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 X.
BY JOHN HODGMAN
REMARKS MADE AT
AN ACCREDITED UNIVERSITY
IN NEW YORK CITY.
First, I’d like to commend the very keen research skills of Antoine Wilson, who wrote me not long ago to clarify the matter of “British Luck,” which Daniel Stewart, a British person, previously defined as: “A thing that doesn’t exist, because the British are not lucky.”
Wrote Mr. Wilson:
“From Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable comes this definition: ‘Best of British Luck’—an ironic expression of encouragement, implying that the required luck may not materialize… an elaborated form of ‘the best of luck.’”
While I do not know this Mr. Wilson, I am satisfied that he is not a liar. I am concerned, however, that Mr. Wilson is reading too much. I worry that he has burrowed into some remote corner of a large university library and lives there, tracking down obscure facts and sayings, sleeping by day on a little cot of reference books and left-behind sweaters and trash, prowling the empty reading rooms by night, mistaken frequently for a ghost.
Naturally, I owe Mr. Wilson my thanks (as does Kathleen K, who originally posed the question). But I nonetheless urge him to re-examine his life. Nobody likes a bookworm.
Now on to pressing business.
I recently had the opportunity to address a small audience of scholars and specialists at The New School, the historic university founded by John Dewey and Thorstein Veblen et al in 1919, first as a way of getting the nuns off the streets, and then as a pioneering academy of the social sciences. After a few esteemed colleagues made their own presentations (on the subjects of fist-fighting, letter-writing, my secret work for the US Government, Sandusky, OH, frogs’ legs, and space travel, in that order) I approached The John L. Tishman’s remarkable mechanical podium and made the following remarks. I do not regret them, despite the ensuing controversy, and I reprint them here for the historical record.
“I alluded earlier to the secret work I am currently doing for the United States government. Technically, I am not supposed to speak of it, but I don’t mind giving you this one hint: I have been selected for jury duty. I am obviously very proud that the United States chose me for this very special responsibility, which is noble and certainly not boring and, as we all know, the first step in becoming an ambassador or a spy.
“This is why the selection process for jury duty is so rigorous, unlike, say, hosting readings at universities, which anyone may be chosen at random to do, provided he is a US citizen and not a felon and he has not hosted a reading within the past four years. By contrast, only an elite few are picked to receive a jury duty summons in the mail, and many of those never make it, having accidentally destroyed the summons while attempting to remove the little perforated tabs on the end.
“So why was I chosen? Well, as some of you may know, I am a former professional literary agent, and thus accustomed to pretending to be interested in other people and then deciding their fate. In addition, I think the court system has a natural preference for publishing professionals and literary dilettantes like myself because we already have the club jackets, the free time, and we bring the best brandy. And certainly my reputation as the world’s most celebrated and successful monster hunter, likely came into play as well.
“Whatever the reason, I found myself today sequestered in a beautiful salmon colored room at 100 Centre Street, surrounded by the 300 or so of New York’s most illustrious media personalities who are my peers. And though my service prevented me from adequately preparing for this evening, it did allow me time to reflect upon the vagaries of destiny, the strange and unexpected responsibilities which are sometimes thrust upon us, or at least, upon me.
“And none of these unsought duties I think gives me more pleasure than this: the answering of your questions on the subject of publishing, monster hunting, and any other subject. From my vast files of unanswered questions I have chosen just a few that I have not yet had time to answer, and by your leave, I will do so now.
“Brandon M asks, Which quality will most help a writer achieve success: despair or hopelessness?
“John K Hodgman, Former Professional Literary Agent: The answer is hopelessness, which of course is different from despair. Despair connotes a kind of sad yearning for something which cannot be attained, such as escaping death, or loving without sacrifice, or making a living from writing short stories. Giving up hope, of course, is the first step in finding a kind of peace. I long counseled unpublished writers to stop hoping immediately. To crave poverty and anonymity. To submit their work to magazines and agents and so on, but to then forget that it had ever left their hands. Don’t make follow-up calls, or wait on responses that likely will never come, or pin hopes on something so elusive and so ultimately hollow as publication. Then they could go back to their desks and write for other, better reasons. And those, of course, were the ones who typically did go on to be published.
“That said, it is reasonable to be somewhat hopeful of becoming a published author if you are related to someone who works in publishing, if you are the strongest man on earth, if you lived for an entire year on nothing but insects and are now very thin, or if you can confidently tell women you’ve never met how to be a better wife based on nothing more than your own, sad failures. These people may hope.
“Sam M asks: Which do you prefer: churches or ambition?
“JKH,FPLA: It’s a judgment call. Churches are certainly more airy and inspiring and echoey. As for ambition, I defer to the words of Mark Twain: “an oyster wants nothing more than to be an oyster, which is why I am making an oyster the hero of my new novel, Huckleberry Finn.” This obviously did not come to pass, but it is interesting to note that whenever Mark Twain entered a church, the holy water would boil and the pews would burst into flame. That was why he changed his name to David John Moore Cornwell and became a riverboat captain. Not many people know this.
“Ben W asks: Would you describe yourself as “super-smart”?
“JKH,FPLA: No. For if I were super-smart, I would have figured out how to work this podium.”
[NOTE: This comment was met with great applause, but it may be confusing to you, the home reader. Here I am referencing the world famous John L. Tishman Mechanical Podium, which, when the user depresses a concealed button, raises and lowers itself by mysterious means and to the delight of all. It has two speeds, fast and slow, and it really is quite a marvel; but I, sadly, never mastered its use.]
“Nancy Marie A asks: Do you think it is a good idea for a writer to become romantically involved with another writer?
“JKH,FPLA: Oh, yes. Nothing augments sexual jealousy more than artistic jealousy, and artistic jealousy is the best jealousy of all. The trick in this kind of situation is to fall in love with a writer who is better than you. That way, when his or her book is published, you will be able to go to all the fancy parties he or she is invited to, drink for free, and be pitied by all.
“Colin D asks: If you and Randy Cohen got into a fist fight, who would win, and why?
“JKH,FPLA: I was hoping we could avoid this. As some of you may know, Randy Cohen is a writer employed by the New York Times who answers questions of conscience in a weekly column called ‘The Ethicist.’
“He is also my enemy, yes, and our bitter feud of the past several years has been widely reported. Now I want to say this: I have never met Mr. Cohen. I have never referred to him as either ‘a drunken ogre who scares me,’ nor did I tell mutual friends that he is ‘a devilish hunchback as crooked as his own spine.’ These quotes are fabrications, as are the reports that I have employed goons to rough him up, or funded secret black masses to commend his soul to hell.
“Because ours is not a personal feud, but a literary one. Such feuds are a lively tradition in the world of letters: Wilson vs. Nabokov, Capote vs. Vidal, Mailer vs. Everyone, Cervantes vs. Borges, and perhaps most strangely, Cervantes vs. Me, which has been a source of some disquiet for me, because I am nothing but an admirer of Cervantes, and also because he is dead. These feuds are mainly theatrical, often arbitrary, and speaking personally, frequently exhausting. But they are amusing, and I think there should be more of them.
“It boils down to this: Mr. Cohen believes questions should be answered promptly, on a weekly basis, and that those answers should be useful and not insulting. I respectfully disagree. Now to answer your question: I am asthmatic and frail and may actually have a torn ligament in my knee—the MRIs are inconclusive. So as far as actual fighting goes, I would likely not prevail. If it came to it, I would probably rely on my wits more than my fists, and as well my considerable psychic powers.”
At this point, I fielded a few questions from the floor on the subject of the novel THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but I will not reprint this exchange here, as most citizens are now aware of my opinions on this matter. If you wish further information on this subject, or wish to pose an entirely new question, you may do so by sending email to email@example.com. This is also the address to use if you wish to ask me about the proper amount to tip a bellhop or a ballpark usher or a party clown. I hope that you will.
One last note on The New School, our gracious host: in 1930, the school was rapidly outgrowing its original location on West 23rd Street. To accommodate its expansion, the then-President persuaded Daniel Cranford Smith to donate land on West 12th Steet. Cranford Smith agreed, on the condition that he enjoy free courses at the School for the rest of his life, and that any new construction also include a penthouse for his personal use. I would happily accept a similar arrangement, and I hope we may get working on that right away.
Until then, that is all.
John Kellogg Hodgman
Former Professional Literary Agent, Monster Hunter
SUGGESTED READSAsk a Former Professional Literary Agent: Ask A Former Professional Literary Agent, Part I
by John Hodgman (8/28/2000)
Ask a Former Professional Literary Agent: Ask A Former Professional Literary Agent, Part II
by John Hodgman (9/1/2000)
Ask a Former Professional Literary Agent: Ask A Former Professional Literary Agent, Part III
by John Hodgman (9/13/2000)
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