TIRED, POOR, HUNGRY, DRUNK, AND STUPID:
MY SEVERAL YEARS IN BOOK PUBLISHING.
EXCERPTS FROM A MEMOIR, WITH
ALL QUESTIONS ANSWERED.
“John Hodgman (my FORMER literary agent) asked me to write a foreword for his memoir – you know, the kind where you ramble on and on about what a generous and talented guy he is and blah, blah, blah. Anyway, when I finished laughing, I told him ‘no.’
“He proceeded to beg me, but I remained firm. Look, I’m a busy guy, and John is barely a memory in my life now. I’ll spare you the embarrassing tale of how he then cried and clutched my pant leg like a randy dog. I’m sorry, John, I’m just not gonna do it. I’ve moved on.”
— Bruce Campbell, star of Evil Dead 2, resident of the West, memoirist
Long before I knew him, EB White wrote these lines: “I once held a live hummingbird in my hand. I once married a Bryn Mawr girl. To a large extent they are twin experiences.” I could say the same about being a professional literary agent. For having done all three (except the hummingbird one), I know that being an author’s advocate is as fluttery and unpredictable and sweetly strange as the others, yet better in that you are encouraged to be drunk all the time and not wear socks.
Yet it has been long months since I last negotiated the sale of a book, launched a career, or dropped a manuscript on the floor to make it appear as though it had been read. And with the passing of each hour, I realize that my familiarity with this unusual and alchemic business wanes. I do not know who the hot young editors are now, nor am I invited to their parties. Sometimes I am told to go to parties that don’t even exist, just to keep me out of the way. Nowadays I may read through an entire issue of Publishers Weekly without recognizing a single name or even common words like “though” or “like.” And the more marginal and irrelevant and confused I become, the more convinced I am that everything that is happening now is bad.
Indeed, when you consider the famous tales of old-time publishing—the careful editing of eccentric authors by thoughtful men in bow ties; those lazy two-hour work days that a Yale degree could buy you then; crazy Faulkner and his trick poodles—tyou would be inclined to conclude that things were good then, bad now, and getting worse all the time. And you’d be right. That was a time when you could wear an interesting hat, when you could hold a live hummingbird in your hand while riding the bus and be called a freaking genius, when we made books, damn it, and we made them with pages.
I may be lonely and cranky and despised, riding the subway in self-imposed exile, muttering into my frothy cup of hot buttered rum, listening for the high-pitched, cooing voices in the squeal of the C train’s brakes. But perhaps, just perhaps, if you listen to what I have to say, a once-great endeavor known as literature may be redeemed, and the grievous errors of taste and judgment that drove me, penniless, from the book publishing business will be undone. I plead with the world: ask me questions, and listen (LISTEN!) to my answers.
Katrin Asbury asks: I am a sculptor who is thinking of changing careers. Do you think that the literary world is less competitive and stifling and frustrating and painful than the art world? What about medicine? What about journalism? What about being a veterinarian?
John Kellogg Hodgman, Former Professional Literary Agent: Becoming a veterinarian is very difficult, involving years of schooling and often special training in cat-tooth-pulling, because that is something vets love to do. A vet will pull a cat’s tooth just for fun. You might bring your cat in for a simple booster shot or UTI, and the next thing you know the vet’s pulling teeth by the dozen. Does your cat seem to be listless? That is probably because it has too many teeth. Is it favoring one paw or refusing to eat? Is its leg broken? Teeth, teeth, and teeth. I once was told by a vet that I should not be concerned about this because a cat doesn’t actually use its teeth, and instead swallows its food whole, and that the crunching I hear when I feed the cat is an auditory hallucination. Boston area veterinarians are especially vigilant about the menace of teeth.
Publishing, on the other hand, requires no special degrees, and it is mandated that training be at best incomplete and contradictory. Unlike art or medicine, you do not need any special skills except for basic literacy and the ability to smoothly underline typewritten sentences. Some knowledge of falconry is also good, especially if you want to get into the business side of things. This is all timelessly illustrated in my forthcoming book, but if you cannot wait, you may also turn to that other great memoir of the publishing life, ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL, in which the visionary young editor James Herriott took a simple English farming community and transformed it into a publishing empire known as Anchor Books.
Jason S asks: I love my cellular phone as it allows me to be contacted by loved/liked ones when I am on the go. However, after using this product I often feel dizzy and have mild headaches that are sometimes accompanied by clicking noises in my head. Should I discontinue the use of this product? Keep in mind how convenient it is when loved/liked ones need to contact me when I am on the go.
JKH, FPLA: As you probably know, the English billionaire and sweater enthusiast Richard Branson is convinced that mobile phones cause cancer of the head. Rather than live in fear every second of the day, as you do, this genius businessman has solved the problem by using a headset that is connected to his mobile phone by a wire. You may then talk freely and for hours, with the phone in your pocket or in your lap, thus keeping its deadly antenna far from your brain and close to your genitals. Wearing a headset is also a good thing because if the headset is discreet enough, you can walk around in public talking away like a lunatic, scaring everyone around you. This is what happened to me at the Dansk outlet in New Orleans some time ago—a woman was picking out glassware and kept yelling things into the air. Every time I walked by her I thought she was yelling at me. It was very startling, and I worried about her until I saw the cord dangling from her ear. Interestingly, her companion that day was the comedian/voice artist/social commentator Harry Shearer, whom you may remember from “This is Spinal Tap.” He was waiting for her, standing glumly by, watching her frighten everybody. But you don’t have to be a super-rich industrialist or the friend of a very famous actor to afford one—these days a decent headset will only run you about 1000 dollars.
Laura M asks: Can chronic eyestrain (e.g., that caused by proofreading for 8 hours a day) lead to blindness? Should I look into another line of work—say, becoming a literary agent? Must a literary agent spend hours reading? (If possible I would like your answers to be: No, Maybe, and No, respectively.)
JKH, FPLA: It would be advisable, I suppose, for a literary agent to read literary journals and small magazines and manuscripts and other printed material to spot trends and scout talented new writers. But like editing and scrimshaw, this quaint practice has been handed over to editorial assistants, vagrants, and computers. During my entire tenure as a literary agent, I believe I read one book all the way through, and that was SHOGUN. Otherwise, I would read perhaps the first sentence or paragraph, and if I liked it, I would arrange for a professional synopsist to brief me on it at a later time. Then I would run the author’s biographical data through a computer algorithm, factoring in relative insanity, geographical proximity, marital status, name of pets, etc., to determine his or her suitability for representation. This system may be imperfect, but there really is no other way of doing it if you respect the craft of writing. I didn’t go blind, at least.
(PS: I never read SHOGUN)
Anne B asks: Why does your name not have an E? It seems an E would be appropriate. I think E’s are all too often dropped as irrelevant, or antiquated, as in the case of dialogue, and catalogue (although there were U’s dropped there too) and in the proper name Anne, which to me is a personal issue.
JKH, FPLA: I should note before answering that Ann B is a colleague of Will Allison’s, who is a very skilled and friendly writer/editor living in a far away state not his own. I have made many promises in my life, and I hope eventually to keep them all, and in this case I promised unspecified special treatment to any correspondent who could demonstrate actual familiarity with Mr. Allison. Ann B did so admirably, and so, as a special treat, and to settle this damn question for good and all, I will turn its answer over to an actual authority, Mr. Dick Hodgman, who runs the comprehensive Hodgman history website hodgman.org. Dick Hodgman, whom I have never met, suggests that in fact the opposite of what Ann suggests is true:
“Hodgman was spelled without an ‘e’ by the earliest Hodgmans in North America: Thomas Hodgman and his descendants. I believe that the folks that spell their name Hodgeman changed the spelling, or an ancestor did, from Hodgman.
“Similarly, the Kansas legislature changed the name of Hodgman County to ‘Hodgeman’ about five years after it was established. It had been named for Amos Hodgman, a Civil War hero from Kansas. I have not yet made it to Topeka to look up the details in the legislature’s library, but I assume, from a lifetime of having others spell my name Hodgeman, that the state decided to join rather than fight all the folks who wanted to spell it with the ‘e’.
“I do not know the original meaning of hodgman. The name has been traced back in England to the 16th century, but I have not seen an explanation of the original meaning. Perhaps it is a trade name, like Smith or Farmer
“I tried ‘hodge’ at m-w.com and it suggested huge and hedge. I kind of like huge-man.”
As do I, Dick. As do I.
If you are interested in further answers to questions posed by friends of Will Allison and others, do watch this space. And ask a question of your own, why don’t you?
If you are interested in hearing more fascinating tales from the golden era of book publishing and some intriguing revelations about its future, perhaps it will please you to come to Luna Lounge next Monday, January 29th at 8PM. For there I shall be shamed by the good company and great talents of many, including Pollack, Werthmann, Pruzan, whom I now see almost every day, and several more whom I am eager to meet.
Perhaps it will please you: that is all I’m saying.
That is all.
Former Professional Literary Agent