Literary Agents

by

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?

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