Friday, 24 February 2012

Non-Fiction Sidebar: Prologues; Literary Agents

   The prologue establishes the point of origin for a script that will - eventually - be made into a TV movie for a science fiction network and has no relation whatsoever to the screenplay Lizzie reads in her Studio City office. 
   And when self-important and cerebral The Prisoner of Djoun meets the market-conscious mind of Lizzie, the moment is also a scene of Art meeting Commerce. The fact that The Prison of Djoun, a biographical film about Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839), eventually becomes a forgettable TV movie called Alien Assault, in which kick-ass Victorian heroine Harriet Swinburne defeats a predatory alien, indicates if nothing else how Commerce far outweighs Art.
   Other than the prologue cameo, Lizzie is never seen again. In a way, she's there to set one level of plot in motion.
   One of the first literary agents who 'read' This Location of Unknown Possibilities rejected it because he didn't believe that "the main character" would bother with reading The Prisoner of Djoun. He meant Lizzie. His hasty and/or sloppy reading skills proved to be my bumpy sort-of-introduction to an influential if loosely affiliated group that's created a comfortable niche between author and publisher.
   When I sent the manuscript of The Age of Cities, my first novel, to a small publisher, I didn't bother to tap into my inner Ambitious Person and seek representation from an agent. I figured that since The Age of Cities represented my first time at even attempting to write fiction, I would be lucky to be lifted out of the slush pile. I also figured that a sad story about being gay in small town BC in the late 1950s wasn't exactly the kind of novel that would incite a bidding war and media coverage about a six-figure advance.
   Since that novel, I've noticed that the websites of conglomerate publishers (Random House, Knopf, HarperCollins, etc) no longer accept what they deem "unsolicited manuscripts." What they mean, of course, is that for an author wanting to publish in the big leagues, someone doing the soliciting is necessary: a literary agent.
   Despite handfuls of email exchanges, I've never met a literary agent in person, and so much of what I 'know' about them is their pop culture reputation. Typically, they're ridiculous comic characters. Frasier's Bebe Glazer comes to mind: amoral, psychotic, unstable, and ruthless even though her heart is in the right place. And in pop culture when they're not ridiculous, they are scary in their dedication to getting ahead, Tonya Harding-like, at any cost.
   Any writer in Canada knows of literary agents. Two of them are, arguable, famously powerful in the way that Anna Wintour (or Meryl Streep's character in The Devil Wears Prada) is reputed to be: if they smile at your work they open doors. And their frowns? The kiss of death. Reputedly, too, agents are sibylline in a way: each able to intuit the quality of one's writing, determine whether that writing is salable, and also have a clear sense of the book buying market in the future. All-powerful indeed.
   Anyway, that first literary agent, who believed that the novel's "main character" wouldn't read the script (even though she is not a main character, and even though it is her job to read scripts), worked for an boutique agency in Toronto—"boutique," yes, and not, I suppose, a Mom-and-Pop Agency with its meekness and lack of power, or a Corporate Agency, with clout but an attitude that treats authors as grist for the mill. Contrary to stereotypes, he seemed neither comic nor malevolent. He seemed hassled and indifferent, as though he was used to so many authors propositioning him with so many book projects, that he could afford to be negligent.
   It's a buyer's market, apparently.

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