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Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Agent Georges Borchardt

Had Soul of a New Machine already won the Pulitzer?
Probably. I think that had already happened. Anyway, I think he felt a little annoyed by my reaction, and he then produced the most amazing outline I had ever seen for House. I called him and said, "I've changed the ranking. This is now number one and the business books are two and three." How he did it, I don't know. It was an impossible book to write a proposal for because it was going to be an account of what would happen but hadn't happened yet. I got him an enormous contract for the book. He was very surprised. He said, "Are you sure?" and so on. [Laughter.]

How did you sell it? Was it an auction?
No. We just sent it to Atlantic-Little, Brown, which had just been bought by Mort Zuckerman. We asked for a certain amount of money and they reluctantly gave it to us. Mort Zuckerman even came to see me at the time of the negotiation. It didn't start out very well because he saw a copy of Harper's on our reception table and said, "Why do you have Harper's and not the Atlantic?" I said, "Because Harper's is giving us a free subscription and the Atlantic is not." [Laughter.] I thought he wanted to meet because he might want to renegotiate the advance. But not at all. He wanted to see about the possibility of getting first serial rights for the Atlantic. He didn't realize that if they had asked to make that part of the contract I probably would have thrown it in. But they hadn't. [Laughter.] So he went back to Boston with his scalp—that is, my concession that he could have first look at first serial—and I did end up selling them first serial for another twenty-five thousand dollars or so, even though the book itself ended up being published by Houghton Mifflin. We've been Tracy's agents ever since. And he's lovely.

Are there any writers who got away? Whom you wanted desperately?
Oh, many. The one I probably regret most is Jhumpa Lahiri. She would have been perfect for us and vice versa. She just did a marvelous interview with one of our authors, Mavis Gallant, for Granta. I got the impression that Mavis Gallant is her favorite author, and it sort of reopened the wound because I thought, "Did I mention to her that we represent Mavis Gallant? Would that have made a difference?" But maybe not.

You've witnessed such a long arc of contemporary literature. You've seen fads come and go, seen various schools of writing come and go. I'm curious about what seeing all that has taught you about the craft of writing and what makes great writing.
It's a gift, and I don't know where it comes from. I don't think the writing schools bring you that gift. They may help you develop it in some way, and they put you in contact with other writers so that you feel less isolated and less lonely, but essentially what makes a Cézanne a Cézanne or a Picasso a Picasso or a Proust a Proust or a Joyce a Joyce, I don't know. I can't tell you.

So there's nothing specific that you're looking for in a piece of writing?
No. I just want to fall in love with it. Ask an eighteen-year-old kid who tells you that he wants to fall in love, "What do you want to fall in love with?" What is he going to tell you? You don't know until you've found it. But when you find it, you know. How, and why, I don't know.

I'm curious about your take on nonfiction with regard to memoir and the issues of truth and accuracy that are always being raised now, especially because you come from Europe where there are different traditions.
I'm certainly not in favor of lying. I think, basically, that nonfiction should be truthful. There are certain liberties that the reader will accept. It's a sort of silent covenant between the reader and the writer. The reader cannot really expect the author of a memoir to remember absolutely every detail. The reader has to allow the author to say, "It was a very gray morning when I was taken to jail" even if it turns out to have been a sunny day if you look up the weather in the almanac. I don't think that sort of thing really matters. There are things that are more and less important. But I don't think the author should deliberately lie to the reader.

I recently read a rather interesting book that the author quite honestly calls a novel. It's been published in France but doesn't exist in English. It's by the Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, and it's a book about his mother. His mother was not literate. She was married twice, had several children, and lived a long life. He wanted to tell her story, about how she was sort of married off. He says himself that she wasn't going to tell him the whole truth, and he had no way of finding it out. She's not a historical figure. There are no records. He said, "I'm telling the story as I see it, and I'm filling in some of the details with what I imagine it must have been like." That, I think, is fine. Even if he didn't call it a novel—which it isn't, totally, either—all he has to do is write a brief foreword to explain how he approached the story. He's not cheating. He's just giving his subject a bit more body and substance. And there is a truth that you can find in fiction that is just as powerful as the truth you find in nonfiction.

But you can't change things. I feel very strongly—it's one of my strongest feelings, I think—about lying. I absolutely hate lying. But we all lie in a way. As I'm talking to you, I'm not telling you everything I think. Nor are you telling me everything you think. But I don't consider that lying. It's part of social discourse. I lied constantly during the war, but it was a question of survival. I think that's fine. It's unfortunate, but I had no choice. But I despise gratuitous lies or lies that are meant to make you sound better than you are or, in a book, add more panache to a story that might not work otherwise. If you need to do that, you should write fiction. It's a question of not betraying the trust of the reader. But the fact that there's an error? That doesn't bother me at all. The writer says there were eight people at the party and it turns out there were twelve? I couldn't care less. We don't have perfect memories. You probably haven't been married very long, but you will find out that when you go to parties, your wife will tell a story about something that you remember being totally different. There may be elements that are the same, but it didn't happen when you were in St. Louis, it was when you were in Ottawa. As you get older there will be more and more of those things. You will also realize that you're not 100 percent sure that you're totally right either. And in the end it doesn't matter. In the early part of your marriage, which you're still in, you will still tell your wife, "That isn't the way it happened!" But after a few years you'll realize that it really makes absolutely no difference.

Let's talk a little about the industry. You've been in it for several decades, over the course of which it's changed a lot, or at least that's what people seem to say. What's your take on that?
It has changed. Mainly it's the shift from individual ownership to corporate ownership. The individuals who owned the firms were, for the most part, the sons of millionaires. They didn't need to take money out of the firm. They lived well before, they lived well during, and they had something very valuable afterward. Knopf became very valuable. Farrar, Straus became very valuable. So the heirs, I suppose, got a good amount of money. But the purpose [of founding those firms] wasn't really to make money. The purpose was the excitement of publishing. It's totally different now. Not so much at Grove/Atlantic or Norton—those are two firms for which what I'm saying doesn't apply—except that they are competing against these giants. So if Grove/Atlantic has a book that becomes a major best-seller, it can't hold on to the author, even if the author has made lots of protestations about how he will never leave the firm because he's in love with all the people who work there. Either he, or his agent, or both, will decide that rather than taking a million from little Grove/Atlantic, they're better off taking six million from somebody bigger. So they are affected by it too. The corporate thing has sort of poisoned the whole industry.

What has that meant for writers?
It's mainly meant that they've become products. And that their main relationship is more with their literary agent. In a way it has worked well for the agents. Their main relationship is much more seldom with the editor because the editor's position is very precarious. You've already changed jobs like four times. That was most unusual when I started in publishing. If you were an editor at Knopf, you stayed an editor at Knopf. There are still editors at Knopf who have been there forever: Judith Jones; Ash Green, who just retired; Bill Koshland, who was not an editor but more the business person. When Bill was chairman emeritus, well after Alfred had died and Bob Gottlieb had taken over, he would still take all the royalty statements home and look at them to be sure they were right. Now there's no one on the editorial side of a publishing house who even sees the royalty statements. They have no idea what's on them. They have no idea whether the reserve for returns is outrageous or justified. The person who decides on the reserve doesn't know either. The whole climate has changed.

What else has it meant for writers?
Even the little things have changed. There used to be a publication date for a book. Now nobody even knows what the publication date is except when there's an embargo. The pub date used to mean the author would get a bouquet of roses or there would be a party. There was practically always a party for the author. The birth of the book was something to be celebrated. Now it's just the question of "Do we admit to the author that the actual printing is only one-fourth of the announced printing?" It's totally different. In fact, even the idea of two different figures for printings—the announced printing and the actual printing—has come with corporate publishing. Before, you printed a certain number of copies and that was what you printed. There wasn't the lie and the truth.

You've always been a champion of so-called midlist writers. Has it become more difficult for those writers to sustain their careers today?
I think publishers used to be more committed to a specific author. But not always. I think the authors who are really successful are even more successful today, in financial terms. Among our authors, people like Tracy Kidder or Ian McEwan or T. C. Boyle. The authors like Stanley Elkin always had to support themselves by teaching and would have to today. So that isn't very different except for the fact that maybe they see one of their students being offered a six-figure advance all of a sudden because he or she is doing something that a publisher thinks it can really sell. Now, if the book doesn't work, that's the end of that career, half the time.

It's different. As I've already told you with examples like Beckett and Elie Wiesel, the doors were not wide open to those people either. The success of Grove Press, when it started, was due to the fact that there were all of these marvelous authors who nobody else wanted. Evergreen Review was a marvelous enterprise that not only opened its doors to interesting writers but also fed writers into the publishing company. Nobody has that kind of thing now, even though Evergreen Review was not unique at the time. There was also Ted Solotaroff's American Review and New American Review. I think Ted was the first to publish Ian McEwan, Philip Roth, Kate Millett. These publications were very, very important, and there's nothing like that now. There isn't any publisher who's really interested in doing that—in nursing these seedlings and planning for the future. Everybody wants instant gratification. So of course that has affected the authors too.

But, in general, good authors have always been fairly miserable. They are now. They were then. It's always been a somewhat alien existence. Most authors still need to have a profession, usually in academia but not always, to sustain themselves. Especially the better ones, who don't want to compromise and just want to write what they feel like writing. But I don't think it has become much more difficult. It has always been difficult. I would not advise any of my friends to become writers as a career.

I think you're an artist because you have to be an artist. I don't think it's ever been easy. It's not easy for musicians. It's not easy for painters. But it has never been easy for those people. When Cézanne showed his first paintings, people laughed at him. They thought they were ludicrous. Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime. To be an artist has always been difficult. To be an artist in the United States has been probably even more difficult than elsewhere because the arts are not considered all that valuable here.

If somebody asks you what you do and you say, "I'm a writer," the next question will be, "But what do you do for a living?"

Reader Comments

  • susan@glimmertrain.org says...

    Another fantastic and significant piece by Jofie Ferrari-Adler. Thank you.

  • lynn@sagantechnology.com says...

    Although, because "he is he and I am I", I loved Georges Borchardt from the moment I met him at his midtown office, your splendid profile (by Jofie Ferrari-Adler brought to my attention by my beloved publisher, Chelsea Green's Margo Baldwin) intensified my feelings of love-admiration. [Indeed for both agent & publisher]. Our Georges (with an "s", just like the calculating scientist-protagonist, Georges Standon, in my only published fiction, Luminous Fish: Tales of science & love) is unique and fabulous in a way precisely captured by Ferrari-Adler's insightful writing. In this near miracle interview, Ferrari-Adler has gently revealed Borchardt's genius, his capacity for survival, love and his own version of success. We, his clients, and direct recipients of his wisdom and good taste, are grateful for the revelation, in his own words beyond French, of some of his many secrets. Although he claims not to remember much, maybe Ferrari-Adler can get him to write, and then auction himself, Georges' very short autobiography. It will be worth millions.

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Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Agent Georges Borchardt (September/October 2009)
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