Saturday, 15 August 2009

Literary Agents

I've just sent three more submissions off to agents, so that the novels are out there working while I'm on holiday. It's like communicating with extra-terrestial life, which Wikipaedia tells me is called SETI (search for extra-terrestial intelligence). The one I remember best is the Voyager probe from 1977 which was hurled into the darkness with only a diagram of the human form, a map of our solar system and some pictures and recordings of life on earth, as meagre justification for its intrusion into other worlds. The Voyager is still out there somewhere, bleating into empty solar systems, begging for recognition, much like my previous submissions to literary agents.
I'm well into double figures now as I systematically trouble agents from the pages of the Writer's Handbook. And clearly they are troubled. Their websites vary enormously, some chatty, some authoritarian, others headmasterly in tone, like an end of term report for a gifted but lazy child, 'if you cannot even take the trouble over your short letter, it will not say much for the rest of your writing.' Actually, my ex-teacher self has some sympathy with this view but I don't believe it to be true.
What all the websites give is an implicit or explicit impression that writers are a nuisance and that literary agents are really rather too busy or important ('we're not really for the untried unless they are real high fliers') to be bothered by writers.
This is an interesting customer/client relationship, not seen since the Captain Mainwaring days of the bank manager and his client and I think this is where the nub of the problem lies. Literary agents are doing writers a 'favour' and therefore the client, the writer, is a 'nuisance'.
I am actually making progress in my interaction with literary agents. My first tranche of submissions got no response at all, while later submissions are bringing e-mails or letters in response. So, I'm obviously doing something right, probably the dreaded introductory letter. I cringe that, at first, I may not have 'taken enough trouble'.
But it shouldn't be like this. I shouldn't have to guess where I might have gone wrong. A worthwhile novel should not be dismissed on the basis of a letter, or a weak synopsis. Let's put this relationship on a proper business footing and pay for the service. If literary agents were paid by authors to read their work, they could afford more staff and perhaps would not feel so threatened by an ever-increasing tide of unsolicited manuscripts ('please do not send e-mails, they will not be answered'). I can hear the response...not everyone can afford to pay. But I'm sure solutions could be found to allow for financial hardship.
The replies I have had so far are interesting but clearly not interesting enough, as the only response that matters is, 'Yes, we want to represent you.' Several agents have said they didn't 'love' the novel enough. I don't think I have 'loved' a book since Enid Blyton's 'Five on Finniston Farm' and it's curious to think our choice of books is being selected by people who need to have this level of emotional response. With a truly enthralling book, there is something of the lover; you think about the characters unexpectedly, longing to be with them, or sneak away to steal a few moments with the author's words. But once finished, like a book tart, you put it down and walk away. So, it can't be love. Many books are read and enjoyed that hit the radar of emotional engagement well below that level.
Since we're on the theme of lovers, agents know they cannot ask a writer to be faithful to them, because they take so long to reply. While they can no longer insist on being the sole agent reading the work, their websites give away the longing ' if you are submitting to other agents at the same time, please tell us in your cover letter.' In the true form of lovers past and present don't tell...just go on lying.
When I have a literary agent, I am sure that I will think they are wonderful. Right now, it feels like navigating in a fog.