By J.D. Oxblood
The afternoon started innocently enough. One of my bartenders from the neighborhood asked me to accompany her to a wine tasting at the Metropolitan Pavilion just so she’d have someone to walk around with, and between samples of Albariño I was ecstatic to find that a table was handing out samples of Jamon Iberico—the bellota, which, for the uninitiated, is the dried leg of a pig fed on acorns in its last days, and goes for over a hundred dollars a pound. I stumbled out into the fading October light with a nice buzz on. I wanted to go to the anniversary party at Bowlmor Lanes, where I could snap a pic of Michael Phelps for the blog and get linked to Gawker again. My accomplice had an invitation—and Phelps was rumored to attend—and who doesn’t want to kick that guy’s ass at bowling? Or anything?—but she had other ideas. “I wanted to go to this agent panel,” she said, “since my book just came out and I was kind of wondering if it would be worth it to get an agent.” She wrote “The Guide to Doing Me!” It’s a kind of madlib for sexual pleasure, where you fill in the blanks of what turns you on and give it to your partner to ensure that you get done right. “I was talking to this bookstore about carrying it,” she said, “since it would be a great gift book for Christmas. And he said that their biggest seller was the ‘Poo Log,’ a journal for recording your poops. Considering the heights that literature has reached in this country, I decided I’d better tag along. Subbaculture is where you find it.
The panel was held at the Asian-American Writers Workshop, on the tenth floor of a nondescript building on 32nd street, in a cramped room with folding chairs and origami cranes all over the walls. There weren’t too many round-eyes in the audience, and at least 80 percent of the audience was female. The chairs were so close together that it’s lucky for all of us that no large men have ever been writers.
A moderator introduced the panelists: Amy Tipton, from FinePrint Literary Management, who had inexplicitly taken one of the front seats in the audience until she was called onstage, Jin Auh from The Wylie Agency, who’s super-cute, and Ayesha Pande from the Collins Literary Agency, who was wearing fishnets and looked like she might actually be over the age of 30. A bunch of women talking to women. I began wishing it was one of those dildo-Tupperware parties.
The talk was interesting only as an examination of cloistered professionals given the opportunity to preen like prima donnas. They complained that the light on the stage was too bright. Aw. They went over their resumes—Jin said she’d been at the Wylie Agency for 13 years, so maybe she is over 30. Gotta love Asian women. Ayesha spoke with a heavy accent—French?—and had a sexiness about her that you wouldn’t expect from one who deals in something, like, so 19th century. And Amy Tipton is just a fucking twit. She insisted that she worked for whoever wrote “The Devil Wears Prada,” and I had to ask myself if that really makes her any cooler than someone who only saw the movie. What is that, like five degrees of separation? Jin Auh provoked titillated gasps by informing us that Tina Fey, high off her Sarah Palin impersonation, had her agent call publishers to see if there was any interest in a book—not a word written, not even a proposal. A bidding war broke out and Little, Brown landed the contract for… wait for it… $5.5 million. If I never wanted to fuck Tina before (and I did) I would now.
For the uninitiated, it works like this: If you’re a loser with no social life who’s found the time to write a book, you write a query letter and send it off to one of these agents. If they like your query, they ask for more. But both Jin and Ayesha admitted that they’ve only ever signed one author apiece from “unsolicited queries”—meaning losers who queried them blindly. Most of their authors come from recommendations from other writers, MFA programs, etc. Which is hilarious, because the whole point of getting an agent is because PUBLISHERS won’t read anything that doesn’t come through an agent. I started to get that Catch-22 feeling, which was exacerbated by Jin’s position that what she really wanted from an author were credentials—your MFA program, the pieces you’d had published in literary magazines, the authors who recommended you. IF an agent takes you on, she’ll suggest editorial changes, because editors at publishing houses only want books that are ready to go. So… agents don’t really do the job you’d think they do, and editors don’t either—why would an editor edit a work?
The fact that 99% of what the agents see every day is crap didn’t surprise me, but watching them titter together on the stage about how quickly they reject people—and that sometimes they don’t bother to send a rejection—seemed a tad offensive. I also love the notion of form rejection letters—since these people don’t actually distinguish between the good writers who just aren’t quite right, or not quite there, and the 99% bullshit artists, they don’t discourage the crap-hackers to get out of the way of the real artists. Amy Tipton’s one intelligent comment was that writing a good query letter and writing a good novel were completely different skills… which doesn’t really matter considering that a good query letter without any credentials won’t get you looked at anyway. It was remarkable that in an hour and a half I heard the phrase “good writing” maybe twice, and “good story” or “interesting characters” never.
I won’t bore you with more details as I’m sure you can feel a rant coming. I couldn’t help feeling I was on the sidelines of a circle-jerk tug-of-war. The agents gave their point of view, and the audience asked pathetic questions in the hopes of hyping themselves and having the agent ask them to submit. (“Submit.” Even the language of the biz suggests how meaningless authors are in this equation.) Amy Tipton embarrassed herself by saying that she was from San Francisco and loved “anything that embraces that”—what the fuck does that mean?—and then ran offstage and out of the room. I know you want to catch the debates, but aren’t you ON this panel? She’s a fine example of what a college education and an internship under a star-fucker pulling a Joyce Maynard can do for a woman who should have ended up on a pole in Tallahassee.
But what finally tilted me was a question from the audience, by a man (!), who asked Jin to clarify why she said that she wanted credentials but didn’t want to know if an author had written other books. Wasn’t writing other books a kind of credential? Jin asked, “Published books?” The kid said, “unpublished.” Jin’s response: “If you’ve written four or five novels, you should have been published by now.” Or, she continued, “the first two weren’t actually your first books, but should have stayed in the drawer.” The moderator actually stepped in at this point, clarifying that it “wasn’t personal.” Ayesha took the mike. “If you have four or five novels in the drawer, we worry that you’ve been in an attic somewhere.”
You mean, like Cormac McCarthy? Isn’t it well known that he spent a decade in a trailer writing books that nobody wanted, and is now the most successful novelist in Hollywood?
Let’s assume that Jin was right and this poor guy wrote two novels that were basically warm-ups—like Henry Miller’s “Crazy Cock” and “Moloch.” He’s still got two or three good ones, with the added benefit of having the crap out of the way. Even I know that the first draft is bullshit, and the first stab usually a misstep. Yes, he SHOULD have been published by now. Gore SHOULD have been elected in 2000, Bush SHOULD have been defeated in ’04, James Dean SHOULD have slowed down, Kurt Cobain SHOULD have killed his wife instead, Britney SHOULD have worn panties. What the fuck kind of world do you live in when you can afford to even use that word? If this guy SHOULD have been published by now, whose fault is it that he’s not? Either he’s never tried—unlikely, since he’s here asking questions—or he really sucks, in which case someone SHOULD have told him by now, or the gatekeepers aren’t doing their job.
MFA programs are great if you don’t think you have enough debt to be considered a good American, or if you want to get some bitchin’ contacts so that you’ll never be in a hard folding chair on the tenth floor somewhere, but I have my doubts as to whether they will make you a better writer. I know a lot of writers, and most of them learned the way I did—in high school, further advanced by learning forms and copying them. You get a white collar, cubicle crap-job somewhere and learn to write the kind of drivel they need for that industry. Likewise, if you want to write a book or a play you READ SOME. If you can write, mastering a form is all about practice. And if you can write, and put in the practice, and actually have some imagination, maybe you can write something others might want to read. But these bitches running the show think you need a sexy author photo and a clandestine affair with a more famous writer and a swank MFA and sixteen stories published in literary magazines that no one ever read.
The second side to the story is what Jin Auh didn’t see, what with the bright lights in her eyes. She crushed this guy. He kept his poise, he thanked Jin and Ayesha both, and soon after made a quiet exit. But I saw his eyes. When Jin said, “you SHOULD have,” the light went out. Ten-plus years banging his fingers on the keys and this was the last moment. I’m telling you, she destroyed him. Whether he kills himself, kills someone else, or just torches his life’s work and bitch-slaps his wife is dependent on his character, but I looked for him outside just to see if he was waiting for Jin with a lead pipe. And Jin… she just looked so innocent up there, on her little ivory tower, handing down the verdict. She was so… cute. Such off-handed savagery, such tell-it-like-it-is honesty with no concept of what effect she might have. It was absolutely hilarious. In my most shave-and-Freud moment, I loved watching her crush his tiny heart under her high-heeled Prada. She was just so… hot. Merciless and hot. In that moment, she edged out Selma Blair, Zooey Deschanel, Helen Pontani and Arianna Huffington as the woman I would most like to fuck.
I can see it… I’m banging her from behind and she’s cursing my name. “J.D., your blog sucks! You SHOULD have advertisers!” And I smack her ass. “You SHOULD have been picked up by Gawker by now!” Smack! “You SHOULD be blogging for a real site!” Smack! “Your similes are cliché!” Smack! “Your biases are so fucking obvious!” Smack! “You should have come by now!” And right about then I’d put my thumb in her ass. A sadistic little control-freak like that would love it.