A SPECIAL HOLIDAY EDITION
WITH FEWER QUESTIONS BUT
INCLUDING A HEARTWARMING
TALE OF GHOSTS AND REDEMPTION
THAT IS SURE TO INSPIRE AND PROVOKE
PERSONAL REFLECTION, AND WHICH
FOR PURPOSES OF CATALOGING,
MAY BE REFERRED TO AS “THE LONG
OVERDUE PART VII.”
This is interesting: I was visited by three ghosts last night, one after the other.
The first ghost came to me at about 10 PM when I was eating some chicken and relaxing. The ghost smelled like pencil shavings and burnt coffee. He said he had come to show me the past, but he was a little embarrassed because he thought I would be asleep by now. I didn’t know what to say to that—I haven’t gone to bed at 10 since I was a child. I asked the ghost if he would come back later, but he never did.
The second ghost seemed to have his shit a little more together, at least at first. It came into my bedroom at about 2 AM, when I was asleep, dreaming of chicken. I felt a chill cross my forehead and awakened to find a great bearded man draped in furs and holly leaning over me, his breath coming out of his mouth like steam, as though we were outside on a cold night. He held a great bronze lantern that filled the room with a green light that rippled on the walls and the ceiling like water. This is what paranormal investigators would call a full-bodied entity apparition. By “entity,” I mean to say that he probably has always been a ghost and is not the spirit of a deceased person, because no actual human would dress that way. The cats blinked awake and started meowing like crazy.
This second ghost explained that he was there to show me the true meaning of Christmas, and he would accomplish this by taking me to various Christmas parties all over London. I had no real problem with this, but then he let it slip that these particular parties would be at the homes of all the writers whose novels and memoirs and other books I had rejected when I was a professional literary agent. I surmised aloud that these would be very sad Christmas parties: bitter, broken men and women gathered around small, evil-looking trees decorated with eerily disfigured photos of me—eyes scratched out, face obliterated by water damage, etc.
The ghost explained that this would not be the case. In fact, he said that they would all be quite festive parties full of warm feeling and comradeship and delicious hors d’oeuvres. He told me that most of these writers bore no grudge against me at all, and many had forgotten about me altogether. Which was clearly worse, so I thanked him and asked him to leave. Before he did, he asked if I would read the first draft of his book, which was a compilation of the wit and wisdom of several famous ghosts. He said ghosts were the next big thing: bigger than angels. Naturally, I refused. When he was gone, I wondered why all those writers just happened to all live in London. That just didn’t make sense.
The third ghost appeared just before dawn, and his tattered cloak was the color of dawn: a watery and shapeless blue-gray. It was impossible to see what was underneath: it would appear to be the body of a man, but his head was that of a great, glossy black rooster. Still, he had none of a rooster’s manic herky-jerkiness. Instead he was graceful and steady and calm. The fur collar of the cloak was clutched primly around his wattle. His eyes were yellow. He wanted to show me the future.
The next I knew he had spirited me away across the city. He was leading me through the endless corridors of a very clean, modern office building. He told me it was the Conde Nast building in Times Square. Everything was deserted and deadly still, as that is how things are in the future, before we arrive and mess it up. He showed me the cafeteria and the tennis courts, the solarium and the holodeck and the chariot track. He showed me the secret stairway, the grassy knoll, the wax museum, the morgue, the TARDIS docking station, the racing elevators, and the petting zoo. He showed it all to me with some pride, as though he had some hand in designing it all, but actually he just worked there.
We walked for a long time, without any real destination, it would seem. At one point he asked me what I thought about an idea for a book he had been mulling over. What would happen to a human baby if it were raised and schooled entirely within the confines of the Conde Nast building? And then what would happen if he were forced to leave at the age of 18? Would the child find the outside world unbearably beautiful? Or unbearably ugly?
I told him that I really, seriously, am no longer a literary agent. At all. And in any case, that particular type of book had been done so many times that I couldn’t see anyone going for it. Publishers want something new. I did think it was interesting that he used the term “human baby,” but then the ghost got a little peeved and said that wasn’t the point. I was only thinking: if the baby had a rooster head, he might have something there.
Finally, it seemed like he was just stalling, so I asked him to get on with it and show me the future. But he just hemmed and hawed and clucked a little until it was apparent that he really didn’t have anything to show me. It was all just a big waste of my time. And I was sort of mad at myself because I should have seen it coming. Damn ghosts.
I awoke the next morning, I noticed that all the milk in the house was curdled, and this almost never happens. Otherwise, everything was the same. I would not say that the experience changed me at all, but it did annoy the cats. And also it reminded me to throw a few coins from my window to the nearest street urchin in exchange for another small and welcome packet of your questions.
Andrew L asks: I am at the crossroads. What will happen to me if I major in something nutty in college like Semiotics or Hypertext Theory? What will happen to me if I study literary theory for 10 years?
John Kellogg Hodgman, Former Professional Literary Agent: It’s interesting you should ask this, as I studied literary criticism myself in college and I have never ever once regretted it, ever. The professors wore jeans, the girls were hot, and the tropes were hotter. Now, I am not some future-predicting phantom come to visit you in the night. But I will say this: whether you choose a big-money major like Hypertext Theory or focus on more esoteric fields (I’m intrigued by the new developments in Replicantism, which presupposes not that the Author is dead, but that all authors are androids and I am actually the only human on earth), you are absolutely guaranteed a quick appointment to a prestigious University. You will live in a quaint town with excellent bars, and you will hold court in sunlit, wood-paneled rooms among a small throng of student admirers. You will have summers off and be universally recognized as a brilliant thinker and never really have to work. Everyone who enters academia may reasonably expect this, and you are no exception.
Alex P asks: How does a previously unpublished author get a reputable literary agent? How can he tell which firms have the experience and contacts to represent him adequately and which are made up of two guys living in their parents’ basement who spend most of their time watching “Kids’ WB”?
JKH, FPLA: Tempting an agent is easy: just show up at his office and wait until he agrees to read your novel right there on the spot. It’s even better if you don’t actually have a novel but an idea for a novel—what we in the publishing industry call a “query letter.” But determining whether an agent is reputable or not is a trickier matter. There are a lot of con artists out there who will immediately ask you for an up-front reading fee or editorial consultation fee. Do not pay it. This practice is not accepted by the Association of Author’s Representatives, and the way to avoid falling into this trap is to immediately ask a potential agent to pay YOU. Suggest that he front you a modest “exclusivity fee” to guarantee that you will not show the work to anyone else. This will prove an agent’s seriousness and keep him on his toes. It is also a good idea to ask as soon as possible how much money the agent will be able to get for you.
Monica S asks: Is it ethical for a writer to say that she has been published on the website of a literary journal, even if said writer has merely contrived to have a letter printed in that journal’s Letters section?
JKH, FPLA: Oh, absolutely. This is common practice in publishing, just as it is entirely acceptable to say that your novel is “being seriously considered” by a publishing house so long as you have not yet opened the rejection letter.
An example: some years ago I wrote a letter to a print journal called “The New Yorker” on the subject of the dullness of their fiction section, how one would not need to ghettoize the short story into special “Fiction Issues” if one published actual stories (as opposed to frosty set pieces and MFA-approved tales of sad white people), and the disservice that is done to culture when one puts the quality of an author’s celebrity/notoriety/complexion above the quality of the words he has actually written. I was young then, and my position has softened on these matters—all writers, I realize now, should be handsome and young. But my point is this: in this case, my letter was not even printed, nor even responded to. And yet I am still proud to count myself among that magazine’s pantheon of legendary regular contributors.
So certainly you should put that mysterious “literary journal” on your resume immediately. And why not go ahead and claim to be a Former Professional Literary Agent as well. Though it would not be technically “true,” you did ask me a question, after all! Thanks for the gum, and Godspeed.
Indeed, Godspeed to you all, my dears, and to all a goodnight. I, your ever-more Scrooge-ish correspondent, am sad to report that, until there is more,
That is all.
Former Professional Literary Agent