Are Literary Agents Horrible Beasts?

The 6 novels that made the cut (+ 1 fun book)

Not too long ago, Literary Hub gave space in their online newsletter to a link to an article that was such a rant against literary agents that I kept thinking it must be a farce. I’m not going to offer a link to the article here, or even go back to check on the article again for little details to add: there’s no need to offer click applause to its little spew of nasty. It isn’t alone out there, of course. Soon after, I read another, shorter, less-crazed rant, but a blanket anti-agent rant just the same.  

The articles got my attention because I’m spending a lot of time thinking about agents while I try to figure out which person among them might “love” my manuscript. Without looking back, I can say from memory that one of the charges against agents made by the writer showcased by LitHub was that agents use the language of romance and relationships to talk about books.

Of all the accusations, in a minefield of accusations, this was, to my reader’s mind, the most absurd. Romance is, after all, the language of readers, isn’t it? And agents are, by inclination and profession, readers, aren’t they? “I love this book,” is a reader’s go-to expression when recommending a book; “It just didn’t come together for me,” is, after all, the readers’ version of “I’m just not that into him/her/them.”

As far as relationships go, the relationship of writers to their own writing (or their not-writing) is a topic that many writers seem to never tire of exploring. And how many writers refer to their own manuscripts as their “baby”? Gag me with a spoon about the baby reference (babies and their caregivers deserve better), but I certainly do have a relationship with my manuscript and with the people that go running around in it, the flowers that bloom there, the fields that await the rain therein. In accusing agents of framing their dealings with manuscripts, and even with writers, as romantic ones, or at least ones of true relationship, the writer has dammed the lot of them only with behaving like readers, and, frankly, like writers. In hurling one insult after another to try to build the idea that agents are evil ‘others,’ the article writer has instead offered excellent evidence that literary agents belong firmly under the umbrella of ‘us.’

Yes, most work submitted to agents is rejected. But does that add up to the conclusion that most agents are all the bad things they are pretty often accused of being? (You fill in the blanks here . . . there’s no need for me to offer the sad words – if you’re still reading you know what I’m talking about).  The most serious accusation, of course, is that the agent – all agents, apparently – doesn’t/don’t see enough merit in a piece of work to commit themselves to working intensively on its behalf with no guarantee of a return. Thinking about this accusation led me to examine my own reading habits. I offer my findings as evidence in my argument that literary agents are not horrible beasts when they decline to offer representation.

In the past few weeks I set out to read nine novels that I handpicked as books I expected to enjoy. The six in the photo made the cut. (I topped off the pile with Austin Kleon’s little nonfiction volume because the book is so much fun.) Not in the picture are the ones I started and put down, and one that I started, loved, then skimmed through to avoid the violent parts: I made it to the last sentence, but I can’t claim to have read that book.

None of these books – the read and the unread – showed up randomly. Three of the older books in the ‘read’ pile came from the shelf of a friend who was moving and giving away big swaths of her collection of books. Based on her recommendations, what I knew of the book and/or the author, I was 90% sure they’d be good or great reads. They were.

The Lessing book is one I reread every ten years or so – it is the book that taught me that timing is everything. I picked it out of my mom’s home library when I was in my twenties and didn’t make it through the first chapter. ‘Bleak!’ I thought. I picked it up again years later and thought – ‘Soulmate!’ I’m still backfilling on Welty, a writer whose works I came to late but now always appreciate. (As a kid I tired of being asked if, based on my first name, I was related to Eudora Welty. The question seemed emblematic of the idiocy which adults could be capable of and led to a personal boycott of her books that lasted a couple of decades.)

The two newest books in the ‘read’ stack are both books I discovered in my research on literary agents. Reading them helped me get a sliver of a sense of the taste of that agent. And, while I initially read them to find out whether a book the agent liked enough to bet their time and energy on was one I liked, agent quest aside, I now have two new good books under my belt and two new writers whose other books I’ll be on the look out for.

What I noticed in reviewing my own reading habits is that, despite my active role in the selection process, my “acceptance” rate for the nine novels I picked was 66%. What would my rate be if nine unvetted novels just showed up at my door, with a “please read me, please!” sticky note stuck to the cover. It would plummet.

This musing about my own reading has helped me put the genuine circumstances and likelihood of acceptance/rejection into perspective. I still hope that on one of its ventures out to find an agent, my work will spark the interest of an agent who will understand the book and love it. But each time it doesn’t, I’ll keep my own acceptance rate in mind. After all, if my queries meet with silence or a boilerplate ‘no,’ what has happened is merely what was likely to happen. The only things in my power to make it less likely are to keep honing my craft by reading and writing, keep researching the industry and individual agents, and keep trying.  

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