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Monday, August 19, 2013

Literary Agent Gatsby

I asked an old, famous writer if I needed an agent for a novella of mine. He said, “Hand me your manuscript and I will give it to the best young agent in the business.” That agent, whom I will call Literary Agent Gatsby, gave my novella to Ballantine Books, which published it. I found myself with a nice advance for a very young, first-time author, and it all happened within a few short weeks.

Agent Gatsby had one rule for all of his authors: never phone him before one o’clock in the afternoon. He claimed that he sold his writers’ works by socializing in the evenings. For at least eight nights a week, he went to parties, threw parties, went to dinner, or just went drinking with individuals who would either provide him with the best writing of the day or who would publish that writing in the best markets for the most money. I went with my agent to two parties, and attended one party that he threw. His gala was in an incredible two-floor, ocean-facing suite of the Miami Beach Fontainebleau hotel. I will always remember him with a beautiful writer under one arm and a beautiful editor under the other arm, as he chatted amiably with one of the most important men in the publishing industry. Like The Great Gatsby, my agent was wealthy, powerful, and mysterious.

One day, Agent Gatsby called me. It was, of course, well into the afternoon. What he said was that a few weeks earlier he had arranged a multi-million dollar deal for one of his clients. Now he was “pruning his stable of authors,” and I was one who would be pruned away. He referred me to another agent, and she was happy to take me as a writer. But she was young, with very few contacts among publishers. She worked from nine to five. One could not call her after business hours, because she was home with her family. She never sold anything I wrote.

It is now quite a few years later. I spoke to Agent Gatsby’s wife recently. She told me that his mind is gone. He is burnt out. I am looking for another agent. I cannot go back to Mrs. Nine-To-Five. I am hoping to find someone similar to the young man my famous writer recommended. Unfortunately, it is an impossible task. I’ve asked every old, famous writer I know, but there’s nothing they can do. There will never be another literary agent like Agent Gatsby.


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Just kidding folks. It's mostly all true, but any reputable agent who wants me, I'm yours.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

What Good Is Literature?

My graduate English class called “The Rise of the Novel” was discussing plot lines, and I mentioned the plot of a science fiction novel. The professor was in his seventies, fat, and gray, and known for his brilliance. Without even looking at me, he said, “What good is science fiction?” My immediate response was, “What good is any literature?” He cocked his head, paced back and forth, faced me directly, and said, “You know, you’re right.”

The question breaks down to: Is all literature just escape, like cotton candy? It’s fun, it tastes good, but does it provide nourishment? Here are my thoughts.

Hamlet’s  plot can be summarized as: uncle kills father and marries mother; son decides not to kill himself over it but to avenge his father. Where is the value in that? Arguably, Hamlet is the greatest piece of literature ever written. Where is the value? Is it in the view of Hamlet’s mind, Shakespeare’s mind, in making such a decision? Yes. Is it in the phrases such as “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” and “to thine own self be true,” that the play added to our language and that now help us to communicate? Yes. Is it in the commonality of experience that all of us who are familiar with Hamlet have something in common to discuss? Yes. And is it a fun three hours? Yes, it also is an escape.

So how about science fiction? Is it just like cotton candy: empty calories? Some science fiction, certainly, is empty, but look at the best. Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, Brin’s Startide Rising, or Niven’s Ringworld are filled with ideas: prediction through future history, uplift, and massive planetary engineering. That’s food for thought. All three also are interesting stories that delve deep into the minds of their characters, they add to our language (phrases like “uplift” and “future history”), they provide commonality among science fiction readers, and they are great to escape into. So they are, indeed, nourishing.

Is there less value in science fiction than in other literature? No. Just as there is some science fiction that has little of value, there are some plays, even Shakespeare plays (IMHO, Titus Andronicus) that have little of value. It all depends on the particular work. It is generally agreed that George R. R. Martin’s best work is his vampire novel, Fevre Dream. The subject matter or genre is irrelevant.

Some literature provides more nourishment than others, but nearly all literature provides food for the mind, food for the soul, and fun food, as well. Enjoy it. It’s good for you.

Monday, August 5, 2013

What Has More Value To Society, The Arts or the Sciences?

As an undergraduate, I was a science major and expected to become a scientist. But then I sold a novella to a major publishing company. It was a tough decision whether to continue to a doctorate in science, or to study writing and be a writer. I always wanted to contribute something to humanity, and until then I thought science (and technology and medicine resulting from it) was of more value. Perhaps in self-justification for making the decision I did, I decided that the arts add pleasure to life, and increase humanity's understanding of humanity. So perhaps the arts is of equal, or maybe even greater value. But I've continued to ponder the thought ever since my undergraduate years. Is Beethoven's work, or Rembrandt's, of any less worth than Newton's, or Edison's? What value does music or painting add to society? Is Hamlet any more or less of an achievement than the theory of relativity? I don't know. Does anyone know? Can anyone know? That's why I am posing the question. What has more value, the arts or the sciences?