Monday, April 28, 2008

Tobias Wolff, Jane Smiley, Ron Carlson - "Serious Fiction" Panel, 4/27/08, UCLA Schoenberg Hall, "Agents Voices" Panel, UCLA Moore Hall

The "Serious Fiction" panel featured three "heavies" as the moderator Susan Sutler-something said to introduce the three prominent, modern authors. Each is in their fifties or sixties and each has a career spanning more than 30 years and two of the three are pretty much writing instructors and the third (Smiley) recently published the well-regarded "13 Ways of Looking at the Novel." Thus, you could say this panel represented the "MFA Contingent" of the Festival of Books--Wolff teaches Stegner fellows in Stanford's program, and Carlson did not specify where he taught as far as I can recall.

To be honest, I did not hear all that much that I didn't already know (except that Trollope was extremely prolific, and that Graham Greene might be worth reading), that I hadn't already been told by the dozen or so writing teachers I've had in the last ten years, though Wolff had at least two or three comments which impressed me with their profundity. Still, I do not expect to be reading him. I am past the point where "This Boy's Life" can be assigned to me for required reading (it was in high school for other English teacher's courses--not mine) and I read a short story by him imagining what gays in the military are like in Best Short Stories of 2006 and while it was one of the more "different" stories in the collection, it did not particularly effect me. I also think I read Smiley's "The All True Travels and Adventures of Lydie Newton" which was assigned summer reading in high school and which was a title which all of my classmates and siblings (and myself) mocked.

But Sanda Djikstra mocked Amy Tan's original title for Joy Luck Club--"Wind and Water"--saying, "I'd have been laughed out of Manhattan if I used that title!" Sandy was the only agent (amongst 4) that I have sent a proper query letter and 50 sample pages of my first novel to...It goes without saying that she rejected it. This panel pissed me off for so many reasons that I can't even get into all of them. But let's start with the raising of our hands.

How many of you have published a book? A few people in the crowd, actually a pretty surprising total. Now, how many of you have finished a book and are actively trying to get it published? Oh a lot of you, okay. Well, you all have to leave now. Haha! Just kidding.

How about the one agent named Kim (I don't remember her last name but it is not far off from Thayil, though that should not be significant other than me making multiple Soundgarden references in my parenthetical usages on Flying Houses) who was definitely the most attractive, but who had been in the business for over twenty years and so must have been somewhere in her 40's (though she looked in her 20's from where I sat) and who represented none other than...David Foster Wallace. I was shocked. I was dismayed. To think that she was the one that "saw the point to" Infinite Jest. It both infuriates and amazes me. How I wanted to talk to her after and tell her that I was good enough for her! But I was so upset by the whole ordeal that I couldn't give any of those agents another damn second of attention. Except for Kim. And for Georges Borcherdt, who was French by birth but a New Yorker, agenting since he was 19, and I believe actually represented Elie Wiesel when he wanted to put out Night and he sold it for (get ready): $125, payable in two installments.

Sandy was my personal agent familiar, and she seemed (along with the other lady on the end) to be the type LEAST interested in the sort of stuff I wrote. So, I should try to send it to Kim or Georges, except they said they have two ways of receiving manuscripts: through referrals and through random submissions "Slush Pile" et. al. Now, how am I going to get a referral? And how to get their attention? Sandy said to "distinguish yourself from the rest," and I haven't done a good enough job of that already?

The best moment occurred during the Q & A Session. The first dude that asked a question was kind of gangly and oddly-spoken and the panelists gave him weird looks and said, "What's your question?" The last guy asked a question like, "Okay, I spent a few years working on my first novel, I've read all the advice about how to submit to agents, I've sent out query letters, one of them to you (to Sandy, the same as me), and I've received 22 rejection letters. What else am I suppose to do?" They sort of laughed and they said, "What's your question?" to him too, and eventually they said, "Thank you," early to him and moved on to the last person after him, even as he tried to ask more. He was a hero! He was the hero of the hour! I wished I had stood up and started applauding the man! How brave to stand up to those "greater" snobs who couldn't possibly be more destructive to literature than anyone---except Hitler! Perhaps that is hyperbole, but I wanted to trace my way back to Bradbury with that statement.

That man who asked that question is like the crazy man that gets pulled away by the authorities even though he is the one that knows the truth. I know the truth too, and as much as agents may want to claim that they have to "fall in love" with a book or see it its clear enormous commercial potential in order to want to represent it, the truth is probably that they only work with their current authors, and their current author's friends. They don't scout "new talent" because they don't have the time. Borcherdt himself admitted that the only time they had to read new submissions were nights and weekends! Truly these people DO devote themselves to reading (massively!), but it is obviously nowhere near as important as working the phones, contacting the publishers, and negotiating contracts, all while knowing there's something in it for them too. I am sorry to all the agents I may offend, but they are really as low a form of life to me as the current President they all find so fashionable to denounce. They wouldn't know a good book if it hit them on the back of the head (except for Kim and Georges, who were realistic, but less cruel in their sweeping statements). I don't care if "Daylight Savings Time" is a title that would have gotten Sandy laughed out of Manhattan (like "Manhattan" is as stick-up-their-ass as her....she said the title was the first thing any publisher would see, so it's very important--she even mentioned "Some writers say, 'oh, we'll work on the title later,'" which I myself mentioned directly in my query letter to her), she's a fool for passing it up! Obviously I'm not cool enough to fit in with other, more professional writers. I don't know enough about being young yet. Or I haven't been able to write a good novel yet. And yes, DST is a hard novel to sell, but it's not as bad as everyone wants to say it is. It's much better than most chick lit I would presume! There's no room for other voices in mainstream literature.

Thank God I went to the Akashic Books exhibit and talked to them about submitting (they don't go through agents, you can send it directly to the house's editor-in-chief, but this may also explain why they are "done" for now and won't consider new submissions until June or July) and thank God there are smaller presses that don't make you feel like you have to be Khaled Hosseini just to have someone say yes to you. Regardless, "Self-Mutilation" is two, three, or four times as good as DST and when it comes time to send that puppy out and when it comes time to see that agents don't want it either, I'll be able to say with even more confidence that agents are stupid, more people submit to them than should, and that they are slowly destroying literature as they build up film and television into the pre-eminent forms of entertainment Sorry for theater! Music is also very lucrative, but unfortunately literature and music rarely coalesce, though it is often musicians who make up a good part of the reading public not consisting of soccer moms or housewives, desperate or otherwise. You can't sell a CD with an author unless it's a Book-on-CD, and come on, who is thinking that far ahead with a debut novel? I've said all I need to, but just remember: if you are a writer and you are trying to sell your book, don't "play the game" with the agents for one fucking second. That heroic man who asked that question also mentioned that he overheard someone say in a conversation, "Publish your first by yourself, then let an agent come to you for your second." The panelists tried to push him for clarification, "What did you say to them?" "I wasn't part of that conversation," (great response from that hero!). And then Sandy said, "No, you need an agent." Right Sandy, all us desperate writers need someone like you to take us to the top. Right.

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