Thursday, August 11, 2005

From the horse's mouth

Here is some advice from the horse's mouth -- which is what I wrote without thinking about it. Then I did think about it. What does that phrase mean exactly?

Well, the Oxford dictionary says that it means '(information) from an authoritative source'; and I guess that the origins lie in horse racing. In other words it's a tip from someone who is in a position to know.

This particular tip relates not to racing but to another form of gambling, namely publishing. Yesterday a real live actual British agent made a comment on an earlier post of mine which I think deserves to be dragged out into the full light of day, because info from agents is usually worth passing on.

This particular piece of info/tip relates to writing novels -- a distressingly bad habit, like biting your nails, which some of you seem to have picked from mixing with entirely the wrong people.

This is what the (anonymous) agent has to say, in response to my post about Francis Ellen's novel The Samplist:

It's interesting how often struggling writers embittered by rejections from countless agents and editors hurl their derision on the idea of a Big Brother contestant having his or her autobiography published as an example of taste subordinated to commercial viability. As far as I know, no Big Brother contestant has ever had their autobiography published by a trade publisher, and no agent or editor worth his or her salt would even think of commissioning such a book.

As an agent, the first thing I look for in a fiction submission is precision; the precise elucidation of ideas. It's a prerequisite for reading beyond the first page or two (though it's not enough on its own; it has to be accompanied by narrative flair). I'm not surprised Paul [another commenter on the same post] hasn't found a publisher, if his scattergun rant is any evidence.

Incidentally, I don't give a damn whether a novelist attended a particular school, or who they know. I'm only interested in the quality of the writing, and I speak for a very large majority of my fellow agents in saying so.

That said, in the case of certain high-profile novelists, I do think a deeply conservative and depressing prize-giving / reviewing culture has developed. Positive reviews and reputations do indeed gather their own momentum regardless of the quality of the author's most recent novel, and today's Booker longlist is evidence of the fact. Ian McEwan, Rushdie, and Zadie Smith - presumably the favourites to win - are trading on reputation alone; all three new offerings are embarrassingly bad.

12 comments:

Andrew said...

Some excellent and well balanced comments. I admire his high standards and hope those who don't share them will pay heed.

Peter L. Winkler said...

"It's interesting how often struggling writers embittered by rejections from countless agents and editors hurl their derision on the idea of a Big Brother contestant having his or her autobiography published as an example of taste subordinated to commercial viability. As far as I know, no Big Brother contestant has ever had their autobiography published by a trade publisher, and no agent or editor worth his or her salt would even think of commissioning such a book."

Come on! Come on, come on, come on!!
That's laughably ignorant of the state of publishing today. Maybe no Big Brother contestant has had a book, but publishers and agents are in thrall to celebrities of all kinds. Contestants from the US show Survivor had books. Judith Regan awarded the "Runaway Bride" Jennifer Willbanks a half-million dollar book contract. Scott Petersen's former paramour Amber Frey had a book, as did/do several other members of Petersen's murdered wife's family. Two of the Michael Jackson jurors have book deals. I could go, but I've made my point well enough.

Peter L. Winkler said...

" no agent or editor worth his or her salt would even think of commissioning such a book."

No, of course they wouldn't, never, no, ever. Like hell they wouldn't.

Here is "Agent OO7", a former editor turned agent, describing how he/she drops every other submission when she reads a celebrity's cover letter.

http://agentoo7.blogspot.com/2005/07/secret-lives-of-editors-part-3-power.html

Paul said...

There’s a line from an SF book that I love which goes something like this: “You need to have precisely the right upbringing and a very expensive education to be both polite and have filthy manners at the same time”. It’s nice to see that this concept is alive and well in our anonymous agent. His scattergun remark -- presumably noting I had several points to make -- has public school written all over it, not to mention a little bit of blind judgmentalism to it.

Please, don’t try and pretend that agents are not interested in clients who have been to the right schools and/or are now some kind of minor celebrity. You will have a better chance of persuading me that black is white…

And I have the right to rant. I am a writer (even if you think I am not a very talented one) and I have no chance of being published. Why? Because the industry is subject to so much nepotism.

Now, go find a nice put down in your big public school book of polite insults, but first ask yourself this: are you sneering at me because I am someone who should be sneered at or simply because you can?

Alexander said...

Oh gosh! I couldn't agree more about the booker longlist. Thank you somebody for saying it too. I was so disappointed.

Don't_Drive_On_The_Pavement said...

Really interesting comments, especially the stuff about precision. And I really agree about the booker long list - shouldn't this sort of prize direct our attention to exciting new authors, rather than just bolstering the reputations of writers who don't need any more acclaim!!

Rekha said...

Hey guys, one thing you can do though, if you want to avoid agents who are only interested in celebs, is check their client lists on their websites or in something like the writers' and artists' yearbook - if they represent mostly celebs, steer clear. Butr actually, if you go through the lists, most of them have a decent balance, with plenty of debut novelists, etc, who must have come in on the slush pile. That's what I've been doing...

Robin said...

There's no altruism in publishing. It's about money pure and simple. Whether you're Big Brother, Beckham or Booker it's the bottom line that counts.

Literary agents, like estate agents and used car dealers are simply just that: agents on commission, however well educated.

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Jon

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