Hey. I interviewed Erin Hosier. She’s a literary agent to a couple of fiction writers (Shya Scanlon, Brad Listi) and a lot of memoirists. Okay. I have a doctor’s appointment soon. I think that there is something wrong with me. Interview.
You mostly represent non-fiction writers, but a few fiction writers too, right? What kind of fiction manuscripts catch your eye? Do you want fiction that resembles memoir?
You should ask me more glamorous questions, like what kind of shampoo I use, or who my favorite designers are. I currently represent four literary fiction writers: Paul Jaskunas, Edan Lepucki, Brad Listi, and Shya Scanlon. I represent more illustrators than fiction writers. And more rock stars. Furthermore, these four writers are very different from each other, but I expect great things from each of them. I have represented other fiction writers over the years, but fiction writers tend to switch agents when I can’t sell their work. This is why I don’t handle more of it. My strengths are in writing, editing and pitching non-fiction. That’s my comfort zone. I even prefer documentaries to other movies, and I see way more movies than read books. Also, I’m a slow reader, and fiction comes in long manuscripts. I’ve noticed too that even if a novel is brilliant in so many ways – it makes you laugh or cry or it haunts your dreams or makes you look at the world in a new way, if it entertains – but it has just ONE fatal flaw in the marketing or manuscript department, it’s not going to sell.
What constitutes a “fatal flaw”, you ask? Here are just a few that I’ve heard from editors: too long, too dark, ultimately good but not Great, too gay, too male, too YA, nobody wants to read about these characters, and my personal favorite – “I didn’t like the ending.” Now you’re going to challenge me by saying that editors are hired for the express purpose of acquiring and editing novels – they’re supposed to help shape them, take them from good to great, work to change the flawed ending. I would counter that may have been true once, but that’s not the way it is right now. Most editors don’t edit, not the way a few of the greats do. But there are only a few really great fiction editors left, and so there are only so many novels good enough to capture their fancy. And have you noticed how many debut novels come out per year? Imagine being Josh Kendall or Lee Boudreaux and seeing the best of the best of the hundreds of literary agents who send you their wares each week. And that’s only when they get to work on the books the company’s not forcing them to, the bill payers.
Also, my favorite fiction writers are very few. I love Bret Easton Ellis and all he stands for. I like realism. I love Joan Didion’s “Play it as it Lays.” I admire Donna Tartt. Rivka Galchen is great. I love David Gates’ “Jernigan” (I’m sure he’s sick of people saying that). Most everything Denis Johnson does is fine with me. I enjoy dark and violent and horrifying. I like coming-of-age but not YA, and apparently there’s a difference. I don’t give a shit about the classics. I mean, I could pretend to, but why fake it? To me a classic novel is JAWS or CARRIE. I never studied literature. I wrote a term paper on The Yellow Wallpaper once, but who didn’t?
Finally, those four fiction writers I represent, they know all this about me. I always warn them in advance that I probably won’t be able to sell it and that it won’t be my fault because I’ll have tried every possible trick I know to make the publishers love it as much as I do. They know to blame the publishing houses. They know that they’re most likely my pro-bono cases, at least for awhile, but they still want me because they’re writers.
Well, leaving aside rock stars and designers for now, I like to think that it’s hardly possible, and maybe not even desirable, to anticipate what exactly will compel the last few great fiction editors. Because it seems that ultimately what will capture will be new, will cause a stir, take risks in terms of content; that flawless/marketable manuscript will be marketable because it has the potential to inaugurate a trend. And key is for the writer not to know that the potential is there. From afar it also seems that publishing has always relied on the possibility of this trend-starter. Do you think big publishing is reaching a point where the window of possibility for that rare “A-ha!” manuscript will be effectively foreclosed, or neutralized or something?
First of all this is the most awkwardly worded question ever [ :( ]. But yeah, I think we’re at that point already. A lot of publishing is about pushing “product” and “brands.” Lady Gaga has already started packaging her life in print, her line of books. As she should, but she’s still in the very beginning of her career instead of at the end. All it takes is a reality show and a ghostwriter. Literature used to live large in the general culture, or at least that’s what I’ve heard. The New Yorker was like People magazine. It really is different now. It’s a gift if you can talk to a friend outside of publishing about contemporary books or even articles. Speaking of, magazines are dead, too. Those will all move online. In the future, everybody will have an iPad type thing. Content is still important. Writing is always going to be important, but we have to find a way to monetize it.
How do you pull off being a glamorous literary agent?
I think book publishing used to be more glamorous. It was more like advertising. This economy is really bringing it down. There used to be these great expense accounts and fabulous hotels. My writer friend would do a freelance feature for Conde Nast and be put up at The Four Seasons to write even when she had her own place on the lower east side. People used to send flowers, champagne, tickets to stuff. Messengers would deliver hand written invitations to exclusive parties. There used to be extramarital affairs, cocaine. Now no one can afford it, so they just switch companies or move to the Pacific Northwest to start over. These days most literary agenting is on par with social work or public education. It’s so beige. I’ve always tried to up the ante fashion wise, but what are you gonna do? It can’t just be me and Ira Silverberg forever.
So what spots do publishing people pay attention to, in wait of the next big thing? What are good places to publish, places where your name will be seen? If you’re into that sort of thing. And don’t pretend you aren’t, whoever you are.
If it’s being published somewhere, someone who works in publishing is paying attention. I’m constantly shocked by how tiny the publications are that get referenced. Agents and editors are looking everywhere. They might not love it once they’ve read it, but they’re reading it. There are still the fiction purists who are looking at all those obscure Southern journals. And the editorial assistants are reading all the blogs and looking for young writers who have a voice and an influence. And they’re looking at the big blogs too. Richard Lawson of Gawker is one of the most asked-about writers without a book deal out there. He’s enormously talented and editors would love to see whatever he wants to do in the long form. The problem with bloggers though, if it even is a problem, is that they’ve become so adept at writing a blog or an op-ed that they don’t really have time to slow down and ruminate on a novel or even a book proposal unless there’s a really good chance that the project is going to pay them to quit their high profile blogging gig, and these days there are just no guarantees, especially when it comes to people who are famous for writing about popular culture. Those are the book ideas that the young editors can come up with and talk to agents about packaging, but it’s pretty challenging for them to then push those projects through with their publishers. In other words, a lot of these great young writers have agents, but there are so few projects for them in the book world that will actually pay a living wage. I can’t tell you how many times editors have said to me, “Erin, if you could only get Entertainment Weekly’s Whitney Pastorek to do a book…” And then she’ll write an amazing proposal and everyone will champion her voice but in the end the publisher will be like, why would anyone want to read this in the long form when they could read her online for free, and get this voice every day?” It’s a lot of bullshit.
For a long time I’ve thought that writers like David Foster Wallace, even BEE and Tao Lin in their own way, are so readable and marketable because they’re using an accessible cultural vocabulary (with BEE, it’s coke and new wave; Tao, gchat and veganism; DFW, the gamut) in terms of content, but at the same time doing interesting, provocative formal stuff, and a lot of time there won’t even be a discernible plot – like, the plot of Less Than Zero is laughable, but it’s infinitely readable because of whatever air or aura it has, and the fact that it’s motored by all of this cultural ballast. Are publishing people aware of this “formula”? Are they looking for books that incorporate relevant cultural artifacts (Facebook, internet, whatever) and that use the significance of those artifacts to say something bigger about why they’re there, why they fill up a space that’s necessary for the functioning of any modern society (elements that produce alienation, distance, aloneness) ? Because to my mind those are always going to be the bestsellers, the movies potentially adapted into film, but that are also cool, interesting, smart, or even fascinating stylistically.
I think publishers will try anything. If a writer can make a case for a Twitter novel or whatever (and someone has), then you can expect it will be published. But what’s different today is that you only get one shot. So if your Twitter novel fails, Little Brown or Knopf or whomever is not going to give you another chance. This is no joke. You have to woo them every time, and you have to follow through with sales. So I think it’s dangerous for writers to try and hedge their bets and yet they almost can’t afford not to. I think the other part of your question is about stylistic literary fiction. And yeah, publishers like to call it “voice” but yes, they are looking for something unique and contemporary feeling. I think “And Then We Came to the End…” is a good example of that – a debut that has this stylistic hook of a collective voice, a novel about work. But there’s no way to really plan that your novel will become a phenomenon. It really is like winning a lottery. New fiction writers almost always try to compare their work to the same 4 or 5 writers because that’s in part what they’ve been trained to do using the nonfiction model of pitching, or if they’re writing in a certain form, such as “a novel in stories” they’re grasping for a comparison. By now word’s gotten out that nobody wants to buy short story collections, but some themed collections have worked, so now we’ll just call it something else and compare our work to somebody famous who did that recently. This is what agents do – it’s what we have to do – but I don’t think anyone is fooling anyone. It’s almost ridiculous to pitch fiction outside of talking about the writer and the story. You either love it on the page or you don’t. If you love it, you hope other people will love it, and that’s really it.
But let’s talk about these writers you mention, because they’re all really interesting to me personally (and they’re all men, unsurprisingly. I mean let’s add DeLillo to the list while we’re at it, Alec, geez.) Tao Lin is still really arty and on the fringe, though. I think he’s more of an artist whose medium is writing, but it’s also self-promotion. In that way, he’s really smart, and I think young people really respond to his “voice,” which is actually pretty voiceless, empty, and remote. He may be the anti-voice of his generation, but I would be surprised to learn that fiction editors at the literary houses really know about him or are trying to pry him away from Melville House. And Bret Easton Ellis has been on thin ice forever. I love his work, particularly American Psycho, but it goes without saying that I often feel like his only feminist fan. I think he is probably the most misunderstood popular fiction writer in America. To me he is the ultimate stylist. Every novel he writes is basically the same. The cadence, the themes, the characters, the story. And yet there are so few credible executions of what he does that I never get tired of spending time with him. But look, American Psycho almost wasn’t published, and I know a lot of people who still wish it never was, who just absolutely will go to their graves believing that Ellis is a misogynist sociopath AND a hack who keeps writing the same book. But I think what he does is so refreshing – he just shines a light on how disgusting human beings really can be, how depraved, overstimulated, narcissistic and vain. He’s a hyperrealist. If you laugh at it you’re an asshole, if you take it too seriously you’re an asshole, and if you dismiss it you’re an asshole. And yet look at everything else we do and buy and produce. I much prefer BEE’s proven formula of sex scenes that involve skull fucking to some straining bullshit by one of these latter day literary liars. The sad young literary men, indeed.
There will never be another David Foster Wallace, not just because he was a genius, but because we don’t seem to have the attention for that kind of long form exploratory writing anymore. He clearly touched a lot of people, but there’s something to be said for a less is more approach, but you know, fuck it, he could do whatever he wanted because he was the only one doing it.
The short answer to this question is that writers should stop worrying so much about which grad school to go to and stop focusing on the short story as the ultimate form. And that what’s happening with literary fiction is almost not worth discussing outside of this forum because most people can’t even read or comprehend it.
The novel isn’t dead, I know, I know, but it’s certainly in critical condition. To quote Woody Allen in Manhattan: “I mean, face it, I wanna sell some books here.” There are plenty of writers out there who want to manipulate style and form, but get their books read and disseminated at the same time. Would that be having one’s cake and eating it, a pipe dream, or, well, what can we hope for?
It does seem like there are fewer slots for novels, no question, at the bigger houses. But debuts will always be in demand. Editors need to acquire the next big thing, the novel that gets everybody talking. And as a writer, it’s a good time to be experimental. Every year there’s some kind of wacky exception to the rule. Remember Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow? Talk about a risky form, but it was a great commercial success. The very frustrating thing, as we all know, is that it’s harder than ever to be taken seriously for one’s efforts. The competition is fierce. There are so many great agents, gifted readers, who are representing really fantastic fiction and it’s just not going to sell unless somebody somewhere simply has to have it. An alarming trend in responses from editors lately seems to be, “This novel isn’t ‘necessary’ enough, which feels like a kick in the stomach. The bar is so high that it often seems like a lot of the stuff I see is at least “good enough,” technically. But the only thing that’s gonna get over are the very best executions of story or what seems to be working in the marketplace. You just have to know that and accept it for what it is. Know that your novel, in lots of ways, has a better shot than the fourth go by the prize-winning geezer who once had a sleeper hit in the 90s. Sales track – nine times out of ten – feels like everything. So if you have no sales track, you’re already way ahead. Also, think about other forms. Stop making the literary novel the be-all end-all it’s become. Respect that you might have greater opportunities as a writer of narrative nonfiction, as a journalist, as a screenwriter, as a teacher. Know that you’ll probably make more money selling coffee in America than publishing your novel with Harper Perennial, who by the way, is acquiring all the best debuts these days. This isn’t your failure, it’s a failure of literacy and economy. Art is a worthy endeavor, but making a living as an artist has always been a struggle. As long as culture deems their work “unnecessary” the plight of the unknown fiction writer is going to be really fraught. Still, I want to believe all this technology will help pair readers and writers, and the struggle for recognition, if not wealth, will be worth it in the end.