Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Chasya Milgrom on why we rejected Moby Dick

We really enjoy reading the responses we get to our blog posts and finding out what our readers have to say about our ruminations and rambling on everything from book cover design to the state of the current market. These comments can also be excellent jumping-off points or topics that might be of interest the rest of our readers.

For instance, a couple of weeks ago, Miriam waxed romantic about the lack of sweeping, escapist fare in today’s book market; books that would allow us to get our collective minds off an awful economy and other goings-on in the world.

One of our readers responded, making the point that in today’s market a novel the length of Gone with the Wind or The Thorn Birds would get rejected immediately for being too long. The truth is we do consider submissions of various lengths including those that have a heftier word count, because, at the end of the day, a compelling novel is a compelling novel. Witness the most buzzed about debut this fall, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. At upwards of 560 pages, this doorstop of a book surpasses your average page count. Despite that, it has been an enormous success, and as Stacey pointed out last week, it was a bestseller way before Oprah got her hands on it. People were moved by the story and bought the book in droves. Another example that instantly comes to mind is Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, a 624 page tome which came out last year and shot up the bestseller lists. Our own Jacqueline Carey’s first novel Kushiel’s Dart comes in at 695 pages. Her most recent book in the series, Kushiels’ Mercy, is no slouch at 650 pages.

We absolutely crave the sorts of stories that grab hold of us whether they take 250 or 500 pages to tell. We would be remiss in tossing something aside simply because of its length. One of my own personal favorite books, Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True comes in at a staggering 928 pages. I’ve read this one a few times and still get that sad feeling as I near the end.

Along similar lines, another reader pointed out an interesting practice – mock submissions, in which cheeky authors take the first ten pages of a classic and send it off to an agent and then wait for their form rejection to come in the mail. The implication here is that a) agents are idiots who often don’t know that what they are looking at is a classic piece of literature and b) agents wouldn’t know a good piece of fiction even if it was staring them in the face.

We aren’t going to lie. A couple of years ago one of our agents rejected Moby Dick (yup, you heard me). The agent admitted this to me freely. Thing about that is, this agent also pointed out that he hated Melville and absolutely loathed Moby Dick. So, just because the book is a classic, does not mean we are going to change our minds about liking it or not. And just because a form rejection comes in the mail, doesn’t necessarily mean that the agent does not know what is being rejected. Often the agent does recognize the work and sees it for what it is, a prank, and sends a form rejection as a courtesy response.

Yes, ultimately agents are business people. We have to take on what we think will sell, and something that sold in 1851 probably isn’t going to top the charts in 2008. Let’s face it, the whaling industry is not really booming in this day and age, and one must take into consideration that classics are born of a specific age and place. In order to be successful, we do need to address what contemporary readers want to read. And perhaps if we’re very, very lucky, we can have the opportunity to represent a modern day classic.


  1. I think a modern day classic would be The Kite Runner.

    Anyway I wouldn't go over 100,000 words while writing a novel because well, I'm afraid of getting rejected by everybody for too many words. Plus, I am not a famous writer like Salman Rushdie or JK Rowling. If THEY wrote a book over 500 pages... oh wait, JK Rowling did.

    I'm shocked to learn that there's a new (literary fiction) book out there over 500 pages that's a hit?!?!

  2. I've read "I Know This Much Is True" five or six times, myself-- but it doesn't feel like it's that long. I think that's the key.

    Your post is great, though, because it reminds people that editors have personal tastes, too-- and that sways as many acceptances and rejections as anything, I would imagine. Thanks!

  3. I hope when you rejected Moby Dick you explained that you just felt like it had been done before. ;)

  4. Good story. I can imagine it would be satisfying to send off a rejection for a book one had to read in high school and HATED. Therapeutic even. :)

  5. Well, of course Moby Dick would be rejected...obviously it would be seen as a prank query...what, the agent's supposed to send back a glowing request for a partial? Just call me Ishmael, but that would be as silly as sending the query in the first place.

  6. regarding Moby...

    I'd have sent a note back to the sender saying, "We're handing the material over to our new agent, Herman Melville."

    Haste yee back ;-)

  7. If I were an agent, I'd probably have rejected Moby Dick too -- (and not only because it's already had a good run). I'd certainly have rejected Henry James' Daisy Miller -- for the same reason your guy rejected Moby Dick. Lucky for Henry James, somebody once had a very different opinion of Daisy Miller.

  8. It's amazing to me that people would try to "trick" an agent into rejecting a classic. But I have to say, I would have rejected "Moby Dick," too. I mean, that book needed some serious EDITING. Pages after pages of description. Endless, endless description... Writing this I realize it really traumatized me, and I'll confess - it was the ONLY book in high school (actually the only book ever) that I lied about finishing, and instead got the cliff notes version. Even though I was a voracious reader, I couldn't slog through even half of it!

    The guilt of that slim yellow and black cheaters volume still lies like a shadow across my past today, and I curse that whale! I curse that day! I curse that Moby Dick!

    So, please, DON'T call me Ishmael.


  9. You have an agent working for you that can't recognize the first few pages of Moby Dick? And what did you think of the Salon review on Edgar?

  10. I have write for lazy readers. Thanks for the blog. It was invaluable.

  11. Yes, ultimately agents are business people.

    When I read this quote I have to laugh. Agents are salespeople--not businesspeople. Most agents do not have a busines background and I can't think of a one who has a MBA.

  12. Anonymous 11/15/08 10H57 raised an interesting topic.

    While post-graduate qualifications do have their place and valuable uses, my preference would be for an agent who follows their "gut feel" over and above any theory that an MBA can teach.

    I wonder how many MBA's there are on Wall Street?

  13. My agent is a business person, a sales person, an editor, a teacher, a writer, and so much more.

  14. Kushiel's Dart was exactly what I was thinking of when you started talking about word count. What's even more amazing about that book is that NOTHING happens in the first big chunk. It starts with a huge prequel and is written in pretty stilted language. I'm glad someone saw fit to roll the dice with it, because it's awesome.

  15. It all has to do with the times. Styles change, interests do too.
    Right now, a nonfiction modern day Moby Dick story with Green Peace activists under the hands of a capable, believable journalist could do for the environment as what Michael Yon is doing to create an understanding on Iraq.

  16. Which begs the question - if a sweeping, escapist tome came in that was set in the modern day whaling industry - would you hunt it down to your dying breath?

  17. Speaking of what you want to see, could you please talk for a moment (or a post) on the subject of standard manuscript format?

    We all know that single-spaced, double-sided pages in goofy fonts is worthy of nothing but the trash bin. We all know you need double-spaced copy in a 12-point font with one inch margins all around, but when it comes to anything more specific than that, the experts seem to disagree.

    I am seeing alarmingly different suggestions from editors, agents, and published authors.

    First,there's the great font debate -- should a submission be in Courier or Times New Roman? Is one preferable, does it just not matter, are similar fonts permissible if they're easy on the eyes? Some sources say Courier's the only way, while others say that TNR is now the norm.

    Then there's the italics issue. Some sources say that these words must be underlined, while others say you'd better use an italic font or your submission won't be read. Ditto for writing a letter in a Times Roman type font but sending a manuscript set in Courier.

    Headers? They're all over the top of the page, from left-aligned only to far right to those in the center, who put some info on the left and page number on the right.

    One novelist told me the other day that a pro manuscript should look the same today as it did 20 years ago, Courier and underlined and right-flush headers. But in an article in a writing and publishing magazine this month, an editor said that "the industry" recognizes manuscripts done only in one way now, and it was the opposite of what the novelist had told me: TNR, left-flush headers, and so on.

    I'm no stranger to publishing but I'm finding this great disparity in standard format to be absolutely maddening.

    Can you help?

  18. Great post!

    This is my first time on this blog, but I'm looking forward to being back.

    I'm glad that agents have a sense of humor about prank submissions, although I'm sure stuff like that would be really irritating after awhile.

    And no, I've never sent one... although it's possible that in my earlier writing days my writing was bad enough that agents wondered if it was a prank...

  19. Chasya, it would be interesting to see if lionized turkeys like Meg or The Bridges of Madison County would pass a second muster with an agency.

    When I finished the first draft of my new novel, American Zen, it weighed in at a modest 120,000 or so words and roughly 360 pages. When I began the first draft this past March, I was envisioning a novella-length book of maybe 280 pages and 80,000 words. I honestly didn't think it would ever be a full-length book.

    Now that the rewrite's almost complete, my little novel about a hard rock band reuniting 30 years after their breakup under very dramatic, even tragic, circumstances, is now up to just over 400 pages and close to 145,000 words.

    I was lucky enough to see that the excellent concept and infrastructure of my story was able to support the dozens of additional pages and tens of thousands of extra words so I could, through internal dialogs and a couple of more flashback chapters, make some comments on the human condition in general (and all worthwhile novels, IMO, ought to comment on the human condition).

    The rewrite's been inspired and this is coming from someone who generally loathes the revision phase of a book. In fact, it's been so inspired and I keep thinking of more and more and more ways to improve the ms that sometimes I fear the rewrite will never end and that I'll never get it in the swim.

    But the length of American Zen, while I may have originally predicted 80,000 words, was never a matter of concern. The Bridges of Madison County, again, was a short book and look how successful that was. I never considered the nonexistent agents' prejudice against short mss.