In "Goodbye to All That," her 1967 essay about the years she spent in New York City as a young writer, Joan Didion recalls trying to coax a world-weary friend into attending a party by promising him "new faces." Her friend "laughed literally until he choked" before explaining that "the last time he had gone to a party where he'd been promised ‘new faces,' there had been fifteen people in the room, and he had already slept with five of the women and owed money to all but two of the men."
Several decades later, the details may be different—casual sex? what's that?—but the literary world is every bit as small as it was in Didion's heyday. The agents who congregated at the offices of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses  for this conversation (and who were chosen, it should be noted, by the editors of this magazine) are not new faces—to one another or to me. During our talk, one of them said that she hopes to "grow old together" with her clients. The same might be said of us publishing people, who, unlike Didion's friend and especially in these tough times, are likely to view our shared history as a comfort rather than a curse. Some particulars:
MARIA MASSIE worked as an agent for twelve years before joining Lippincott Massie McQuilkin as a partner in 2004. A few years ago Maria broke hearts all over town (mine included) when she sold Nigerian priest Uwem Akpan's Say You're One of Them to Little, Brown for an ungodly advance. Her other clients include Peter Ho Davies and Tom Perrotta.
JIM RUTMAN, an agent at Sterling Lord Literistic for the past ten years, is mild mannered until he steps onto a basketball court—we play on a publishing team called the Jackals—at which point he turns into a ferociously competitive shooting guard who sometimes scores half our points. His clients include Charles Bock, J. Robert Lennon, and Peter Rock.
ANNA STEIN worked at three other agencies before joining the Irene Skolnick Literary Agency in 2006. Once, after a writers conference in New Orleans, Anna took me and my wife to a second-line celebration (imagine a loud, roving bacchanal) in the Ninth Ward. We made our plane, but barely. Her clients include Chloe Aridjis, Yoko Ogawa, and Anya Ulinich.
PETER STEINBERG spent twelve years at other agencies before founding the Steinberg Agency in 2007. Peter is a kind of throwback to the golden age of publishing, when men did things like hold doors open for women and send handwritten thank-you notes—not to embarrass him or anything. His clients include Alicia Erian, Keith Donohue, and John Matteson.
Let us inside your heads a little and talk about what you're looking at and thinking about when you're evaluating a piece of fiction.
STEIN: It's really hard to talk about why a piece of writing is good, and moving—even if it's funny—and what makes us keep thinking about something after we've read it. And it's incredibly subjective. That's why it's hard for agents who represent fiction, especially literary fiction, to find it. It's so rare. We can all talk about the things we don't like. When I see clichés, for example, on the first page or in the first chapter of a book, that kind of kills it for me immediately. The romance and the chemistry is just over. That's just one example of the negative side of that question, and I'm sure you guys have a million others. If I knew how to describe in language what makes me fall in love with something, then I would be a writer. All I can say is that if I read the first few pages of a novel and think, "Jesus Christ! Who the fuck is this person? Why are they letting me read this?" then that person is onto something. And we don't have that feeling very often. But when we do see it, it's so exciting.
MASSIE: Anna's right. It's like you have this moment of clarity and you recognize something that you're so absorbed with. I read a lot of things that are beautifully written where I say to myself, "Oh, this is good," but I'm not bowled over or sucked right in. It's so subjective. I can read something and pass on it and I hear, two days later, that there was a bidding war and it sold for a ton of money, but it just wasn't the thing that I was going to fall in love with.
STEINBERG: And you're okay with that.
MASSIE: You have to be okay with it because it's so subjective. I'm not necessarily going to see what somebody else sees, or read a book the way somebody else reads it. That's one thing that writers who are looking for an agent should always remember: All agents are different. Everyone has different tastes. What I like to read might be different than Anna or Peter or Jim. That's a great thing about what we do—there's so much to choose from. And what you fall in love with is a very personal choice.
RUTMAN: And the reactions are necessarily self-contained. It's impossible to articulate what you hope to find as an agent. How could you explain to somebody what moves you? Because hopefully you're capable of being moved by things that you didn't anticipate being moved by. So you sit down with something, and all the preamble is basically pointless until the moment that you actually start searching around and rummaging for your feelings and response. It might happen on word four, or it might happen on sentence seven, but if it hasn't happened by page two, will it happen on page two hundred and fifty? I wish it did. But I don't know that it does.
Are there any specific things that can make you fall in love with a piece of writing?
STEIN: I would say that being able to make me think, especially in dialogue, "Oh, shit. This person has got me. This person has just seen into what we all feel every day but don't say. This person has looked into our souls, especially the worst sides of us, and sort of ripped them open and put them on the page." Psychology, to me, is one of the most exciting things to see work well in fiction—when it comes alive on the page and is totally devastating.
STEINBERG: When you read something and think, "I can't believe they just said what I've thought in my deepest thoughts but never articulated," that is always an eye-opener for me. And it's also about reading something that doesn't seem familiar. Writers should realize that agents have a ton of material to read, and when things seem familiar, it's an easy reason to pass. If it's something that's new, it really makes a huge difference. And I'm not talking about something being so wildly creative that it's ridiculous—not a talking plant falling in love with a turtle or something like that. I'm talking about, in a real sense, something that is genuinely new and also deeply felt. That's what we're all looking for. But at the same time, I do get things and think, "How is this like something else that has sold well?" It's a difficult balance. You have to have one foot in literature and one foot in what's going on in the marketplace.
RUTMAN: Writers probably shouldn't trouble themselves too much over that consideration. If they're aiming to hit some spot that's been working—trying to write toward the books that have made an impression—that just seems like a pretty pointless chase. You know, "I hear that circus animals are wildly appealing and I've had some thoughts about circus animals...." That doesn't seem like a very good way to go about it.
STEINBERG: A writer was just asking me about that and I said it's the agent's job to spin a book for the marketplace—to talk about it being a little like this book and a little like that book or whatever. Writers should put those kinds of thoughts out of their heads and just write.
RUTMAN: I don't know who to blame for trends. If a run of books comes out that are all set in a particular country—which happens all the time—to whom do we attribute that? To writers who are looking at things and saying, "Hmmm, I notice that fourteen years ago India was interesting to people. I think that's where I'm going to set my book"? You can't blame writers for asking what subjects are interesting these days, even when we're talking about fiction, and I wish I had a useful answer for them, but I just don't think it works that way.
STEINBERG: I would basically go with your passion. The subject matter can be very wide ranging, but if you go with your passion, even if it doesn't work, at least it's heartfelt.
STEIN: On some level, what else are you going to do? Are you going to write a novel because it's "commercially viable"? I mean, I guess people do that. But we're not going to represent them.
Because you hate money?
STEIN: We. Hate. Money. [Laughter.]
But seriously, I sometimes think that people in the business read in different ways than normal readers. Are there things that you're looking at—contextual things, like who the author is—beyond what's on the page?
STEINBERG: Those things very much take the backseat for me. It really is just what's on the page. All of that other stuff comes later. Maybe once I get a third of the way through a novel and I'm loving it, then I will look back and see who the author is and all that stuff. I think it's important to stress that the synopsis and the cover letter and all of those things are not really important. It's the work, the work, the work. You have to focus on the work. I think sometimes writers get lost in getting the cover letter and the synopsis and those kinds of professional things right because they're afraid of focusing on the work.
STEIN: I don't even read synopses. Do you guys?
STEINBERG: I skip right over them. I go to the first page.
STEIN: I hate synopses. They're terrible.
RUTMAN: It's hard to write a synopsis well. And when we're talking about literary fiction, it will probably not make or break an agent's interest going into page one. You're not like, "Oh, there's going to be an unexpected plot twist two-thirds of the way through. I'm going to hang in there long enough to find out how that goes."
STEIN: I'm still surprised when I call an editor to pitch a book and he says, "So what's the novel about?" I'm like, "You actually want me to tell you what happens in the plot? Are you serious? I mean, we can do that if you want." But that's not really the point. I don't want anyone to tell me the plot of a novel. It's so boring.
But are there any other things you're looking at beyond what's on the page? Things that maybe you can sense after years of experience.
MASSIE: Sometimes it's when you're reading a manuscript and you can see that the person is a really talented writer with a beautiful voice but the story is not quite there. But you see the potential. Sometimes you sign those people on because you think, "Okay, maybe this isn't going to be the big book, or maybe it won't even sell, but this person has a quality—they have the writing, they have the voice—and the potential is there. This writer is going to go far. And maybe the next book will be the one." I've taken people on under those circumstances.
RUTMAN: I mean, reading "professionally," if that's what we do, is a compromised process because you are reading a book with an eye toward asking somebody for money. You are reading in a different way than you are when that's not a consideration. So I think it's filtered into the experience from the beginning. You are reading to be moved, hopefully, if that's the kind of novel you work on, but at the same time it probably would be disingenuous to suggest that you're not taking in some superficial considerations. They are all distantly secondary to the work itself. Because if an agent is reading with an eye toward various recent trends that have worked, he's probably not going to succeed all that well either. The same thing is true of the reverse. Any categorical dismissal of some kind of novel feels bogus because there's got to be a counterexample for every single example. So if somebody comes along and has this long list of accolades and prizes, it doesn't damage your regard for them. And if somebody comes to you on novel fourteen, with twelve of them having done exceptionally well, and the last one maybe less well, you think about that, too. You're thinking about how difficult it could be given certain practical considerations. But it's still all pretty far receded from the work itself.
STEIN: There is the question, now more than ever, of whether or not a book is publishable. By publishable I don't mean, "Is there a great plot and is the writing amazing etcetera?" I mean that if we were in your shoes, as a publisher, how would we publish the book? What kind of jacket would we give it? How would we position it? I mean, we're talking about literary fiction? You can't publish literary fiction today. How do you do that? [Laughter.]
RUTMAN: Legally, you can, but...
STEIN: So, given that it's basically impossible, it's our responsibility as the first guard to begin to think about, "Is it possible?" And if we're so bowled over and we're so in love that we think somebody should publish it, how would we do it? This is something I really struggle with because I'm not very creative. I don't have the mind for it. I admire publishers all the more today because the ideas they come up with just amaze me. And I'm not trying to flatter them, at all, because I love to talk trash. But it really does amaze me. I'm thinking about a book right now, for example, that I want to sell. I think the author is fantastic and well positioned and that the novel is perfect—there's nothing wrong with it. But in a way it would be a funny book to publish. In a way, I don't exactly see how it fits and how it could break out. So I see the problem there, which maybe we didn't have five years ago as agents. And I see it becoming more and more of a problem as the market contracts. So I'm reading a little differently because of that. I might not be altering my habits about what I take on, but maybe I am.
STEINBERG: I think you're sort of unconsciously changing and adapting to the marketplace. I find myself doing that. I think when an agent says, "I was following my gut instinct," what that really means is accumulated wisdom and taking a lot of different variables into account. You spend your day reading Publishers Weekly and Publishers Lunch and you take these things into consideration. You're having lunch with editors who are saying, "Such-and-such is so hard" and you're processing all of this information. And when you open a manuscript, you're reading it with that eye. It's hard for us to say exactly how we're looking at material but I think we are taking a lot of different things into account.
Is the economy affecting how you're reading?
MASSIE: It's starting to.
STEINBERG: I would say yes too. It feels like things are tough.
MASSIE: Right before Black Wednesday I had a novel out that I was really excited about. I was getting great reads from a bunch of people who were all calling to say, "This is great. This is wonderful." And one by one they slowly disappeared on me, except for one editor, who actually ended up being the perfect editor. But I did see everything diminish. I had an idea of what the novel was going to sell for and it didn't quite get there. It was actually shocking, because it's a wonderful novel and the responses were amazing and I really did see people pull back. Her first novel had done okay but not great and all people could say was, "Her numbers are just not good enough." Her numbers were not bad for a literary novel. So that was my first moment of a little bit of fear. I haven't quite gotten to the point where I'm conscious that the economy is affecting my thinking, but I'm sure I will at some point.
RUTMAN: Especially with fiction, you're largely at the mercy of what comes in. Certainly you solicit your share, but when you're relying on the kindness of your acquaintances, or referrals, wherever they happen to come from, you can only adjust so much. But it's certainly nice to glimpse something behind the page whenever you can, whatever it may be. If a novel happens to have a nice, portable summation—if it's pitchable—that doesn't upset me.
MASSIE: If there's a hook.
STEIN: Or when the author has a platform.
MASSIE: When they've been published in the New Yorker or something.
RUTMAN: When you're reading something, one of the things you're trying to glimpse is whether you can imagine more than a few people warming up to it. But things that work in various ways...I mean, not to be indirectly nepotistic here, but on what planet should 2666 have worked commercially?
STEIN: I wasn't going to bring it up.
RUTMAN: That's why I did.
STEIN: Well, let's start with The Savage Detectives. I mean, why should anybody have finished that book, let alone have it be successful? [Laughter.] Now I'm going to say something nice about the publisher, but it really was a beautiful piece of publishing.
RUTMAN: It was exquisite. How did that work? Why did that work? I want somebody to explain it to me. Gut instincts are referred to retrospectively when they have worked—people don't really make much reference to their gut instincts when they're looking back regretfully. It's not like, "Ugh, my gut instincts. Son of a bitch." Gut instincts are wrong just as much as they're right. But there is such a thing as publishing something well, and resourcefully.
STEIN: And I find that inspiring—the fact that Lorin Stein is my brother aside—because we are in the position now where we're selling books for lowly five figures that we might have sold for six figures very recently. And I don't want to alter what I take on because of that.
RUTMAN: Do you think you would know how to alter it?
STEIN: I don't think I would.
RUTMAN: If I could see clearly enough and far enough to think, "If I just adjust my taste this much, I think I'll be a very successful person," I would think about trying it. [Laughter.] I just don't presume to know how that would work.
STEIN: But here's how I might alter. I might say, "Look, I can't take on an Icelandic writer right now." Or, "I can't afford to invest my time in editing the sample translation of this Icelandic writer right now. It's just not the time for that. Maybe when things are sunnier."
STEINBERG: I feel like I can adjust when there are natural inclinations a certain way. For instance, I was reading that young adult books are selling better than adult books. I have kids and I'm starting to read what they're reading, and I thought, "Oh, I'm sort of interested in this. Maybe I should do a little more young adult." So that's something that I've consciously done in terms of categories. I think I'll still look for the same type of material within the young adult category, but I'm definitely thinking about the category a little bit more because of the marketplace.
Where are you finding writers, aside from referrals? Are you reading literary magazines? Are you reading blogs?
MASSIE: No blogs.
RUTMAN: Not for fiction.
STEIN: Hell no.
RUTMAN: Referrals are about 75 percent of how I find writers.
MASSIE: A lot of my clients teach in MFA programs, so I get referrals from them. I get referrals from editors. I get referrals from other agents.
RUTMAN: There's a big range of where referrals come from.
STEIN: But every now and then there will be something in the slush—and I bet this is true for you guys, too—that's not just well written but is also well researched and shows that the person knows your list and is really appropriate for your list and also has published well.
MASSIE: And sometimes when I read a short story that I like I'll send an e-mail. "Are you represented?" Once in a blue moon someone's not represented.
RUTMAN: There are too many of us.
MASSIE: There are a lot of us.
STEIN: There are way too many of us.
STEINBERG: A lot of times, when people are in literary magazines, it's too late.
MASSIE: Exactly. Agents are submitting those short stories.
RUTMAN: And MFA students are going about things in an entirely different way.
STEINBERG: They're savvy.
MASSIE: They're so savvy.
STEIN: That's what they pay for.
MASSIE: I was amazed by going to MFA programs and talking to students. The first thing they want to know is, "Okay, what do I need for my query letter? What do I need for this thing or that thing?" It wasn't questions about the work. Their questions were really about the business side.
Do you think that's healthy?
MASSIE: No. I don't.
RUTMAN: Ultimately, no. If that is more of a priority than the work, it can't be all good. I mean, it's fine that they have a sort of professional track and that they're exposed to whatever realities they are ultimately going to encounter. But when they take a sort of sporting interest in it...
STEINBERG: It's a good way to eliminate potential people, for me at least. When they ask me, "What's the query letter consist of?" I usually think, "Well, that's probably not a potential client."
RUTMAN: It's true.
What do you wish beginning writers would do better?
MASSIE: Take chances. Don't worry about writing a perfect novel. Sometimes it's nice to have something that's a little bit raw and has a little bit of an edge to it. Something that's just perfect all the way through is sometimes a little boring.
STEIN: I wish they would get their friends, who may be writers or may not be writers, to read their work and tell them, "Don't say anything nice to me. I don't want to hear anything nice. I want to hear everything not nice that you have to say."
STEINBERG: And be smart about picking those people. Find your two or three friends who hate everything.
STEIN: Exactly. And have those people—those hateful friends—give you feedback before you even think about sending out your work.
STEINBERG: I would also say, once you think the work is done, work on it for another year.
STEIN: And never trust your spouse if your spouse says it's good. Your spouse has no idea. Neither do your mother or your father.
RUTMAN: Check your eagerness to share. A lot of professors may even encourage you, as a way to hasten the process along. You know, "I think it's time for the world to tell you what they think of this." It may well not be time for the world to pass judgment just yet. Hold on until you are absolutely certain that it's ready for broad, indiscriminate exposure. Don't hurry that.
STEIN: And this is a cliché for us but it seems worth saying that most writers' first novels aren't really their first novels. If you have to scrap your first novel, you'll live. Your first novel probably won't be the first novel you publish. Maybe your second one will be. But you'll live. And you'll be a better writer because of it.