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 IX.
BY John Hodgman
THE SURPRISING TRUTH ABOUT
MY YOUNG COUSIN, JOSH
BEING THE SECOND CHAPTER
IN THE MEMOIRS OF FORMER
PROFESSIONAL LITERARY AGENT
WITH SELECTED QUESTIONS
ANSWERED AND CERTAIN
In a bar in New York City, about a month ago, in front of good people who have a right to expect the truth, I said that the first chapter of my memoirs would be “The State of American Publishing—Question: Am I to Blame? Answer: No”
Yes, this is true, but I’m skipping that chapter for now, because I have already discussed this topic at length. As well, this chapter contains stunning revelations of a scientific nature for which the world is not prepared (Hint: think teleportation. Another hint: think pirates and dogs finally working together for the good of all. But I have said too much). And also it happens that the entire text of this chapter already appeared in another book that I did not write. This is an amazing coincidence, and I am as shocked as you are, but I cannot afford another lawsuit this year. So its contents will remain confidential until such time as I have completed changing every third word to “Hodgman.” Yes, I believe that should do it.
So let us move on and discuss my young cousin Josh. Some of you—not many, but enough—have asked after this poor young fellow, an aspiring writer who, like so many, needed my guidance. You may recall that I would write him letters, which advised him on matters of writing and the business of publishing and parlor games and proper hygiene and black magic. And I would share these letters with you, dear reader, in the hope they might be instructive. Examples may be found here, here, here, and here.
But Josh never responded, ever. Some of you have whispered and gossiped that this is because Josh did not appreciate my advice, or that he didn’t like me, or that I was not actually his cousin and Josh was confused and afraid of me. Is this the truth? Oh no. Oh no no no no no no no no. That is a very funny joke to me, because It is not the truth at all. The truth is: Josh does not exist.
You see, Josh is what we call in my trade of wordsmithing a “figure” or “literary device”—an invented character with whom I held a fictional dialogue to express my own opinions in a more vibrant and deceptive manner. This dialogic format of course lends itself to being read aloud, in such a way that less educated people will hear the words and learn from them and not just curse them as witchcraft. There is a long tradition of this sort of thing in world literature: Plato had his “Aristotle,” after all, just as Strunk had his “White,” and Walt Whitman his grand army of grinning boys with silvery bat wings.
A literary device is among the most cunning of devices, but also the most dangerous. It cuts both ways: up and diagonally. Plus, it has a serrated edge. And though it weighs less than a pound and can be conveniently hidden in your breast pocket, it can also get gummed up, jammed, worn down, and dull. It eventually needs to be tossed aside, and that is precisely what I have done with Josh. He is dead to me now.
This is not to suggest there isn’t actual person in the world named Josh. Of course there is, and we all know him: he lives in Seattle with his lovely wife. We went to high school together, and I recently saw him over the holidays. He has much longer hair than I remember, and I commented that it made him look like Aslan, the Lion of Narnia. A very nice man.
He too is dead to me now.
If any of this is unclear, or if you are interested in any other subject, please pose your questions here, and I will answer them. Yes I will answer them all, in time.
But first, I have a question of my own, pertaining to research I am performing for a chapter of my memoirs. The question: Which Dickens novel was it that featured the pirate and his dog? Was it THE PICKWICK PAPERS? I think it was.
Chuck S asks: A decade ago, I sent some poems to a local literary magazine. They loved them, published every word, and wanted more. Looking back, it was all typical teen angst bullshit that reeks of reading too much Bukowski. So my question is this: is the bulk of poetry writing so bad that even mediocrity stands out?
JKH, FPLA: The answer is yes. This is also true for prose writing. Bukowski proved two things before he died. First, If you write one poem and one short story and one novel every night, and then quickly submit them everywhere, preferably without reading them first, over time you will wear someone down and you will be a published author, no question. And second, I don’t care what you say about a monkey being smart and knowing sign language, a dog will beat it in a fight every time because it is strong and hungry and it will not stop. I say this without malice, because I like Bukowski and I love love love monkeys. But both he and the dog are rewarded not for their skill or intelligence but for their toil, persistence, and unquestioning self-confidence—traits that are rarely observed among good writers but are universal among bad ones.
Kathleen K asks: What is meant by the expression “British Luck?” I hope you can help.
(This communication is confidential and is intended solely for the addressee. It is not to be forwarded to any other person or copied without the permission of the sender. This communication is not an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy any securities discussed herein. XXX, XXX, & XXX, Inc. makes no representation as to the accuracy or completeness of information contained in this communication.)
JKH, FPLA: I have no idea what you’re talking about, so I immediately forwarded your communication to Daniel Stewart, a British Person. He replies:
“BRITISH LUCK? Can’t say I have ever heard of it. We are not a lucky race of people and no other race of people would have cause to think we are. For example: Did those involved in the Charge of the Light Brigade think of themselves as very lucky? Upon hitting the iceberg did the captain of the Titanic think ‘Phew, that was lucky—almost didn’t sink the ship?’ In fact we have an unusual national obsession with our tragedies and disasters. Scott of the Antarctic. We love him. What did he do? Get lost in a blizzard and kill all those with him. I think I have said all there is to say, really.”
I also have no idea what Dan is talking about. But I would be very interested in taking you up on your offer of security. It is a frightening time.
Todd S asks: In the past, you have mentioned the book THE CHOCOLATE WAR by Robert Cormier. Is it unlawful or unethical that I put up a website called chocolatewar.com?
JKH, FPLA: I have consulted with an attorney, who points out that a title of a book can not in itself be copyrighted, but it can be trademarked. You may want to check this. However, your site does not seem to defame the book or its author, nor would it seem you are attempting to profit from a confusion between the novel and your site, which as far as I can tell just reviews obscure candy bars. So I decree: probably not unlawful. But still, is it ethical to post an ad for your site disguised as a legitimate question? That is a question that you will have to answer for yourself tonight, in the lonely dark of 3AM, in consultation with your attorney.
Note: I’m saddened to report that, since our last discussion of THE CHOCOLATE WAR here, Robert Cormier has passed away. He died at age 75 of November 6 of last year. He defended the CHOCOLATE WAR for many years against those who wished to ban it from school reading lists and the like, even as recently as last summer (how foolish must you be to want to ban a book? How fearful, bored, and/or evil?), and was a native of Leominster, MA.
Liam M asks: What recommendations do you have for evading certain agencies committed to soiling your name and reputation with claims that you are or once a vegetarian of the worst sort: raddisharian?
JKH, FPLA: What you write simply makes no sense.
Sommer B asks: I am trying to break into the world of letters. Am I bourgeois in only renting apartments with air conditioning?
JKH, FPLA: You are essentially asking that age-old question, must I suffer for my art? The answer is no. True art comes from within, not from external circumstance. And true art is only made truer by comfort, fluffy pillows, and climate control. Why do you think Salman Rushdie temped at Pfizer last summer? You have to beat the heat somehow. I think air conditioners are good as well because the hum helps me to sleep at night, and by cooling individual rooms they make the surrounding city hotter. And when this city heats up—man alive, you know there’s going to be a party somewhere. Or a stabbing.
Dave R asks: I understand that it takes gross negligence and mismanagement to become a former professional literary agent, but how does one become a literary agent in the first place?
JKH, FPLA: I’ll tell you, it takes pluck. And also moxie. Tempered by sheer nerve. Plus plenty of guts, a fair helping of brains, and a black heart. With these things, and at least 8 credit cards (or four years’ worth of funding from an obscure foreign Prince) and a suitcase full of illegal fireworks, anyone can make it in publishing. But only if you have that certain indefinable something, that unnamable quality. Which is pluck.
And here is the Will Allison Memorial Question. The Will Allison Memorial Question is a question that is answered out of turn (which is to say, faster than normal, which is still not very fast) if the person asking the question can demonstrate his or her personal familiarity with Will Allison. The WA Memorial Question exists to fulfill an oath taken by your humble correspondent long ago in time forgotten by man.
Judy B asks: It’s often been said that it’s not what you know, but who you know. So who do you know? (I know Will Allison)
JKH, FPLA: In my time, Judy, I knew them all: the bums and the swells, the dreamers and the malcontents, the tall and the average-heighted, the detectives and the magicians, and Will Allison.
And here’s what I learned: there are three kinds of writers in the world: the brilliant frauds and the plain frauds and the attractive frauds. There are three kinds of editors: the starry-eyed, the blind, and the fired. And there are two kinds of agents: former and professional.
I have recently learned: all of these categories also apply to cats.
For they’re all gone now, my network of illustrious professional acquaintances, who lifted me up and allowed me to taste, for just a moment, the sweet taste of bourbon that I didn’t pay for. And I am left only with these two cats, who are so perturbed by this new fern on the dining room table. And you dear questioners. You.
I hope you will ask more questions. And maybe you would like to come to Williamsburg again? For on Wednesday, March 7, at a familiar bar called “Galapagos,” several people will be appearing whom I will be proud to introduce. I am told that at least two presentations will involve an overhead projector. There will be no auction or spelling bee, however, which may frustrate those who only want auctions and spelling bees.
But they are still welcome.
That is all.
Former Professional Literary Agent
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