Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Jim McCarthy on literary and commercial fiction

It didn’t surprise me when someone asked me recently what the differences are in how I handle the projects I love and the projects I work on for money. It did, however, irritate me. The question came loaded with the insinuation that there are two kinds of books—the ones people should read and the ones they actually do. Often, I find that literary and commercial fiction are pitted against each other, as though they’re totally different beasts that serve entirely separate purposes. But is that really the case?

Too often, category fiction is treated like the bastard stepchild of the written word. But, frankly, I’m a whole lot more likely to pick up Stephen King’s new book than dive into Thomas Pynchon’s latest doorstop. Which isn’t to dismiss literary fiction, either.

Years ago, I was getting a ride to a train station from an MFA student in Massachusetts, and we talked about the challenges of fiction writing and writer’s block, not to mention how competitive the marketplace is. And then he unleashed this on me: “I could knock out the sort of mystery novels that sell hundreds of thousands of copies, but I’m better than that.” If he weren’t behind the wheel of the car, I would have smacked him upside the head. I mean, really. Do you honestly think the only thing holding people back from becoming bestselling authors is…integrity?

As I patiently explained to him (who am I kidding? I sounded like a howler monkey in heat), it takes a lot of talent to write a fantastic mystery, just as it does to write an amazing literary novel. They just happen to be very, very different talents. Anyone who thinks that just because someone is a wonderful writer means they can pull off working in other genres clearly hasn’t read Michael Cunningham’s SPECIMEN DAYS. I recommend they keep it that way.

And let’s not get too far without mentioning that literary and commercial are not exact opposites. There are plenty of authors who mix the two forms freely. One can see this by reading the stunning, bleak mysteries of Dennis Lehane or the thrilling horror of Clive Barker. And is it just me, or is the award winning COLD MOUNTAIN as much a retelling of The Odyssey as it is a historical romance novel?

What I’m saying is, let’s let the snobbery go. Reading MADAME BOVARY can be as entertaining as reading VALLEY OF THE DOLLS and vice versa, and there’s nothing wrong with that. To those people who consider genre fiction to be “guilty pleasures,” let it go. I grew up on a steady diet of Stephen King, Charles Dickens, Jackie Collins, and Victor Hugo, and I’ll happily debate the merits of Lucky Santangelo and Esmeralda any day. I’m the guy on the subway reading The New Yorker and Romantic Times.

The lines for me just aren’t that sharply drawn. So whether I’m pitching a new cozy mystery or a collection of interconnected stories previously published in literary journals, you can know one thing links them: I love both.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Why Jane Dystel turns things down

I love to say “yes” to writers who send me ideas, proposals and manuscripts, but, in reality, I wind up doing this less than two percent of the time. Why, I am asked often, do I turn down so much of what is presented to me for representation? In no particular order, here are some of the reasons I and many of my colleagues say “no” instead of sending out agency agreements:

A quick turndown is a submission that has obviously been sent to many other agents and editors. Most of the time, I simply don’t find this kind of wholesale submission attractive and, because there is so much else on my plate, as soon as I see that the material has been indiscriminately submitted to others, even to agents at my own agency, I pass and go on to the next idea.

Then, of course, there is the appearance of the material. Often, ideas or pitches are badly written and chock full of misspellings and grammatical errors. A pet peeve is those who refer to their work as a fiction novel. Again, these submissions fall into the “life is too short” category. If the author doesn’t care enough about his or her idea to present it only after carefully checking grammar and spelling, then why should I?

There are the non-fiction ideas whose author has not carefully thought out who the potential reader is (one of the most important questions any prospective author should address), or where the writer has no credentials to write about the subject he or she is suggesting. These days, rightly or wrongly, credentials and platform are everything and those without them are turned down by publishers all the time. Potential authors really need to spend time dealing with these issues before mailing off their queries.

And then there are the ideas that have been over-published. What is the point of writing the millionth dog training book (unless you’re Cesar) or Italian Cookbook (unless you’re Lidia or Giada) or knitting book (unless you’re the knitting guru to the stars)? We agents are looking for new ideas, creatively thought out and presented.

The novels I consider should be complete (partials are almost always turned down) and checked for correct grammar and spelling. If others have read and commented on them, it is often a good idea to include their opinions. Novels are the most difficult projects to find homes for and so we, as agents, are most critical of these. Again, with fiction, the writer should be able to identify his or her reader in a covering note.

Finally, and sadly, I turn down material that has previously been represented almost all of the time. Even if I like what I have read, because the material has been previously “shopped” my chances of selling it are greatly diminished. Spending time on projects like this isn’t fair to those clients whose projects I do think I can sell.

Having said all of this, I am out there in the market every day, looking for new, exciting writers and projects to represent and though I do turn down about 98% of what is presented to me, I try my best to say “yes” at least several times a week..

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Miriam Goderich chats about Paris Hilton, Tony Soprano, and Charlotte Bronte

I’ve been preoccupied with weighty issues this week: Paris Hilton’s prison saga and the (genius) ending of The Sopranos.

The fact that I’m spending so much time pondering the fate of one of the most superficial pop culture fabrications in recent times (Paris) and the absurdity and high camp that seem as part of her birthright as free booze at any Hilton bar around the planet makes me feel a little icky. Kinda like when you laugh at a joke that’s offensive to someone but funny nonetheless. On the other hand, I’m happy enough to obsess about the greatness of a groundbreaking television series and the parallels between the last episode’s shocking sign-off and Charlotte Bronte’s brilliant and mostly overlooked Villette (any of you agree?) and not at all embarrassed to discuss it.

What these preoccupations with high and low popular culture say about my intellectual life is also something I’m wrestling with. I find myself ruefully wondering what happened to the avid bookworm who couldn’t wait to turn off the world and embed herself in a book (or series of books), finishing one and immediately starting the next like a chain smoker lights a new cigarette from the butt of the last. I can find some solace in the rationalization that, as agents, we have to keep up with events in our media driven society – you never know when a Hilton (or a Hilton hanger-on) will come calling with a tell-all – but I can’t help but worry that so much time and mental energy spent on tabloid stories and on television – the good as well as the cringe-worthy – is relegating books to a dusty shelf in my library of priorities.

A few years ago there was much debate about whether e-books would mean the demise of traditional books as we know them. Those of us who treasure the experience of holding a fragile, musty tome or a crisp new paperback, feel that reading involves much more than a visual or imaginative process. It is truly a sensual experience that e-books, for all their virtues cannot replicate. Well, e-books have been around for a while now and they haven’t taken the place of our beloved traditional books. Turns out, it’s hard to curl up in bed with an e-book and have the same kind of sensory input.

A bigger threat to books, I think, is the pull on our attention by other media, the fast pace of our lives, the tabloid size reduction of the world into uni-dimensional bites of information that fail to tell the whole story – Paris Hilton would have been a wonderful Wharton heroine, no?, but who has time for a 500-page novel when her whole experience is summarized and trivialized by, UsWeekly and Barbara Walters.

In response to Adina’s last blog, I think my summer resolution is to pay less attention to what’s on television and the tabloids and go back to my first love.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Adina Kahn wonders what she'll read this summer

Summer is approaching, and that means it’s time to put together a summer reading list. As I was contemplating what books to put on my list, I realized that in recent months my reading has primarily consisted of bestsellers: THE THIRTEENTH TALE, THE KITE RUNNER, THE EMPEROR’S CHILDREN, and THE MEMORY KEEPER’S DAUGHTER among others. As an agent, I always strive to stay informed about what is popular and whose books Matt Lauer or Oprah have decided to plug on their shows. While I’m always aware of new book releases, both big and small, my goal for the summer is to go beyond the buzz and actually read some of the lesser known titles. But if you’re not taking advice from Matt or Oprah, how do you go about finding out which books are worthwhile to add to your summer reading list?

New York magazine recently ran a great article about “The Best Novels You’ve Never Read.” Professional critics and writers were asked to come up with the best “under-the-radar book” of the past ten years. In an article titled “Read Any Good Books Lately?” from the New York Times, a handful of writers such as Stephen King, Nora Ephron and Michael Crichton were asked what their favorite books have been in recent months. These articles are great starting points for crafting an eclectic summer reading list. Magazines and the internet are great sources for information; still, my favorite thing to do is to go into a bookstore and just browse the shelves.

As serious readers, we should all be making an effort to share information about lesser known books. Word of mouth can be a very powerful tool for a writer--a recent example being THE MEMORY KEEPER’S DAUGHTER, which never made it onto the hardcover bestseller lists but blew everyone away in paperback once the buzz built.

Don’t get me wrong, my summer reading will definitely include the new titles from Ian McEwan, Don DeLillo and Khaled Hosseini. But I also hope to discover some new talent in unexpected corners.

And now I put the question out to the readers of this blog: read any good books lately?