April 21, 2009

Lit Agents

I just left a comment on The Talent Killers: How literary agents are destroying literature, and what publishers can do to stop them that's not nearly as mean as my first draft:

I have no problem with her calling out genre fiction. When I read that, I saw it as certain types of straight genre - not Lethem, Atwood, or the more serious-minded purveyors of the medium. But plain old genre writing that does nothing unique or new with the medium. It's strange to see the genre writers get so offended by this. Someone on Janet Reid's blog called Mary a snob like the people in the art community who thumb their noses at Thomas Kincade. THOMAS KINCADE. All writing/art/music isn't equal, and perhaps the viceral reaction some genre writers have to this is they know their writing isn't all that ambitious.

I'm also struck by how mean people are - correcting her grammar, calling her uncharismatic. Or people saying how she’s sabotaging her writing career. In what universe is a rant on the web going to hurt her chances with every agent working today? If anything, it’ll get her positive attention for striking a chord with people. There’s really a wealth of strange internet hostility happening here.

The problem is that the agents aren’t much more talented than their list of writers. There are probably as many genius agents as there are genius writers – i.e. not that many. It’s not that they’re sabotaging better writing, it’s that they have no idea about what makes better writing. I've seen some of Janet Reid's list. Nothing all that great - it's OK, not offensively bad, but unchallenging, which means it’ll be palatable to more people. Surprised too by quality of writers attracted to Bransford's blog. People who take Twilight seriously. I’m a snob. I think Twilight is for teenagers. Because it is.

What it might come down to is not the agenting system, or editors not taking a leap, but the interest of the reading public. They're the ones setting the tone, shelling out the money. It's not as though if Borders put Dostoevsky and Kafka out front, that’s what people would buy. They’d ask, “Where’s the Koontz?” The “Fast and Furious” is the #1 movie for a reason, because people have horrible taste. That’s not entirely the fault of the publishing industry. It’s what people like to read and there’s a dwindling number of people who even read mainstream fiction.

The system is flawed. It's not dead, but it has problems. Good books get published. Weirder books have less of a chance, but worse - writers are gauged on a book by book level, rather than factoring in their entire career. An agent who guages a writer only on one book has a limited idea of what it is to write. Writing is a life-long vocation – and rejecting a writer based on one book is myopic, short-sighted, basically everything wrong with our current system. Not just publishing, but everything: looking five minutes ahead, not towards the future. It’s why the economy fell apart – and publishing’s short-sightedness is not unrelated.

A writer's best work may be three novels away, but if his next book doesn't sell, he's done. People keep saying, "Maybe you need to write a better book." There’s so much blaming the writer for a broken system. In this climate, please define “better.” It doesn’t always equate with “good.” Meanwhile, publishers complain that no one reads books anymore. If you oversaturate the market with less-than-inspiring work, people are going to stop paying attention.

That’s a long way of saying: yes.


Jason Weaver said...

Henry, I always feel dumb commenting when I don't have anything to add. But I've been following this saga and I just wanted to say that I enjoyed your response.

Henry said...

Thanks, Jason. And thanks for coming over here from SPR.

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