Whenever did literary agents get to be more important than publishers or even authors?

ad1I recall a time when the world was young and we would-be novelists used to trouble ourselves to get an agent merely to save on postage.

I had the excellent Elaine Greene (Lady Greene) of MCA, the Music Corporation of America. There were, she said, only five or six novelists in England who could earn a living writing – they eked out a modest living reviewing each other’s novels.

I hadn’t reached that stage yet, but I quit my job at Reuters and sat at the dining-room  table every day writing big-time satire. I’d post the finished effort to Elaine Greene and she’d send it back telling me why two or three publishers had knocked it back.

I’d then do what they suggested. It would get knocked back again. Can anyone believe that this happened fifteen times before we ran out of publishers.

I got a job at the Guardian in well-remembered Cross Street, Manchester.

A publisher then wrote to me and said if I would like to write a novel he’d like to publish it. I sent him Better Dead Than Red, a satire on the American  extreme Rightwing. It was published in England, America, and in translation in Germany and Italy. Michael Frayn ( a newspaper colleague) called it a “superbly stylized grotesque.

It made the equivalent of two years’ pay on the Guardian. If you are interested in such things, Raymond Chandler’s Big Sleep, now a universally recognized classic, earned only the same as three months pay in the job he had then.

To return to literary agents.

Some time ago I read a story about a writer who had no agent and never needed one. Then after a long silence he produced something new.

And here’s something new.

Publishers had changed.

He took the manuscript to his publisher and said, “I’ve just finished this book.”

To his amazement the female publisher said: “Do you have an outline? Or a synopsis? How do you mean finished?”

“Well,” he said, “I began at the beginning and then I got to the end.”

I think it was the late, great John Updike (1932-2009) who wrote this.

How could I verify this passing thought? It would take months he wrote so much: 22 novels, collections of short stories and a ton and a half of poetry.

If you think he simply jotted down a poem and sent it to his pals at the New Yorker you’d be masses wrong.

He sent them to 64 places. Some with amusing names: The American Scholar; Bits; Crazy Horse; Negative Capability; Parabolas; Plum; Polemic; Polymus; Premier; Quest Magazine; Shenandoah; South Beach, South Shore; Syracuse 10; and What’s New.

This was, of course, as well as The New Yorker; The Atlantic Monthly; Harpers; The Harvard Lampoon; The New Republic; The New York Times and even Punch.

Also, as well as his major publisher Knopf the poems were published by 15 small publishers.

Updike spent a life head down scribbling.

Because he was a Harvard man who went straight to a job writing  Talk of the Town for The New Yorker people assume he was a rich kid.

He wasn’t.

He was born and brought up in undistinguished Shillington Pennsylvania. He said it wasn’t until he was fourteen or fifteen years old that he realized he was poor.

His father was a school teacher but in those days towns paid teachers hardly at all; they fired them at the end of the school year. At the beginning of the  next year they had to apply again. Pop Updike worked on a road gang in the summer.

Updike worked on the Redding newspaper in the summer. He wanted to be a cartoonist, even after Harvard; he spent a year at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford  on a Knox Fellowship.

His mother owned a very small farm and the family lived there. It’s odd to think that even coming from a farm Updike had a great fear of insects and the best story I know of him is not about literature but about insects.

When  he was at Harvard a friend invited him to his house on Cape Cod. Seated with the family one dinner time Updike went suddenly insane with fear.

He jumped up, pointing at the big red insect on his plate. It was a lobster and Updike had never seen on before.

Further and finally: Updike was a small town boy. He stayed on the staff of The New Yorker for only two years. He moved to an obscure town in rural Massachusetts. Many of his novels and stories are set there, but the big works, the Rabbit Angstrom novels, are set in Pennsylvania. They are Rabbit Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit is Rich; and finally Rabbit at Rest.  

These are the books that critics say make Updike the great writer of the second half of the 20th Century. John Banville of the Irish Times said “they may be that much hunted, and, so we thought, mythical beast: the Great American Novel.”

There is no reason why this tale of a Toyota car dealer in Brewer Pa should not be great like Moby Dick is great.

What is especially fine about it to me is that the Rabbit Angstrom novels have nothing whatever to do with New York. The only great novel set in New York that I know of is The Great Gatsby, and that’s in Long Island. Huckleberry Finn never made it to Fifth Avenue. Hemingway’s best work were the Nick Adams stories set in rural Michigan. Hot times in 1920s Gay Paree and showboating  with dead animals in Africa only make him something like a movie star.

No movie star Updike. Me neither and like the Rabbit Angstrom novels, my modest Boomer Daniels novels are set in the small town where I first drew breath. And they are full of people called Billy Zoots, Elroy Green, Maria Esperanza, Jools Naundauff, Sally Sallas, Phyllis Skypeck, Duane Smek, Gus, Wanda and Carmen Barch. You get the idea.

Memorize the names and you won’t need  to read the book – Murder In A Cold Climate.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Whenever did literary agents get to be more important than publishers or even authors?

  1. alexander reynolds

    very funny, Dad

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