No Agent, No Baubles…
… and no sale either, when this was offered two years ago
I have been dismissed by my literary agent. Politely but unmistakably, and I was glad to be spared the usual flummeries: pressure of demand from other clients … feel unable to present your work with conviction… never known markets so hostile … None of all that, just goodbye.
This has happened many times in the past fifty years, and it really should not give me such a jar, no more than being hit for more than ten in my solitary over in a cricket match or the swift exits from the room, even by the portly and infirm, when I start to play the piano. But all these events still have to power to jar, indeed to discombobulate me. Some years ago in my cricket career, I suffered from the phenomenon known as the yips, a total loss of control over my bowling. The ball would go anywhere at all, sometimes backwards. Much better bowlers than me have also been victims and many have reported the same symptom. The ball eventually refuses to leave the hand. It becomes virtually a living creature, saying “Don’t let go of me, you know it will not end well.”
Writers can get the literary yips, and the loss of their agent is a regular trigger. It gives them a bleak message: “Nothing you could conceivably write (forget anything you actually want to write) will ever yield me a percentage.” I have the yips now. Everything I have written and was hoping to sell, everything I thought of writing next, is saying “Don’t let go of me. Leave me in the cupboard, the computer’s memory or even that small creative part of your brain. If you release me anywhere it will not end well.”
It is always an ordeal finding a new agent. The painful search through the dwindling list of agents willing to consider a new submission. The elimination of those whose existing clients I cannot stand or (more likely) have never heard of. Trying to persuade the surviving possibles that I would be the perfect addition to their stable (I have written some of my best fiction for this purpose.) Waiting for at least three months before daring to send them a reminder.
Writing is the occupation with the highest opportunity for jealousy and paranoia. Those months of silence always lead me to believe that agents have warned each other that the Heller account is looking for a home again, and that they are arguing fiercely, as in long-ago selection meetings on the school playground: “I had him before. It must be your turn.”
Even without such a sinister conclave, I know that it will be hard to find a new agent at … at … (punches cliché button) oh, all right, at my time of life. He or she will not be expecting a long association in which to develop a mutually profitable career, and is likely to think, well, if this writer is still undiscovered at 73, perhaps there was nothing to discover.
Do writers really need an agent? Alas so, to achieve their ultimate goal. Recently I re-visited George Orwell’s famous essay “Why I Write”, in which he listed four motives for being a writer.
One: sheer egoism. “Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death.” Well, indeed, I feel that too.
Two: aesthetic enthusiasm. “Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement.” Absolutely so, particularly for me after one of my very best jests or even a mere apophthegm.
Three: historical impulse. “Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.” Well, yes, although in my case this impulse has been channelled largely into uncovering the careers of obscure cricketers.
Four: political purpose. “Desire to push the world in a certain direction.” Yes, that too. I have devoted much of my writing to what I thought were good causes, latterly saving pangolins from extinction and replacing them with Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.
Orwell was an austere and principled man, and for him those four might have been enough. But for the rest of us, certainly for me, he should have added Five: “To acquire the baubles of vulgar success.” For these, agents are the gatekeepers. Without one, a writer has almost no chance of reaching the markets of vulgar success. This is especially true for a screenwriter. For a studio or individual film maker, an agent offers a basic guarantee that a submitted script is the original work of the writer he or she represents, and if they make it that they will not get hit by an embarrassing and expensive plagiarism suit. Things are a little easier for novelists or non-fiction authors, but not very much. Ever fewer publishers of any size are willing to look at a fresh writer without the wrapping of an agent.
The baubles of vulgar success should not be confused with the baubles of vulgar wealth. When guests at my salons ask directions for the loo, it would be fun to imitate Jeffrey Archer and reply “Turn right at the Picasso.” But this is not essential to me. I ask only for enough vulgar wealth to fund a new upright piano and a Hammond B3 organ.
The baubles I really want are these.
A cheesy photograph of myself in a fashionable eatery with an even cheesier signature, as it might be “To Elena, thanks for the best Negroni in town!”
Countless free samples, even of things I cannot stand.
Good causes begging for my name, not just my money.
Being told by cab drivers about the other Famous Person he had in the back of the cab that day and what a mean sod he was and doubling the tip to avoid figuring in the next version of the story.
Invitations from strangers. I would be only too happy to present the prizes at Market Snodsbury Grammar School and I would not get lit up like Gussie Fink-Nottle.
Requests to sign photographs of children or pets who are “just like you.”
Requests to read the manuscripts of children or pets which are “just like your stuff.”
Intense speculation about the contents of my next book.
Offers of free trips by ghastly governments, to be contemptuously refused.
Requests for interviews with ever more desperate promises of control over the published copy.
Only an agent can secure any of these. After I have enjoyed them all to the maximum, only an agent can lift me as a writer through the ranks of media obituary. The summit would be RICHARD HELLER DIES: I have become a household name. The next level down would be RUBATO AUTHOR DIES: one of my works has become big enough to draw readers to the story, even if I have not. Quite a way below this would be FAMOUS AUTHOR DIES: readers need a sharp nudge to attract their attention.
Without an agent, I am condemned to the lowest section, when only the circumstances of my death, tragic, violent or simply bizarre, create the story.
AUTHOR CRUSHED IN AVALANCHE OF REJECTED MANUSCRIPTS.