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.  

Book Review: The Awakening & Selected Stories by Kate Chopin

The sidewalk outside NYC’s largest public library building is embedded with plaques such as this one in honor of Kate Chopin. Stopping to read them as I walk along may make me look like a tourist, taking photographs of them definitely does. But surely their purpose is to encourage lingering and contemplation . . . and so I linger, contemplate, and take a photograph.

At home, the 1981 Modern Library version of a selection of Chopin’s work waits by our bedside, our current nighttime read-aloud. Within that volume, the strong wings of Chopin’s words guide us along the inroads of mind, heart, and body. Kate Chopin’s stories are peopled with those who act from deep motivations, and very often they pause to consider the nature and source of their emotions.

The stories are short, well-paced, and thought provoking, making this volume a wonderful read-aloud for adults – and worthy of a book club. The introduction by literary critic Nina Baym offers valuable historical context, and the glossary of terms helps fill in where context clues don’t seem to be enough.

If you pick up this volume and the first two stories lead you to believe that all will end with a lovely sweetness, keep reading. These two stories, “Love on the Bon-Dieu” and “Beyond the Bayou” will begin to teach you how to read Chopin’s stories, but they do not reveal the full arc of human potential that Chopin explores. Highly recommended.

Book Review: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

I’m working on a ghost story and, by way of procrastination as much as by way of research, I settled in with two slim volumes of ghost stories: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and More Scary Stories, by Alvin Schwartz. In their pages, I was amused to find a few traditional ghost stories that I myself had heard and passed on. Two of them I heard from my uncle, Gerald Shattuck. He was a very good story teller. The first story he told was a “Cemetery at Night” story.  We were amused, but not scared much. But then, in a low, serious voice, he told the tale of his own experience with the “Ghostly Hitchhiker,”

One night, my friend and I were driving along on a dark road. Suddenly, in our headlights we saw a distraught young woman by the side of the road. She flagged us down. Of course, we stopped. We wondered if she were hurt, but she insisted that she just needed a ride home. She gave us an address and we started off. From the back seat she told us how grateful she was. We were very worried about her, and when we asked her a question and she didn’t answer, I turned to the back to check on her – she was gone! She had disappeared! We stopped at the first little store we came to and reported what we had seen. The people there had heard this story before. We discovered that a young woman had been killed by a hit-and-run driver at the very spot we first saw her. Her spirit has haunted the roadside ever since, looking for the guilty person who killed her.

Told this way, it is a compelling story: we young listeners were suitably caught between belief and disbelieve. I, myself, passed on the story when I told it to a carload of middle-schoolers I was driving to an activity night. To my great surprise, the most credulous among them fell for it hook, line, and sinker, and I spent some time back peddling and explaining the nature of ghost stories.

When they were first published, the series was very popular with children, but deemed too gross and scary by some adults. The stories are based on folktales – old and modern – and they are scary, especially the illustrations. And if you find ghosts eating the pus of their rotting stomachs gross, (which I do!) they are gross. All in all, I agree with Harper’s 1984 review of another Schwartz publication, “a nicely nasty collection.” I’ll be on the lookout for more volumes.

If I find any, I’ll be looking for more than ghost stories. In the Acknowledgments section of the two volumes, an interesting tale is hinted at – that of a marriage and of the changing public roles of women. In the first  volume, published in 1981, the author acknowledges his wife with these words, “My wife, Barbara, who did the musical notation . . .  carried out bibliographical research, and contributed in other ways.” By 1984, he identifies her in this manner, “. . . my wife and colleague, Barbara Carmer Schwartz.” How she came to be acknowledged with her full name and a more professional status is a story I’d like to hear.

What I’ve Been Reading

I’ve sometimes been guilty of explaining why I’m not currently reading a book by joining the club that claims, “too busy,” or “too tired at the end of the day.” I like my life better when I’m explaining, instead, why I read so much. When I was  kid, I was a ‘bookworm’ and nothing more needed to be said about why I chose the company of books over people, why I carried a book with me when I climbed the tree in the back yard, or why I stayed up late reading a book by flashlight after bedtime.

When I taught 8th graders, I had an excuse for gobbling down several MG and YA books a week – I needed to read widely so I had many books to choose from when a student needed a recommendation. I always told my students who said they didn’t like to read that they just hadn’t met the right book yet, and then I’d stack a bunch up – pulling them from my extensive classroom collection of paperbacks – and give them the advice to read the first page or so, and when they wanted to keep going, they’d found their book.

But my teaching focus now is writing, and even though I believe reading and writing can’t be divorced from each other, they have drifted apart in my professional life and, by no coincidence, I suppose, in my personal life. So, to bring reading back into focus for me, I’ll share here thoughts on the books I’m reading now.

Open House by Patricia J. Williams

Unfailingly sharp witted and generous, Williams combines her close observations of life, injustice, joy, and expensive take-out with her ability to pull back, always, to the big picture and to ways of making meaning that we can move forward with. Her story-telling carries, for me, faint undertones of the potential for a lecture, but the best kind of lecture – one in which you are given new information by being given new ways to think about things, with never once being crowded into a box of the author’s own making. Never preachy, always on point, this slim volume, subtitled, “Of Family, Friends, Food, Piano Lessons, and the Search for a Room of My Own” is a treat.

Book Review: Not Exactly Love

Not Exactly Love: A MemoirNot Exactly Love: A Memoir by Betty Hafner
I met Betty Hafner, author of Not Exactly Love: A Memoir, at a get-together for writers in Saranac Lake last year. It took me awhile to act on my good intentions to buy her book, and then to read it. It is an impressive book – for all the reasons other reviewers mentioned. Very skillful narration and selection of details, and evocative of a time (not entirely ended) when the pressure to be paired up was palpable and the momentum towards the altar pushed young people along and into disastrous commitments. Bravo!

Winter Deserves Its Own Reading List: A Book Review

It’s odd that summer is the only season to inspire reading lists. Doesn’t winter lend itself just as well, if not better, to a cozy read? Long nights and snow-covered gardens ought to be at least as conducive to losing yourself in a book as long days and inviting weather. And, if summer is for light – even guilty – reading, might not winter lend itself to reading of more heft, more words that will stay with you long after you set the book down?

Gardeners know one sort of winter reading, of course – seed catalogs. They find their way to our mail boxes right about now and parade the lush possibilities of spring and summer. With their bright colors and perfect blooms, they provide a temporary escape from winter, a dreamy state of what might be – a sharp contrast to the no-nonsense realities of long nights, winds whipping with snow, and nose-hair freezing temperatures.

But I don’t want always to escape from winter – where is a book that indulges my love of the stark, uncompromising season in which I will never need to mow the grass or pull a weed? A book that celebrates our long winter season here in Northern New York, that makes our heart glad to look out the window to the riches of life when we might otherwise have seen just a barren blanket of snow?

I discovered just such a book in a drugstore rack of works by local writers: Adirondack Nature Notes. Written by Tom Kalinowski and illustrated by Sheri Amsel, this is a book to keep us company in the winter and beyond: it begins with January and moves through the year from there. What can there be to say about January? Moose, muskrat, shews and moles; the Gray Jay and the Snowy Owl; oxygen levels, tracks, and life beneath the snow and under the ice.

Tom is skilled at anticipating what the reader might be wondering about and presenting information in a logical, understandable way. For example, I was wondering about the occasional dead vole I’ve found on top of the snow. Did it go up there to die? Why hadn’t some wild creature eaten it?  And I was wondering too, why my dog had no more than passing interest: it seemed like something he would pounce on and gulp down before I could stop him. This book has the answer: turns out that the little creature was caught, and then, when the predator identified what it had caught, it was rejected. Why? Because moles and voles have a horrible taste. So, as Tom points out, that little brown corpse on the snow tells me two things – there is a predator around and food is plentiful enough that it didn’t need to eat this unsavory meal. And that bad taste explains why no other creature, including my dog, made a meal of it. Of course, I knew there were predators around – but now I’ll look more carefully for signs of that particular predator when I see this sort of evidence.

I love to fall in love with a book, to find one I know I will read and come back to again and again. Thank you Tom, Sheri, and North Country Books for Adirondack Nature Notes – it’s the first book on my 2017 Winter Reading List.