In Defense of Literary Agents

March 21st, 2005 · No Comments
by Booksquare

Yesterday, Robert McCrum, perhaps festivaled out, indulged in a maudlin piece about the state of writing today (at first we thought he was headed for Nostalgia, but then he took a sharp left). He asks “Who are you writing for?” He worries that far too many write to catch the eye of agents, neglecting to consider that agents are readers too. If you can reach out and touch even one agent, it’s possible you will reach out touch many “real” readers.

McCrum mentions Charles Dickens as a writer who broke the mold by drawing adoring crowds wherever he went (wait, we need a moment…really? It must have been the advent of trains that allowed the masses to meet the master), but misses a key component of the man’s work when he says:

Nothing here about the inspiration of the jealous muse, but everything about the expectation of a quick sale in the feverish atmosphere of the literary marketplace.

Dickens wrote, in part, to keep food on the table. Those lovely serialized pieces were produced in spite of the muse (and what is the muse except the sometimes convenient excuse for lack of production over time*?). Writing, heck all art, has a lost soul image that is often at odds with its reality. We cannot guess why you write, but if you’re doing it seriously (as opposed to, oh, those fine souls one encounters at dinner parties who anticipate dashing off a novel for a quick buck), you are likely writing with at least a modicum of commercial aspirations.

We would love to return to the Baroque era of writing (we imagine it as pastel with interesting things going on in the background), but the reality of the human condition is we must eat. Or at the very least, drink. Even publishers. Agents do serve a purpose, and we, despite our background, wouldn’t consider entering into a contract without one**. We know enough to know what we don’t know.

* – Yes, yes, we know. There isn’t a schedule for art. However, sometimes we are reminded of Wilco’s “Misunderstood” when it comes to certain artists.
** – This is where we truly believe a bad agent is worse than no agent at all. If your agent doesn’t know the business — and we mean know, then that is very bad indeed.

File Under: Square Pegs