Ask a Former Professional Literary Agent
Mr. Hodgman used to work as a literary agent in New York City. These days he does play-by-play of his Scrabble matches on Twitter.
Ask A Former Professional Literary Agent, Part II.
BY John Hodgman
I am very surprised that absolutely none of you asked about exceptional super mind power. I was sure that this would pique your curiosity above all else, and I am saddened too, because I have much to share on the subject.
Still, many of you asked questions that will be answered at the 9/5 event in Brookline, MA and/or at the 9/7 event in Brooklyn, NY. The rules to this particular game remain in force: questions for Boston should be labeled “For Boston.” For New York, say “For New York.” For answers to be posted here, on the www, say “For Nowhere.” All questions should be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
But the case is that most were interested in the outcome of the great debate: is The Lord of the Rings a trilogy, or one long novel? In this case, I must defer to the authority of Quickbeam, one of three co-editors of the Green Books, a Tolkien study group to be found at www.theonering.net, who graciously writes:
The entire 600,000+ word epic that we all adore, The Lord of the Rings, was not originally intended to be three volumes. Douglas A. Anderson wrote a very interesting ‘Note on the Text’ that is found in the beginning of most editions appearing after 1993. His well-researched summary offers an intriguing peek into the complicated publishing history of this epic and should be considered definitive. He explains thusly:
“The Lord of the Rings is often erroneously called a trilogy, when it is in fact a single novel, consisting of six books plus appendices, sometimes published in three volumes.”
One novel… Six “books”… Three volumes. Only dyed-in-the-wool Tolkien disciples would not be confused by this, so perhaps some further light should be shed.
Professor Tolkien wanted it to be one single volume to preserve the “rhythm and ordering of the narrative” (his own words). However his British publisher, Allen & Unwin, was beset with prohibitive printing costs in the early 1950’s. Had they gone ahead with Tolkien’s original desire the book’s price would have climbed outrageously high and not garnered a profit. After a time Allen & Unwin decided to publish The Lord of the Rings in three volumes—made up of two “books” per volume, with additional appendices found in volume three.
When Tolkien was asked to supply separate titles for the three volumes he expressed great dismay and came up with a handful of possibilities that were quickly abandoned. In August of 1953 he settled on the familiar volume titles that we know today: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King.
One cannot effectively pursue this line of research without looking at J.R.R. Tolkien: A Descriptive Bibliography, by Wayne G. Hammond, with the assistance of Douglas A. Anderson (1993), and more importantly The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter (1981).
Now that that is settled, let us move on to this current crop of questions, or “queries” as we once called them in the publishing business.
John R.M.E.: Are there any other literary works that you can think of that began life as artificial languages and/or mythologies, like The Lord of the Rings? Or as codes or inside jokes of some sort?
JKH, FPLA: The answer is yes: there are many, many other fantasy novels with goblins and faeries and kings and talking snakes and so forth. It’s amazing to me that you’ve missed this, because most bookstores have whole sections devoted to them. Often they are printed with beautiful, colorful jackets with pictures of ladies on them.
Only one work, however, matches Tolkien’s in its linguistic invention, its bold and somewhat unseemly ambition to create a complete and invented mythic past for the English peoples, and for its use of Hobbits, and that is THE NEAL POLLACK ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN LITERATURE.
Now, that particular work is clearly an inside joke from start to finish. But few know that it is also a code that, when deciphered, gives directions to a secret horde of gold and jewels hidden in a mountain, guarded by a dragon, and belonging, rightfully, to the dwarves.
Adam H: I am a humorist whose work remains unpublished. Having tooled around in this field for roughly three years, my discouragement is a prevalent factor in my life. Can I have twenty dollars?
JKH, PFLA: Three years is too short. When I was a Professional Literary Agent I perfected a technique whereby I could take a normal, non-writing individual and train him or her to be a novelist in 36 months; a journalist took only 18. But for some reason, humorists always took 9 years or more to get funny, and that’s why it was never worth my while to represent them.
But here’s a tip worth more than the amount you request: it is sometimes amusing, if you are a white person, to use rap music terms such as “dope,” or “wack.” No one expects this. And pirates are always funny. But that whole part in the middle of your question about your career is just sort of sad and not funny. Glad I could help!
Kate E.G.: I’ve been writing short stories recently, all non-fiction, mostly about my travels, or more accurately the muddles into which I get myself while traveling. I’d eventually like to publish them, preferably in the form of a book. However, I have no idea of whom I might contact about this. I sent one to McSweeney’s a couple of months ago, but the jerks never responded. Any suggestions?
PS: if you’re interested, I can email you one of my stories. So far on the menu is:
1) Spider Event in Nevis
2) The Shore
3) Viola a Firenze
4) Train Toilet
5) Last Night in Puebla
6) Trinidad de Cuba
JKH, FPLA: One way the enterprising youngsters are sidestepping the huge, foreign-owned, jerky media conglomerates like McSweeney’s is to e-publish. This is what we used to call in the publishing industry “self publishing” or “vanity publishing” insofar as it was not vetted and approved by a recognized body capable of judging fine literature, such as Viacom. Now Stephen King has changed all of that by letting people “download” things that he’s written, thus touching his reading public directly and personally, much like Neal Pollack.
You, too, Kate, can do the same, and let it start now. Yes, please do e-mail me “Spider Event in Nevis.” And how can I pass up “Train Toilet?” I promise to send you 50 cents for each whether I like them or not. And I will pay you entirely in quarters: no paper money! Anyone willing to make a similar trade may e-mail Kate here: Kegambs@aol.com
My friends, together we will tear down the walls of traditional publishing, burn its temples, loot its treasuries, and glory at the lamentation of its dying priest-kings!
Jeremy T: Just wondering when my clothes will be done drying.
JKH, PLA: By now, that question is answered. What I suspect you really want to know is: why is does the Coolidge Corner Theater have an enormous marquee which reads: " Coolidge Corner Moviehouse?"
I am asked this question so frequently, and the answer is: I don’t know. When I was young and in high school, I worked at a beautiful art deco movie theater called the Coolidge Corner Moviehouse. It was where I had gone as a child to see Ivanhoe, A Night at the Opera, and Yojimbo, during a time when the Coolidge was one of seemingly hundreds of art/foreign/repertory film venues in the Boston area. By the time I was actually ripping tickets there, it was nearly the last. The Orson Welles Cinema was consumed by flames. The Central Square Theater had become a Gap or some such. But by our teeth and an unusually lucrative run of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” the Coolidge survived.
It was the finest job I ever had, and in many ways I resent my college—a fine institution that gave me nothing except a basic understanding of literary theory, plus heartache—for taking me away from the Coolidge, which gave me so very much more: free passes to any film in Boston, free popcorn to all my friends, a 20% discount at the Brookline Booksmith bookstore across the street, and the good company of co-workers whose goodness and wisdom is still instructive today.
I’m guessing that the “Theater” appellation came when the Coolidge passed from private hands into public. Around 1989, the Coolidge’s owner suddenly realized that there were more profitable businesses in the world than running a 600 seat moviehouse and decided to close it. This stunned no one, and we who worked there were not exactly happy, but nonetheless prepared to accept that the best things do not last, and only the worst prevail. Such was our feeling until a circle of three Russian émigré women (rather a common sight in Brookline) began standing in front of the box office as I counted up my receipts.
“Help keep this theater from demolishing!” they cried, over and over again. And very strangely, Brookline seemed to listen. Especially to the “theater” part, as it was thereafter known. A council of citizens was convened, a foundation was formed, portions of the lobby were sold off to a French sandwich shop that doesn’t exist anymore, and the Coolidge Corner Theater, to our minor confusion, against our expectations and beyond our hopes, was saved.
The Coolidge Corner Theater Foundation still operates the Moviehouse, and we are grateful to them and to Brookline Booksmith for hosting us on 9/5. I don’t know why they changed the name except that I suppose it sounds grander in some small way. But I am happy, no matter the name, that I will be able to stand there again, amidst old friends and new, and smell the musty carpet and the musty crowd once more.
Sean C.: Early in life I helped out a photographer friend by sitting for a portrait. As he was setting up he went on and on about some complication or other in his father’s recent knee-replacement surgery, which prompted me to make a carefree wish to remain eternally young. I have since noticed that I do not age, but increasingly there are sharp pains just behind my left kneecap. Should I consider writing about this, perhaps building a short story or novel around the idea?
JKH, FPLA: What you are experiencing is called patellofemoral pain syndrome. The patella, or kneecap as it is commonly called, forms a joint with the thighbone, or femur. As the knee moves, the patella glides back and forth along a shallow groove at the end of the femur. Often trauma, overuse, or weight gain can cause the patella to push painfully against the femoral groove, sometimes damaging the underside of the kneecap. This pain will worsen without physical therapy or perhaps a knee brace to re-balance the various supports and stresses to which the kneecap is subject.
The definitive patellofemoral pain syndrome novel, of course, was I, Claudius, and I doubt you could do better than Robert Graves. Also: you are not immortal, as you claim, for only the first-born, the Elvenkind, are so blessed.
Finally, no one seems curious about the Brookline/Brooklyn connection. That is, I suspect, because such a connection should be obvious to those with any training in etymology and any understanding of the geographies of either locale. To those homeys, I say “dope.” To the rest, I say,
That is all.
Former Employee of the Coolidge Corner Moviehouse
And Former Professional Literary Agent
SUGGESTED READSAsk a Former Professional Literary Agent: Ask A Former Professional Literary Agent, Part I
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Ask a Former Professional Literary Agent: Ask A Former Professional Literary Agent, Part IV
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