From The New Republic:
Looking for literary “representation”? Have you written, oh, let’s say, a collection of linked essays about poets and poetry, published in online journals, that would make an elegant and modestly remunerative little volume to be shepherded through the publishing process by an astute and learned literary agent? In that case (or as you might have guessed, in my case) you might consider recasting your mediations on Sylvia Plath and Catullus as a teenage vampire novel or as a memoir about your triumph over bad parenting, because, as far as the vast majority of American literary agencies are concerned, the book you’ve written is radioactive.
Everyone’s trying to make a buck and literary agencies can hardly be faulted for interesting themselves in what sells rather than in what doesn’t, or at least not so much. The problem, as one bracingly honest agent confided to me in the course of one of my innumerable rejections, is that the notion of “sales” has narrowed nearly to the vanishing point. Almost all agencies, he told me, are looking for one of two things: bestseller potential or the possibility of media adaptations. Although Edmund Wilson once contemplated a movie version of Axel’s Castle that would have featured Adolphe Menjou as Marcel Proust and the Marx Brothers as James Joyce, he could afford to joke about it. Would Axel’s Castle even be published today? I’m not so sure.
Let us hope that what that agent told me was a gross exaggeration born out of personal disenchantment. (Everyone in the publishing industry these days seems pretty disgruntled.) After all, good and serious books still manage to get published. Yet after plowing through hundreds of agency websites, I find it hard to believe that many other good and serious books aren’t being stopped dead in their tracks. The nomenclature is the first tip off. Nothing wrong with a little business jargon, but must they call themselves “boutique agencies” or, even worse, “full-service boutique agencies,” which, rather than lending the snob cachet so obviously intended, makes them sound like massage parlors? Far worse than any unfortunate phraseology is the resistance to ideas that contradicts the otherwise high-sounding claims made on so many of the agencies’ websites. “Character driven fiction,” “concept driven nonfiction,” “narrative nonfiction,” “exceptional stories,” “inspirational memoirs”: all of these things have their place in the literary universe and have made for many, many wonderful books, but with one or two honorable exceptions, you will find no equivalent wish lists for “language driven fiction,” or “tightly reasoned argument,” or “uninspiring memoirs.”
Unlike furiously anti-establishment bloggers, I have no problem with the role played by literary agents as cultural gatekeepers. There are far too many writers out there, and if the good ones are not to be buried by the bad ones, agents have an obligation to recognize and nurture talent that might otherwise go undetected.
Link to the rest at The New Republic and thanks to Nate for the tip.