Sunday, 15 June 2008

The Richard Madeley Appreciation Society Book Club Memorandum

Richard Madeley: “There’s much that terrorises me in a bookshop....Then there are the books by misfits who hardly deserve to be described as ‘a human being’, let alone deserve book contracts. Drug dealers, ex-mafia hard men, corporate swindlers, porn stars, Delilah Smith: they’re all there, demanding our money with menaces...”

Nor, Richard, do I entertain the least apprehension that literary agents are not playing a major, perhaps the principal, role in the dumbing down of our urban, cosmopolitan society. In New York some of the big noises are well enough known even to the public at large, others retain an almost icon-like status among the cognoscenti and are content to have their reputation restricted to being zeitgeist-gurus with a taste for human testicles. The biggest bunch of prima donnas in the universe, they have been called other things, less endearing, by coarse persons who do not comprehend the influence of bad writing on an agent’s heart and blood pressure. Alright already, an awful manuscript is a dire meal to consume in the middle of a hot day. My heart bleeds. But a fundamental question of principle is here at stake: what latitude should be allowed to the purveyors of our cultural heritage in the exercise of their Imperium at a time of unprecedented, indeed, uncontainable supply?

The problem, of course, is largely attributable to the pressure of agents to attract the attention of acquisition editors and fashionable magazines. For many years now, the realm of letters has lain under the editor’s shadow, unable to take an independent line. There is a predatory audience out there, hungry for every and any kind of perversity, the more bizarre the better. Perversity has become big business, a major determinant of market value. It may not be the will of God, but it’s a stimulant. Soma for philistines, a big, bad comfort toy, a daybreak primer, an instant energizer, bestowing euphoria and excitement. And don’t imagine that I am going soft on agents (never suck the venom from a bite!) The crafty blighters will probably claim that this is just a frame-up between Richard Madeley and Selena Dreamy. But insofar as I might suggest that an army of agents is masquerading as a cultural experience, part fiction, part reality series, which generates a potentially self-perpetuating industry from your failure to succeed, the agent in our time, far from being a far-reaching intellect, well read in the world’s literature, not only frequently lacks a credible background, but is often totally devoid of empathy. Empathy is not likely to exercise the trend-spotters, who have teenage delinquents for clients, drug-abusers, self-mutilators, bulimia sufferers, self-confessed serial killers, Long Island anorexics in search of designer shoes, vestal virgins who’ve never been tried for unchastity and near-impeached Prime Ministers who’ve been acquitted by the people. These are the authors from hell, because blank-eyed hollowness is the safest promotional bet - along with film and television scripts not written by people but by sponsored automatons. The publishing industry may be struggling to break out of a handful of established genres that dominate the sales, but no one appears to be in charge. Nor could any compliance look less like an assertion of free will. I know, because I am one of the compliants. I’m as bad as they come (a state of affairs for which I refuse to apologize). But I also know that the last days of the declining West have degenerated into a theory of the absurd, with the province of letters (the intellectual legacy of an entire culture) in the hands of mediocrities in positions of absolute power.

So ask yourselves this: Has the last word been said?

Is all hope gone? Is the urban decline of the West irreversible? Take it from me, low moral is the most debilitating of battlefield diseases, but no one has terminal writer’s block. The creative mind is forever finding new rules by breaking old ones. Nor would I have it appear that I undervalue great writing. Far from it. But it is not going to solve the riddle of the modern Sphinx. Nor do I get the sense that the world is rushing to regenerate itself. The whole, on the contrary, of this revolving order of things carries with it a premonition of dissipation, decline and death. Suicide by asphyxiation. Open and shut. And frankly, I am not going to be sorry to see that happen. Let’s face it folks, death is the first condition of renewal. Nor could I bear to be a renegade, suffering the agonies of the damned, if a writer were not also a seer, and the redeemer of that which must come. Which doesn’t exactly add up to a coherent philosophy, but what the heck! Not all pole-dancers are deferential...



Richard Madeley said...

It’s an insane world when authors are told what will or won’t work by agents. I no longer crawl to them, hoping that they’ll like what I’ve done or plan to do. And besides, that’s not how it works. It’s all contacts, friends of friends, the good will of other writers. I play a game when I see a new writer. I try to guess to see how long it takes me to work out which famous name they're related to, married to, or worked for. It's rarely more than ten minutes.

As for the rest of us. Slush piles are the place to put your ambition if you want it to suffer a slow lingering death. It’s for the authors that agents hope will eventually give up and go away. Yet when you get close to agent, so often they say that an idea won’t work, has no legs, or is a waste of time. But what they mean is ‘it won’t sell’, or more accurately, ‘it’s not what’s already out there’. And we as authors are left to point out that of course it’s not already out there, which is why somebody should bloody well publish it. It's called being original. They call it being unpublishable.

Selena Dreamy said...

“I play a game when I see a new writer. I try to guess to see how long it takes me to ....”

... perhaps this is the Doppelgänger syndrome - (or by all means, call me a cynic ) but I’ve placed bets on it! That being said, there is nothing really very remarkable in all this. Nepotism is a national and literary movement. By its very nature, anything other would defy all the laws of economics.

Besides, let’s face it, as a pure literary art form, personal endorsement requires little or no editing...!

Richard Havers said...

I was told by agent last year that a synopsis/treatment I'd written was "too niche." It was non-fiction and in my view, and just about everyone I talked to, it was far from niche. What I think he meant was that he couldn't really work out how to pitch it.

Just put me in front of people I'll sell it. The fact is that agents have an address book and a lot of the time what writers need to do is just get them to fix the meeting and then we pile in behind them selling our goods and chattels.

Anonymous said...


i spent two years hawking my novel about London, beating on doors and weeping. i got about 25 rejections - it would have been many more but i didn't have easy access to a printer so it was quite an effort to print out the first 50 pages, etc. - which i'd usually been tinkering with since the last rejection, so obviously i wanted to send out the latest version. i feel confident if i'd sent it to every agent in London, it would have been rejected by each one.

i got two nice rejections - one from some guy whose name escapes me, said there was no market but it was good. The other, Juri Gabriel, wrote "this isn't it, but you can write. Would be happy to consider your next novel."

i've spent about 6 years on this novel, writing & rewriting, and apparently "this isn't it." i dunno, maybe he meant "this isn't an acceptance" rather than "this is a piece of shit."

i've tried crawling but can't maintain the posture. My spine was meant to be vertical. Now i have an okay job i can forget about success and just live day to day. But when i was doing minimum wage bank jobs and getting my work sold was my only conceivable out, rejection was hard, very hard.

It's funny that everyone who's read my novel - in differing stages over 4 years - has liked it, even one reader who totally missed the point and skimread it 'to find out what happened next' (not that kind of book, my dear), but not a single agent in the world would think it marketable. Likewise, when i put the opening on www.youwriteon,com, 1/3 of the readers hated it with a passion, 1/3 were indifferent, but the remaining 1/3 loved it. Now if 1/3 of people who read novels are going to passionately love a novel, surely that's marketable? Or does it have to appeal to 95% of readers?

i'm just immensely glad i no longer look on publication as my escape from hell.

Selena Dreamy said...

“i feel confident if i'd sent it to every agent in London, it would have been rejected by each one.”

I am confident it would never have been read by any one.

No agent worth his salt will peruse in excess of three pages or a thousand words at most. Almost invariably, rejections are based on the opening paragraph. The sheer number of unsolicited submission prohibits any other approach.

“...but not a single agent in the world would think it marketable.”

Nope, correction Elberry. It’s you who are not marketable.

Few agents will make it clear that their relationship with the author is entirely mercenary, but you are a date without an introduction. What makes an author viable is the arriviste element, i.e., the persons who have made it under their own steam - academically, socially, politically, cinematographically or otherwise, not to mention the illiterate anomalies whom the world has had the bad sense to recognize. People don't realise it is the author that matters - not the book - from the commercial point of view. For unlike a celebrated lawyer with an appetite for taking on lost causes, if a literary agent has a dream in his soulless heart, it is a commercially predatory one.

Anonymous said...

To my shame, when my literary rejections were at their thickest and most dispiriting i read in the paper about a literary agent who was beaten to death then robbed by 'a young man' he had taken home. My initial reaction was a fierce, "good!" i do feel a bit ashamed of taking pleasure in the thought of a literary agent being beaten to death by a rentboy, but there you go, that's what years of rejection do to a man. Maybe the rentboy had at one point been a budding novelist...

Anonymous said...

I feel that I amthe one with tmost literary ability and the most rejections as well. Which of you buffoons has the courage the put it all on line like what I do? None I warrant. None.

Selena Dreamy said...

The better they are, Mutley, the harder they fall...

...and Elberry, I suggest the rent-boy publish his memoirs - there is a ready readership for that sort of thing!