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Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Jonathan Galassi

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July/August 2009

7.01.09

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What else are you looking for when you're evaluating a piece of fiction? Are you looking for a certain kind of sensibility or anything like that?
I think that would fall under voice. I remember when I read [Roberto] Bolaño's Savage Detectives. I read an Italian version and just thought it had so much verve and humor. It was so sexy. It had a kind of buoyancy and it was so alive. Voice is one way of looking at it but aliveness is another way. And I think voice is kind of being killed in a lot of writing today. When you look at the New Yorker, the voices are much less idiosyncratic than they used to be. It's being edited in a different way than it used to be.

Why do you think that is?
I don't know. They used to publish a lot of long pieces and it may have something to do with readers' attention spans being different. We published a very good book last year, the autobiography of the composer John Adams. The New Yorker ran a piece of it and the author told me that they tried to iron out the idiosyncrasies of his style. He gave them a fight. He was very bemused by why they would try to change his little quirks.

One of the books that I was most proud of publishing last year was the Lowell-Bishop correspondence. The thing that makes that book so wonderful is the idiosyncrasy of the way they write.

I have a quote for you: "Most words put down on paper are not interesting, or don't make sense, or are stilted. You can tell within two pages that something is not going to work." That's you, twelve years ago. I completely agree and I'm curious what common problems you notice in the work of beginning writers.
I used to be kind of uptight about writing-school writing—it can be hard to emerge with your own voice—but I'm less aware of that now. I think a lot of people learn to write by imitating and that's perfectly legitimate. That's how poets learn to write. I remember that Elizabeth Bishop used to make us write imitations of other writers. But if you want to publish your work, you better have moved beyond that. Only a few people in the world are meant to be writers. And those are people who really can't say things the way other people would. It's involuntary. Milosz had this great line that poetry should only be written under unbearable pressure and in the hope that good spirits, not evil, choose us for their instrument. The idea is that the people who should write are the people who can't not write. I think there are a lot of people who want to write, and who want to say something, but a lot of them don't have anything to say.

What will make you want to throw a first novel across the room?
Pretentiousness. When the writer is trying to be cool, or ironic, or when the work just isn't genuine. It's like what [U.S. Supreme Court Justice] Potter Stewart said about pornography: You know it when you see it. You can tell when you're reading something genuine. You feel it. There are writers whose voices are quite self-conscious and who I think are great. André Aciman, for example. I'm working on his new novel right now. His writing is about self-consciousness. It's about questioning what you just said, revising what you just said. It's very Proustian in that way. And I love it. It's very genuine. That's just the way his mind works.

What is it about the work of a debut poet that will make it stand out from the others enough that you want to take it on? Is it different than with fiction?
It's not really different. It's the voice and the angle and the attitude. We don't take on very many debut poets because we have so many ongoing writers. I miss that. I read that piece in the New Yorker about the Dickman brothers and felt a little out of it.

Is there a debut poet you've taken on recently who you could talk about?
Maureen McLane is an example. I knew Maureen as a critic before I read her poetry. She's a brilliant critic of contemporary poetry. And then I read her poems, which have a kind of freshness that takes you back to the modernism of H. D. and Pound. It's very classical in its directness. I thought, "This is totally outside the lingo of most poets." It's pure and in touch with tradition in a very direct way. I felt the same way about Eliza Griswold's book, which we did a couple of years ago and which won the Rome Prize. Both of those poets write in ways that are outside of the lingo of the various schools of poetry. They're different. You can't tell who their teachers were.

You've lamented the blockbuster mentality that's arisen in publishing, where it's become easier for a publisher to sell a first novel and harder for an author to build a career over a number of books that sell modestly. Can you speak to that for writers?
Suppose I had written a first novel that five publishers wanted to publish and the range of offers was from fifty thousand dollars to four hundred thousand. I probably wouldn't go with the fifty-thousand-dollar offer, and I might well go with the four-hundred-thousand-dollar offer. But I hope that I would think through how the publisher was going to try to make that money back. What's the publisher's idea of what to do with my book? Of course if you're a young person who has never made a penny and all of a sudden somebody offers you a lot of money, you're going to take it. You need it. But I don't think that's necessarily the right thing to do.

Why?
Because if your book doesn't do well and earn that money back, or make a credible showing, you're going to have a harder time the next time. That's why I think the old system was better. Forty years ago, your agent would likely have sent your book to editors one at a time, but even if it was done as a multiple submission, the differential between the offers would not have been as great. The choice would be made on other bases. I know that this may sound self-serving, but I do think that real careers are built stepwise. I still believe that. And I haven't seen a lot of careers built the other way. I think a lot of agents, especially younger ones, feel that the commitment the big advance represents is what's going to bring the author success. But I don't think that's true.

That's the Andrew Wylie philosophy. You have said that FSG is a living contradiction to that model, where more money is perceived as meaning more oomph.
I think that a really good agent should be able to get the right publisher, which the agent has already figured out, get as much money as she can from that publisher, and make a deal, rather than have the amount of money determine the sale. That's what the best agents do. They may solicit a lot of action, but they know where they want to place the author. They may use competition to jack up their preferred publisher as high as they will go, and there may be times when the differential is so big that they aren't going to be able to go with that target publisher, but I think that's the right way to do it: for the agent to work the process so that the author ends up with the right publisher paying as much as they comfortably can. There's an edge of commitment that makes the publisher feel they have to be alert, but they haven't gone beyond their zone of comfort for the book.

But Andrew might say that they should be pushed beyond their comfort zone. Is there any chance he's right?
I haven't seen that here. We don't sit around and say, "Well, we paid x for this book so we'd better do something special." Everyone knows what the situation is. But even if you'd better do it doesn't mean that it's going to work.

But we know that there are different levels of effort.
Sure.

That's why I sometimes wonder if there's any chance he's right. I mean, I'm with you. I work at Grove, for God's sake.
Part of what I'm talking about is the agent using the process to push the publisher to the point where it's costing them something to acquire the book. They're not just picking up the book for nothing and throwing it against the wall and hoping it sticks. They're going to have to think and be creative in publishing it. You can blame Andrew all you want, but the people who are responsible for the overpayments in publishing are publishers, not agents or authors. The publishers are the ones who agree to do it, and they're the only ones who can be blamed for it. We walk away from books that we'd like to publish every day because they're out of our comfort zone—out of our rational calculation of what we think we should be risking on them. Very good agents, who I have a lot of respect for, have said to me, "If I were you I wouldn't be paying big advances." I think that if we could inject some of that realism into the process we'd have a healthier business.

They say that to you kind of off the record?
Yeah. I'm not going to say who they are, but yes, very good agents have said that to me. Because I think they understand that if the publishers kill themselves off, the agents aren't going to have people to publish their authors' work. It's not that I don't want authors to make money. I do. I want them to get rich, because then their publishers will be doing well too. But I don't want them to get rich at the expense of the larger institution. That's no help to them. It will weaken the publishers, and then we won't be effective.

Are there any other insights you can offer writers about agents?
I think the ideal publishing experience is when the agent and the publisher can work together to promote the career of the author. Yes, the agent sometimes barks at the publisher about something, but basically they all feel that they're on the same team. That's how really good agents operate. Really good agents are also just as devoted to the work as you and I are. It's the same profession from a different angle. As I said, authors should want an agent who knows where to place them—not someone who's throwing a ball up in the air and seeing who jumps highest.

But if you're a writer, and you don't work in publishing, it can be hard to figure out which agents do that.
But what you can tell is how they react to your work. You can listen to what they say about it editorially and aesthetically. That's the first thing you would want: someone who understands what you're doing and is not trying to make you into something you aren't.

But once the agent has cleared that hurdle in your mind, as a writer, how do you figure out the other stuff? How do you know how good they actually are at placing your work at the right house?
I think it's like picking a dentist—you go by recommendation and word of mouth and looking at who else the agent represents. What's happened to those other writers? I think that's how agents get their clients.

With nonfiction, agenting has evolved to the point where agents have become very involved in the proposals.
Sometimes they write them.

Exactly. Do you think it's ethical for agents to work very heavily on a proposal without disclosing that to prospective editors?
We often talk about this. I think that a good agent is an editor, but at the same time it's not ethical for an agent to write a proposal for an author. The author needs to write it. The agent can criticize it and suggest improvements—and should—but sometimes we wonder who actually wrote the proposal. You can usually get a feel for that. But I don't think it's ethical for an agent to do more than make suggestions to the author. They have to write it themselves.

How do you feel about the new primacy that agents have assumed in the lives of writers? Editors and publishers have been displaced to some extent. Are you okay with that?
What I don't like is when an agent tries to interpose his or her body between you and the author—when the agent is proprietary and everything needs to be communicated through them and they don't want you to have your own relationship with the author. I find that very frustrating and alienating and counter to the idea I was just talking about where it's a collaboration between the agent and the publisher and the author. I think you're right in that over time the agent has become more important in the author's life, partly because authors move around more than they used to. But when you've worked with an author over many years, you do develop a really close relationship. The agent has his or her own relationship with the author, and a good agent wants you to be close with the author.

What do you find most frustrating about agents?
I have a certain sympathy for agents on the money thing. They're getting pressure from their authors. Just the way that you and I feel like, "Well, if we don't come up with x amount of money, Ann Godoff will," they feel that too. They may lose their author if they can't deliver what the author needs. I empathize with that. But I think a strong agent is confident enough and knowledgeable enough about the business, and about history, and about how careers work in the long term, that she can say to her author, "Look, this is what's in your interest. It may not seem to be in the short term, but it is in the long term." And that's coming from the seat of experience. I'm close to a number of agents, personally, and I have a lot of respect for their contribution to our business. And yes, we argue. We don't always agree. I sometimes feel that they're trying to take advantage. But all in all, it's just like how I said it only makes sense for authors to be here who want to be here: The agents who we work with best are the ones who get why FSG is good for their authors. It's a collaborative process and doesn't need to be hostile. A really good agent is your ally as well as your adversary at times.

On the flip side of the world of huge advances is the midlist writer, who is really struggling today because of the computer and the sales track. Put yourself in that person's shoes and, knowing what you know, tell me what you'd do to try to change your fate.
Most books have to be midlist because only a few can be best-sellers. If you're a serious writer, you should be writing the books you're going to write.

Reader Comments

  • mikerol says...

    As a former quite small publisher [of Urizen Books http://isbndb.com/d/publisher/urizen_books.html ] who got his first steady job at Farrar, Straus, in 1966, and brought them Nelly Sachs, all the Hesse books, Hans Erich Nossack, Christa Wolf, and most importantly, Peter Handke, I would say that the now nearly venerable firm has much improved under Jonathan Gallassi's guidance. Jonathan's description of Roger Straus and his conduct of editorial meetings, brings to mind the founder's rather Runjonesque, which I must admit I appreciates, as I appreciate "characters" of all kinds. What is surprising, especially in this retrospect, is how many far nicer people were working there at the time, Hal Vussel, Mr. Henry Wohlforth, the treasurer, Ms. Nicholson, author of a manual on style, in rights and permissions, Ms. Miller, Roger's assistant. Overall though, I would have to agree with the decision by Robert Giroux, as quoted in Christopher Lehmann-Haupt's obituary - Christopher also wrote Rogers obit for the N. Y. Times - that thought of Roger was so distasteful as to keep him from writing a history of the firm. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/05/books/06giroux.html?scp=2&sq=robert%20giroux&st=cse Each sentence in those two obits is well weighed. Not that Roger was not serious, but he was not passionate about literature, he liked the social side, the hobknobbing at least as much, having no end of never enobling Nobel Prizes, and in that respect Roger does not compare either with his contemporary American [Alfred Knopf, Bennet Cerf, George Braziller, to mention just three of the many] or European equivalents such as Siegfried Unseld of Suhrkamp, Michel Krueger of Hanser Verlag, even a true hobknobber and delightfully social animal such as Ledig-Rowohlt of the Rowohlt Verlag could get down and translate and edit with the best of them and had languages and world wide interests; ditto for Jonathan Maschler of Cape, Mathew Evans the then editor of Faber, no end of great French, Italian and Spanish publishers. I want to tune this point with a very specific example, that of the publication history of the work of Peter Handke in this country, an author since he burst on the scene in 1966, of some 66+ books, who has developed and changed over the course of time to an author of the importance of the greatest in German literature in the past two hundred years. The fellow Handke translator Scott Abbot mentioning, a few weeks back, in a discussion on what is everybody's favorite Handke title at http://handke-discussion.blogspot.com/ that Handke, while he and Handke were together in Yugoslavia, had shown him a letter from "Robert" Straus to Siegfried Unseld where Straus mentions that he's got a big problem called Handke, elicits these thoughts on Farrar, Straus has published Handke in this country: Farrar, Straus did 11 printings of KASPAR AND OTHER PLAYS. FS+G sold the first half a dozen Handke titles to various paperback publishers for reprinting, the Brit Methuen shared upfront costs, over and over, and so certainly did not lose any money. However, in all these years I have never seen an ad for a Handke book in this country. Even the diary-novel, as I think of it, Weight of the World did well, not that FS +G has had the good sense to publish it's successor Die Geschichte des Bleistifts which exists in the major Romance languages of course, to inform Handke's English language reading public, as this book does and can, how Handke's thinking on writing and his project is changing.[Little chance that the mostly idiot reviewers that the mostly idiot book review editors assign books to would take the trouble to give the matter of change any thought to as they so very obviously have not, baffled! I happen to have about each and every review, and there exists a single outstanding one, by Willim Gass in the L.A. Book Review when it was edited by Stever Wasserman]. First major mistake of Roger's was to fail to publish HISTORY OF THE PENCIL, the second and more serious one was to publish A SLOW HOMECOMING jointly in one volume together with LESSON OF SAINT VICTOIRE and A CHILD'S STORY [to save money and also on the individual presentation which these three very different books deserved. These failures in publishing finesse are compounded by failing to put books which had wide readerships in their paper editions with Avon and Collier Books into the FS+G quality paperback imprint Noonday Books to make for continuity [many have recently been reissued by New York Review of Books Books] and then in passing on Handke's greatest plays, WALK ABOUT THE VILLAGES [Ariadne Books] and THE ART OF ASKING + THE HOUR WE KNEW NOTHING OF EACH OTHER [Yale University Press] and many others not even translated yet. So what Roger is complaining to to Unseld is something that was easily remediable by him if he had been as good a publishers Handke's French and Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, etc Publishers were. Handke, also, has had about ten different editors assigned to him since I left there in 1969. Some first rate, the first several, some not, but each of course incapable or unwilling to construct the history of publication, that is to be a real editor! Recently the excellent Annie Wedekind left and so far I haven't found out to which overworked novice Handke has been assigned. Imagine, you're a bright young thing and Goethe is assigned to you! Elizabeth Sifton had a wonderful piece in Slate some years ago about being assigned Saul Bellow when she was a very junior editor at Viking http://www.slate.com/id/2116502/ Evidently Ms. Sifton did not drown, but this indicates the amateurishness with which these matters can be handled. And the case of a foreign author is then far more serious, especially of the new editor who assumes that load does not know the original language. michael roloff http://www.roloff.freehosting.net/index.html

  • Victoria Mixon says...

    Every day in my work as a freelance editor I hear aspiring writers complain that authors are the only people in the publishing industry who care about the quality of the work, that everyone else is obsessed with the money. Thank you for bringing Jonathan Galassi to us in this wonderful interview, so those who hope to become a part of the industry can see what the industry to really is.

    I'm very happy to have this article to mention in my blog on the craft of fiction.

    best,
    Victoria
    http://victoriamixon.com

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