened.

I did not write fiction again for nearly ten years.

When I began publishing anthologies of erotic fiction, they served as a calling card to agents, and I went through a succession of them. None worked very hard for me. One of my anthology publishers told me 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 over the book I did with Nina, and have since written three more novels. With each one I’ve done less and less hustling. I sent the last one, completed almost two years ago, to precisely two agents, and after their rejections I forgot about it. I no longer have the heart for the submission process. I haven’t the fortitude to research agents, write self-promotional cover letters, send the damn thing out, and then wait to hear what they 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 takes the same commitment to the long haul, and is almost as hard to get published as a novel. It’s turned out that writing is less a profession for me than, as John Gardner put it:

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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