The dramatic story of the attack on California literary agent Pam van Hylckama Vlieg by an author whose manuscript she rejected shone a light once more on the complex relationship between authors and agents, particularly those who are not in business together. While this attack was clearly unacceptable, it is likely that many rejected authors would have understood in some way the frustration that burned inside this rejected author, whose actions took on a violent physical dimension. For it is rarely the response of a single agent turning down our books that brings us to our collective knees, but the cumulative effect of rejection after rejection.
Ms Vlieg was quoted after the incident by the Huffington Post as saying, “It’s hard to be rejected — just as it’s hard for agents to be rejected by publishers on the books we’ve acquired.” That latter hardship is arguably genuine, but where does it stem from? Is it from sharing the author’s personal disappointment that a book an agent genuinely admired has been rejected? Or is it that they regret that their market judgement was flawed in putting that book forward in the first place? When an agent has worked closely with an author on manuscript development in order to bring their expertise to bear on the content and style in order to make it as sellable as it can be, that ownership is feasible: one can see a grain of truth in the phrase agents often use with new authors, that they “absolutely love” their book, because they have a right to be proud of their part in its creation.
But to read, as many of us have, that an agent “just didn’t love your book enough to represent it” is a curious statement. Isn’t that like saying “Darling, I’m sure you’re terrific, but I just don’t love you enough to be seen out with you”? Few literary agents I have met would shy away from representing a book they didn’t like, let alone love, if they believed that it would be bought by a publisher. That is what agents do, after all, they sell books to publishers. Indeed, one agent known to allonymbooks took on a book so vacuous and creatively derivative it does discredit to the agent’s other authors, and it sticks out utterly in their portfolio of otherwise quality fiction. But they have sold that book and it is doing well.
Another line many readers of this blog may have read in rejection emails of their own is “Of course, my decision is purely subjective.” This blog proposes that that is generally not true. Having worked with a number of literary agents in different contexts, and heard other writers talk about their agents, it is much more likely that an agent is aiming more than anything for an objective assessment of a publisher’s judgement. Though Ms Vlieg claims it is hard for an agent be rejected by a publisher, what is being rejected is their ability to judge/guess/pre-empt a publisher’s own judgement on behalf of the reading public. In that case, with both the agent claiming objectivity on behalf of their audience of publishers, and the publishers likewise for the reading public, it is irrelevant for either agent or publisher to say “I just didn’t love it enough” or “Of course, my decision is purely subjective.”
So if anyone is subjective in this process, it must be the author themselves, urged to write what they know and what they want in order to find a genuine voice. And perhaps what frustrated Ms Vlieg’s attacker, not to mention the rest of us, is a perceived lack of empathy. Agents read, but very few write themselves. Many writers have used the analogy of parents and children for the relationship between an author and their books, leaving the agent as a kindly Godfather or fond spinster aunt perhaps, polite but distant from the offspring. And those among us who have followed an agent’s advice on how to reconstruct a novel in content and style to make it more palatable to the marketplace pigeonholing discussed in an earlier allonymbooks blog, find our attempts to apply those ‘guidelines’ have left us with a book we don’t quite like ourselves, and one that is still unsigned by either agent or publisher.
And so, a plea to agents. Why mention love to a rejected suitor? An honest explanation is far better: “Your novel has many fine qualities, but in the context of my assessment of what publishers are looking for, it’s too genre-confused/long/out-there for the current structure of the market.”