Wednesday, June 30, 2010

When close is too close

by Miriam

Having started out in publishing working for a brilliant and somewhat deranged literary agent (no, not Jane, it was her partner at the time, Jay Acton) and in an era of delightful scandals (editors sleeping with their married bosses and creating corporate maelstroms, the multi-martini lunches, the temper tantrums that involved office furniture being launched at unsuspecting assistants, etc.) in our always interesting business, I’m drawn to stories of agents/publishers behaving badly. So it was with a touch of voyeurism and a dash of nostalgia that I read this piece about former über-agent Harriet Wasserman and the implosion of her career.

The thing that struck me most about the piece, however, was Wasserman’s more than questionable judgment in her relationship with Saul Bellow. We often say on this blog that we strive for longterm relationships with our clients and we’ve even revealed that we consider many of our clients friends. However, the kind of inappropriate closeness between Wasserman and Bellow is, if nothing else, a cautionary tale. Ultimately, authors come to us for our professional services. They need our objectivity and our pragmatism much more than the occasional hand-holding and sympathetic ear we also offer. I’ve seen countless situations where a sort of “transference” takes place between a client and an agent and the expectations (on both sides) cease to be professional and start becoming tinged with the personal and emotional. That doesn’t do anyone any good.

So, is this to say that agents and their clients shouldn’t be friends? Of course not. The creative and financial collaboration between these two parties are often enriched by a professional friendship. But, I think neither party is well served to cross the line and treat the other as you would your best buddy. Your agent is not the person to unload all of your neuroses on just because they’re obligated to take your call and you should start looking for a new agent in Publisher’s Marketplace if your agent begins to unload his marital problems when you call to ask about your royalty statements.

Have any of you had inappropriate dealings with agents or other publishing folks (no need to name names, people)?

4 comments:

  1. Wow! Usually the stories are about writers going a bit mad, and usually we view them as happening a long time ago. This sounds like a soap opera straight out of the 1930s.

    But I agree. You can be friendly with your agent, but they probably shouldn't be your best friend. Professionalism is required, if only so the writer doesn't start taking it personally when an agent critiques his or her work!

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  2. If it's a business relationship, it's best kept like doctors are supposed to, war and friendly and sympathetic perhaps, but hands off. Otherwise, tears will flow.

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  3. urghhh there should be very clear boundaries from the start, just like colleagues

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  4. just right is perfect...



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