Literary Agents


Minna vander Pfaltz & James L. Secor

Literary agents are, according to the Confucian way of looking at society, the lowest of the low. They are of this ilk because they make their money from the hard work of someone else. Perhaps worse, they are con artists, for they not only charge the writer a fee for “representation,” they charge him for office expenses that also are a tax deductible item as a business expense–and then they charge the publisher for “finding” the writer. What a deal! Agents don’t have to pay for anything and they get paid whether they find a “home” for some writer’s writing or not: they try, they get paid. Getting paid for not placing a work, getting paid for not winning is like a boxer taking a dive for a bigger paycheck.

But their influence on literature in general is even more perverse, beginning with their focus on making money. Profit over quality. How this works is via a preconceived idea if what sells so that, in the end, so very many genre writings look alike. And it sets up a free-floating standard for judgment, aside from “is this going to make me money,” that has nothing to do with writing, nothing to do with quality. It has to do with the boxed learning of the college English major.

A college degree in English is a degree in literature. It is not a degree in writing. An English degree is all about judging literature by already well-established (traditional) memes and putting a writer’s work in its appropriate pigeon-hole. It is not about writing. It is about a surface assessment of a finished piece. How off-the-wall is this?

Let’s take Edgar Alan Poe. A writer of horror stories. A writer of the occult. A Romantic writer. A judgment that is off twice over. To begin with, these people have never read his criticism and satire, a far greater quantity of his writing. And, then, they have never gone into the depth, the many-layered manner of his writing. The Cask of Amontillado is a horror story, right? Well. . .it takes place during Carnival, so everything is turned on its head. Carnival is necessary in order to right, to some degree, the injustices of society. The story is also about his hatred of the aristocracy. And, if we consider his choice of names, we find a distinctly Medieval coloring that bespeaks an off-color humor.

So, does The Cask of Amontillado fit into the Romantic mold?

And where do you put Jane Austen? Her stories are, apparently, about romance but, in fact, they are satires. Where do satires fit?

The worst perversion is considering Shakespeare literature. It is not. It is theatre. It was written to be spoken. It was written to be heard. It was written to be seen (often enough his stage directions can be found in the lines). Take any of his plays off the stage and they are only 30% of themselves. While English majors go into fits of ecstasy over his use of English, they blast him for his bombastic writing. All of this beauty of language takes on a different hue when it’s spoken, spoken to someone else. Then what’s important is motive and intent. And these English majors don’t know the difference between monologue and soliloquy. Hamlet’s monologue, “To be or not to be,” is a soliloquy. It is a soliloquy because he is speaking, to the audience, his thoughts. The reason Hamlet is doing this is that he is making his motives known to the audience. It is not a much used device any more. A monologue is what you get in Shaw or with a manic you’ve asked a question of.

At the same time, no drama is literature. It is drama. It is theatre. It is nothing when it is not onstage. The things you can do with drama you cannot do with literature.

Where does Brautigan fit into this pigeon-holing? Cult lit? So, too, Kerouac, then? Cult is a really good place to put lit that bespeaks things critics don’t want to hear.

Judging something on its face misses the point. It also shows an ignorance of what’s known as vehicle. A literary vehicle is a story that is about something other than itself. Poe’s horror stories. Abe’s alternative realities. Kawabata’s Snow Country. Atwood. MacCormac. Hammett. Morrison. Apuleius. Eco. Borges. Le Carre. Gellman. Kingsolver. Pinker (his mention here is Manippean satire).

But agents don’t care. The intellectual quality of a work is not at point here. What’s important is what sells, what makes money. This makes of the writer a cabinetmaker. All he has to do is hone his skills for this particular thing and he’s in like flint. For some of us, writing down is difficult. For others, who the fuck cares! What you get is James Patterson. He does not write his books; he edits what a bevy of writers produce for him.

Because of this, the creative writing MFAs are only cabinetmaking schools. They’ve got rules, all preset by the English curriculum, and. . .how do you teach creativity? How do you teach how to write? How do you teach the difference between plot and story? How do you teach the non-traditional? How do you teach voice?

Most people don’t know what voice is.

Agents are not interested in the difference between plot and story, if they even know. And, as Natalie Goldberg and Ursula Le Guin maintain, there are no rules to writing.

Here is the major rule for writing: grab the reader with the first sentence, with the first page, with the first chapter. If true, then Atwood and Byatt and Borges and Fuentes and many of the early-20th century writers would not find publication if they were not already famous, for they do not follow this rule. Goldberg would say the agents are looking for MacDonald’s hamburger writing. And, indeed, there are agents who are interested in only seeing the first page or the first three pages or the first chapter. They will make a judgment on the viability of the entire book based on less than 1,000 words. Really, how the hell can they tell anything?

I’ve even run across a couple agents who want no sample. They will make their decision based on your summary.

What kind of shit is this?

Then there is voice. I know agents have no idea what voice is. Most English majors don’t really know, though they can talk about it in erudite language. Yet voice is a very simple concept: it is what your narrator/narration sounds like. The best example of voice in the US is Mark Twain followed by Hawthorne, Hammett, Kingston, Allende and Sweazy-Kulju. There is also Doyle and Byatt and Grandpa Trollope on the other side of the pond.

Voice is also with each and every character. They ought to speak differently: different rhythm, different sounding. Playwrights are good at this. Not so academic creative writing professors: everything sounds the same, both narration and characters. The head of the writing program at the University of Kansas writes like this. The oddity of it all is that she gets published. So, perhaps the agents and publishers don’t have any idea either.

But voice exists outside of literature. It exists in the tenor of the times, assuming you are writing a historical or historic fiction novel. In this case, though, it does help to read the writers of the age, which few do, it seems.

It exists in the roaming storytellers of old. It resides in Bunraku, Japanese National Puppetry, because the gidayū (narrator) does it all. And in kyōgen. It is easy to see here because it is foreign and very distinctive.

But in today’s lit? Well, if it sounds like everyone else’s, then it’s got voice.

Today’s lit is paint-by-the-numbers in a given frame. Doesn’t natter what you put in it, just as long as it fits. I have something like this: I hung an empty frame on the wall above the sink. In the centre of which I put a smallish iron butler with a tray of drinks. Black with white for apron, etc. So, what’s the story, eh?


The Future is Staring You in the Face

The Future is Staring You in the Face


James L. Secor

The future is staring you in the face. The serious social media is in denial, if, indeed, it has any idea at all, so intent is it in chasing after one crumb or another left by Hansel in Trumpty-Dumpty Wood. The frivolous social media is without thought or insight, babbling like a murder of ravens disturbed over some fresh roadkill. The academics, so over-filled with intellectual spasms labeled “other places,” remain in denial, despite the pop culture of the 1970s some 100 years behind the Old Country. It seems that only in America does pop culture have no effect on society and ethics and, as the Valley Girls say, “Whatever.” The pop culture machine rolls on, gold teeth and fangs drooling over greedy profits.

The future is staring you in the face. TV and movies. War and war and more war. Heroism to no end. Only via killing and mutilation and personal suffering of others can you gain herohood. No! Just by being a soldier do you become a hero. Enlist and go kill. Kill. Kill. Kill! All for the greater glory of America, a land so isolated from the rest of the world it has lost its hold on reality. More war to rationalize the cross-eyed destruction and lack of humanity already inflicted on the Middle East–let’s forget the hell America has wrought in South America, too. We are so righteous and glorious. America! America! America! It’s all so romantic. And overwrought. And ignorant.

Romantic. Out of touch with reality.

I’d like to say, “Remember Bull Run” but Americans don’t read and have no truck with history, whether of another country or their own. Bull Run. Site of the first pitched battle of the Civil War. The romance of the battle brought out not only reporters but spectators: ladies and gentlemen and children and servants. What a glorious picnic entertainment this was to be! The rebellious Confederates would surely be put to rout and the self-righteous Union Army hailed as heroes. Heroes of the highest order, fighting is they were for the rights of man. Reality often has a ghastly way of breaking in on silly dreams, especially those of the Three Musketeers sort of high ideals.

Go, boys! Go! Go! Go!

Within moments, the romantic wonder of war for what was good and right became the reality of dead, burnt bodies, shouts and groans of pain and dying, arms and legs smashed and severed, blood and smoke everywhere. What a salacious picnic! Pickles and dessert up on the hillside, death and destruction down in the valley.

And, to top it off, the Rebels broke through the Union’s mightier numbers! How could bad win?! Oh! Let’s go home. This war thing is terrible. Terrible. Suddenly, war was no longer romantic heroism in the fight for right–both sides fought for what they believed right. This kind of nullifies the idea of God on one side or another.

George Bush II made sure the realities of war, as made public during the Vietnam debacle, were hidden from public view by banning coverage. No more blood and guts. Only reports of good. Not even notice of the bodies of dead soldiers coming home, albeit in sealed coffins. Obama didn’t lessen the irreality; he increased the mayhem but kept the blood and guts out of the public eye unless it was to show the enemy creamed and in bad light. And every soldier was a hero. Every enlisted man. The war in the Middle East became a glorified Crusade.

Thank you for your service. Thank you for your missing arms and legs. Thank you for your lifelong pain, your PTSD. Thank you for the medals on your chests and your spiffy uniforms. My heroes!

All of our movies extol the suffering heroism of war. New additions to TV land extol the wonder and rightness and heroism of war. Comic books are about war. The superheroes are as vicious and vengeance-filled and virulent as the bad guys. The heroes stand victorious and bigger than life in the midst of destruction, ruined cities and cheering survivors because they are good and right and above it all. Novels of war and survival against all odds fill the bookshelves and Internet sites. Indeed, the ethic today seems to be, if you don’t agree with me I get to kill you. Die! Die! Die. You fucking bastard!

The future staring you in the face, the reality staring you in the face is War.

Great nation, my ass!

But, first, there’s the new Roaring Twenties. Everyone going crazy over living, living for the moment. Something lost in a true epidemic that killed seven million in its first year.


by James L Secor

In 2010 I returned to the States. I did not want to; I liked China. Well, why don’t you go back? Is the first of several ignorant responses I’ve faced. Americans seem to like ignorant, self-satisfied reasoning. My father died. No great loss except to the abusive. The legal shenanigans surrounding his pitifully thin estate dragged on and on. And another American characteristic grew obvious. Americans are very litigious, the more so the less the take. And the longer this process goes on, the more the other person is wrong and “hurtful.” “I” am only right and seeking proper redress. Americans are forever right. Americans have quite an ego, which perhaps explains what they like to call their “stick to itiveness” a positive characteristic. Obstinate might be a better word. Obstinate and unable to let things go. Eleven years on, I am still bothered by certain elements of this case even though, in the end, there is nothing to be had. It’s the principle of the thing, they say. Vindictive? People like to bitch, not do anything about whatever. . .and then they wonder why nothing has changed.

Then there came retirement, retirement because. . .because there’s no other reason for not wanting an old man around. The same is done in China, it is true, but the skin off the retiree’s back is less. As a foreigner–and a writer–in China, I would still have some value. In the US, I have no value and it is held against me that I must access public monies for the poor in order to live. Especially so as I’m white and educated. Perhaps because SSA is not understood by nobody who reads any more so how would anyone know? Just bitch. It sounds better. It keeps you the victim. An easy part to play.

And yet, in relation to the world, Americans are arrogant. Arrogant fools. They think they are the best and have the best, often in the face of proof of just the opposite. Always in the face of greed. Money is worth more than life. As America is a monopoly world, it does not like competition or new technology. America has had no new technology in years; telephone technology is no more than another use for technology already in place. Business new technology is only a new twist for greed. I do not know why greed looks so good to the victim but it does, as if to say, “It’s all done for us!” My ass!

So, if I dislike this place so much, why do I not leave? 1) that’s a very Fascist attitude; 2) there is no one with enough money to pay my way to a country in which I could live easily and live well (donations accepted); 3) being a thorn in the side has its advantages; 4) there are no more Frances for displaced Americans to run to, mostly to continue their art. America doesn’t give a damn about art, good, incisive art. America likes the cliché. America likes the generality, the simplistic substitute for thought, which is why political slogans are so popular. Americans don’t think; they react. Reactionaries. They never prepare for the future, an upcoming event; they always wait until it’s too late and just react as if it’s a new and unknown thing. Discombobulated reactions.

The solution to problems is to get rid of them. Kill them. Jail them otherwise. Bad mouthing is always good as it gets everyone to hate them and push them to the side, read “out of sight.” This results in an America’s greatest behavior: denial. . .even as it’s being filmed. The biggest American problem here, in the face of it’s greatness, is racism. America is racist to the nth degree (no pun intended) and when there’s a rebellion, it will be like the French Reign of Terror: everyone is fair game. The greatest barrier to overcome is the police. Coupled with the military, this might lead to a military dictatorship. Throughout history, military dictatorships last for long periods of time–even quickly changing along the way. Always, of course, for the better, we say despite history, but oppressive and repressive all the same.

Racism and greedism and a fat head: that’s America.