As I consider these awful times, I’ve wandered into the trap of asking, “What’s the purpose of poetry?” Unfortunately, it’s a too-familiar question: What can words on a page or screen possibly offer against crises of such scale? Bookstores are currently closed because of the pandemic, things are looking grim for publishers. Teachers and students are adrift without a classroom to gather them into community. Readings are depersonalized by the homogenizing screen. There has to be a better way. What might poetry offer that might help us all?
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People are always asking me what kind of novel I’m looking for. My fiction tastes vary—I’ve fallen in love with everything from historical wartime novels to satirical portraits of contemporary life to dystopian imaginings of a world far beyond our own. Scenes depicting everything from a child’s birthday party in suburban Las Vegas, to a tense boardroom meeting at a Portland software start-up, to an underground Christian mass in North Korea have taken my breath away. What matters to me is VOICE.
As an agent, I make a point of reading all the unsolicited submissions. Dozens come in every week but it’s one of the ways I make a living because invariably, a couple times a year, I find something great that goes on to get published. It’s also an important part of my job because I like the idea that even without any connections, a writer can land an agent. Giving all unsolicited work a legitimate shot feels fair, regardless of who the writer knows.
I have a new pastime: Squidball. Invented during quarantine, it’s a game of indoor catch with my son’s rubber squid. Sometimes a squid works better than what you thought you wanted. Who needs a ball?
When I first moved to New York, I took figure drawing at the Art Students League. I struggled, but at times I’d make a leap of progress between classes, as if part of me was working at it while I bounced around the other parts of life. Maybe in quarantine we’re all doing that, whatever we do.
In response to the question, “What are you looking for?” every editor has at some point told an aspirant, “Surprise me!” We’re not trying to be dismissive—it’s just a harder question than people realize. Aesthetic choices are notoriously hard to quantify, and often editors are under competing demands (to appease their bosses, to give readers a new experience), such that articulating something as abstract as what you would wish to see can be paralyzing.
After I became an acquiring editor, I was startled the first few times a writer asked me what I was looking for. It hadn’t occurred to me this was something I should know. I wondered if this was a professional failing, evidence of my unsuitability for the job. It wasn’t until I heard other editors in public forums respond to this same question with vague comments like, “I want to see only good work,” or “I recommend you send only your best work,” that I understood there were no formulas or shortcuts into the mind of a given editor.
The busier life gets, the more I crave a printed page. When I’m tired or frantic from deadlines and travel, I need to put down my phone and pick up a book. And not only because well-crafted sentences sweep me away. I crave books because they’re ad-free, beautiful, and pleasantly weighty in hand. Reading a hardcover on the couch or in bed, I forget about the outside world. The same isn’t true for a screen, whose sidebars and flashing ads urge me to be malcontent with the moment.
When I think about how “good” writing works, I find myself constantly returning to two main purposes: translation and movement. I grew up in a household where language and expression were so important as to feel like a means for survival. My father, a mathematician, was a dominant personality who thought in numbers, algorithms, models, and charts, and much of our family culture flowed analytically from there. I, on the other hand, thought in poems, images, and phrases I hoarded—a natural collagist.
If there’s one thing that’s become more critical in traditional publishing, it’s a distinctive voice. A successful manuscript is one that you can spot from thousands after just the first line—you’d never confuse J. D. Salinger’s voice with Virginia Woolf’s (think Catcher in the Rye vs. A Room of One’s Own). Developing style in your writing captures the reader’s attention from the onset and builds a world that is fresh and unique. Plot is crucial, but only writers with both in their arsenals can achieve a manuscript that lives up to the reader’s expectations.
I knew all about Fun Home, the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, when Harcourt joined Houghton in 2008 and her editor Deanne Urmy became my colleague. But I’d never actually read it. With the excuse of it now being homework, I dived in; when I emerged I started recommending it to every author and have never stopped.