In Chris Parris-Lamb’s office at The Gernert Company, a literary agency where staff with shrewd cheekbones sip herbal teas while managing the affairs of some of America’s top authors, there is a small en-suite bathroom in which I discovered a minor landslide of running shoes. A couple of pairs looked completely destroyed. A couple of others had the beleaguered appearance of the soon-to-be-dead. There was one pair in the pile that seemed to be brand new—stiff tongue, clean toe-box, untainted laces—but behind their game face I thought I discerned an air of resignation. It turns out Parris-Lamb is a compulsive runner, and at well over six feet in height he must hit the ground hard. “Sixty to eighty miles each week,” he explained. “Which means I go through a pair of shoes every six to eight weeks.” His most recent marathon time is two hours and forty-eight minutes, which in 1908 would have won him the world record.
Parris-Lamb, who recently turned thirty-three, shot to prominence within the publishing industry in February of 2010. That was the month in which he sold Chad Harbach’s debut novel, The Art Of Fielding, to Michael Pietsch at Little, Brown for a reported $665,000. It was his first big headline success after several years of assisting other agents while slowly building up his own list of authors. The book went on to become a high-profile bestseller, and since then, Parris-Lamb has proven himself to be an unusually reliable judge of what the market wants, or soon discovers it wants. This past fall, three books by authors of his—Christian Rudder’sDataclysm, Peter Thiel’s Zero To One, and John Darnielle’s Wolf In White Van—all featured on the bestseller lists at exactly the same time, while Darnielle’s was also a National Book Award nominee.
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Guernica: When you look at your unsolicited submissions pile, what are some of the common problems you see?
Chris Parris-Lamb: I just see an awful lot of people who believe that what makes a novel is eighty thousand consecutive words. I just wish I read more submissions where it felt like the author had taken great care with it, had spent a lot of time on it, and had a better idea—or any idea at all—of the books they saw their own as being in conversation with, as well as of how theirs was unique. Most submissions I see feel like someone checking “write a novel” off their bucket list. Readers don’t want to spend their $9.99, or even their $1.99—though that touches on a whole other problem—on a book that doesn’t give them something. And most of these submissions just don’t really justify their existence, or the time spent reading them. They might do something for the author—and that’s a perfectly good reason to have written it—but they don’t do anything for the reader, which is a perfectly good reason why they shouldn’t be published. Time spent writing a novel is valuable, but readers’ time is valuable too.
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Guernica: You ended up becoming an assistant at Burnes & Clegg and then moved with Sarah Burnes to The Gernert Company when Burnes & Clegg collapsed. That must have been a strange time.
Chris Parris-Lamb: Yes, very strange. Kind of traumatic, witnessing the collapse of this noble little agency, which had no backlist, and was committed almost entirely to literary fiction.
Guernica: Can you talk briefly about that period?
Chris Parris-Lamb: Well, Bill was a drug addict, as has been well-publicized. He went AWOL at a certain point and wasn’t responding to his clients at all, or to anyone. The clients didn’t know what had happened to him. We at the agency couldn’t reach him. Sarah had to do everything to keep the agency going and I had to try and help with that. All of that has been written about at great length, and there’s no need to say more about it here. But I will say that in that period, Sarah Burnes became, not just a mentor, but a hero to me, personally and professionally. A fact that goes notably unmentioned in Bill’s memoir was that she was six months pregnant when he went AWOL. She had to shut down the agency—which meant that Bill’s assistant and the Rights Director lost their jobs—then move all her clients over here to The Gernert Company, and also help Bill’s clients find new agents. Meanwhile, there were still payments coming in for authors every day and I had to process them while we wound the agency down. I was, at that time—as an assistant earning $23,000 a year—the entire financial entity of Burnes & Clegg. It was crazy.
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Guernica: It’s been a few years since you sold The Art Of Fielding, and of course you’ve had several other significant successes since. Do you have a particular group of acquiring editors to whom you now send the manuscripts you’re most excited about? What goes into deciding who comprises that group?
Chris Parris-Lamb: It happens fairly organically—insofar as drinks and lunches are an organic part of the publishing ecosystem—and you get to know people’s tastes. I guess the first thing is the natural winnowing process that happens at each agency and publisher. Not every twenty-two-year-old sticks around to become a twenty-seven-year-old with an expense account. This is a business a lot of smart people enter and which a lot of smart people leave, because it’s hard to make your way. But the people who were junior at the same time I was junior have become, largely, the group of editors I send stuff to. So most of the people on any given submission list of mine are people I’ve known for several years. We’ve grown up in the industry together and I know what they like. These were friendships forged in the early years of our careers—working very long hours, spending our evenings reading submissions, earning very small amounts of money, and wondering if we’d ever progress.
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Guernica: We talked about your disappointment with the majority of the unsolicited manuscripts you receive. Are there too many people writing, and not enough people reading?
Chris Parris-Lamb: There’s almost nothing I can say about this that won’t bring a lot of rage pouring down on me from the internet. But, to give a short answer, yes. I try to take a philosophical, and I hope empathetic, view of it all. I mean, we’re all going to die, and we have a short time here on earth, and we all want to achieve distinction of some sort while we’re here. Meanwhile, we all have Microsoft Word installed on our desktops. We all already spend a lot of time typing. One way to leave one’s mark would be to, say, write a great symphony, but most people don’t know how to read music. Whereas more or less everyone does have the means to put down words on a page and save them and share them. That’s a great thing—I’m all for technology eliminating barriers to communication and expression—but it can lead to delusions. Just because you’ve written it doesn’t make it worth reading. And it’s depressing when people forget that you can’t be a good writer without first being a good reader.
I frankly think that initiatives like National Novel Writing Month are insulting to real writers. We don’t have a National Heart Surgery Month, do we? I’m being intentionally provocative there, obviously—being a good or bad writer isn’t a matter of life or death—but I’m also serious. Great writers are as rare as great heart surgeons—maybe even rarer; I don’t actually know anything about heart surgeons. But I would argue that it takes as much time and work to perfect their craft, in addition to having talent to begin with that most people just don’t. What I really object to is this notion behind these initiatives that anyone can write a novel, and that it’s just a matter of making the time to do it. That’s just not true.
To be fair, true talent—the Gift, as Lewis Hyde would call it—can come from anywhere, and if National Novel Writing Month causes one of those talented people to finally make time in their life to cultivate their gift, and something great comes of it, then maybe it’s all worth it. But I am really skeptical of the idea that, but for National Novel Writing Month, those gifts would go undiscovered. I think part of the nature of the gift is that you can’t not give voice to it—having received the gift, you must give it in turn. Which is to say, the people who really do have a great novel in them are going to find a way to write them anyway. If it’s not clear by now, I think every writer should read Lewis Hyde.