Monday, March 8, 2010

steel magnolias

Toward the end of January things went badly wrong with Bill Clegg, the agent who then represented me, to the point where he resigned and was adamant that he did not want to go on.

I've been trying to think what to say about this.

Most writers, I think, would be nervous of an agent who resigns on the strength of a stroppy e-mail sent during a medical crisis (my mother was in the ICU at the time); they would be especially nervous if this came after three months providing live-in care, an interruption whose financial consequences are sufficiently worrying in themselves. If the justification is that the writer took up too much time and was unproductive this is frankly terrifying.

My mother had an emergency colostomy in September; she was left excreting into a plastic bag affixed to her stomach. She'd been told the procedure would be reversed in 3 months or so, but was afraid this wouldn't happen; if she had to spend her days with shit spurting into a bag on her stomach she did not want to live. She would share thoughts on means of committing suicide should need arise. So it wasn't simply a matter of providing the occasional care involved in changing the bag, preparing meals, light housekeeping; it was a matter of marshalling the kind of social self that is capable of raising morale.

Proust talks about the fact that the writer's real self is something alien, solitary: the social self is just a shell sent out in the world. One of the reasons you need an agent is that you need someone who actually understands that - someone who is not repelled by having, for the most part, social interactions with a thing that is simply a façade, with occasional exposure to the obsessive-compulsive machine that writes the books. This is something quite different from loving books: loving books is easy. The better the books are, though, the more ruthless the obsessive-compulsive machine behind them, and the more frankly manipulative, in all likelihood, the social self. An editor is, for the most part, someone who engages with texts and knows how to get them published; the specialists who work on a book have their special skills; none of these jobs presuppose the ability to work with someone whose real self just stares at a blank wall laughing out loud and typing madly to get it all down before it's gone. You want an agent so all these people have an actual human being to deal with. The presumption is that the agent is someone who can deal with monsters.

This is not a dodge that works with your family. If you spend 3 months en famille you're cut off from the alien; you can't let your guard down. Bill had said he would like 100 pages or so of Risk, a book based on part of my Guggenheim proposal - an exceptionally demanding book making use of the information design of Edward Tufte, hence presenting technical difficulties over and above the challenges of normal narrative. There were 100 pages, after a while, but they were not fit to be seen. Andrew Gelman sent me a fabulous array of plots of the binomial distribution, with a spectacularly elegant piece of code - it's not that no progress was made - but.

Normally, when you have a breakthrough with a book, it gives you a rush of energy and you work madly on the book and achieve further breakthroughs, and in all likelihood these involve throwing away 10,000 words but you know Jesus loves you. It was not possible, in the circumstances, to follow through when breakthroughs were achieved.

My mother got a date for her reversal a week before I was to return to Berlin. She was in surgery for 6 hours; she went on the ward, then was taken to the ICU. Her blood pressure had gone through the floor, there were other worrying vital signs. My sister and I took turns staying with her, spending nights in a chair, 24-hour, 48-hour shifts. There wasn't much to do while my mother was sleeping.

It seemed a good time to read Bill's memoir, Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man. Bill seemed to like about 70% of what I'd sent him; it seemed a good idea to get a better feeling for his sensibility, with a view to sending him stories and books he would try to get published. With somewhat Sophoclean irony, it seemed as though reading this memoir would help me avoid the sort of situation where we drove each other crazy. Bill had said several times that he would send me a copy of the galleys; he now explained in a rather cavalier manner that he had not bothered to put me on the list, no copies were left, but I wd be sent a copy of the finished book. I was a bit taken aback by this: Bill had said that when he talked to employers they had had concerns about his crack addiction in 2005, and that these had naturally had to be addressed; if legitimate in an employer, surely a fortiori in a client?

A somewhat stressful day or two went by. I replied in terms which by British standards would count as good-humoured yet firm. (Bear in mind that David Cameron does not consider 'twat' a swear word - and no, since you ask, I did not use either this or any other language that anyone would consider even slightly blue.) Bill said he was worn out; he had thought we had established a good working relationship, but it was too much, unproductive, he gave up.

When we spoke the next day he said that his memoir had no relevance to his representation of clients, he had not sent it to any of his clients and none had asked to see it. You might want to ask yourself, Helen, what YOU'RE doing to have this string of failures. (Since you ask, a recurring source of grievance, among people I've worked with, has been the expectation that people would do what they said they would do. Clear permissions. Respect terms of contract relating to copy-editing. Provide designer. Pay royalties. This was where I had thought an agent would be so helpful.)

Anyway. I'm still somewhat shell-shocked. Tired. I don't want some other writer to sign with Bill and run on the rocks. But Bill is absolutely right, all kinds of people think I'm impossible to work with. And many of his clients adore him.

Only thing is.

When a book is published in a large number of countries you have a chance to compare the practice of many publishers. Some put together a crack team and do a fabulous job. Others are inefficient, understaffed, take an imaginative approach to their contractual obligations. When things go wrong it is not normally your fault: you warn people of possible problems, they wave you aside, things go horribly wrong and they blame you. And they really think you were the problem, because they don't compare themselves to all the other people who published the book.

So you're not a good candidate for the Stockholm Syndrome. You don't bond with your tormentors. But the fact is, you don't necessarily think they're to blame (sometimes they are; depends). What you see is experienced people spread too thin; inexperienced people in over their heads. Not a situation likely to be less common in the wake of the drastic lay-offs of the last year or so. What you hope is that you can compensate, to some extent, by introducing an agent of robotic efficiency into the situation. What you imagine, also, is that something that's obvious to you will be obvious to your agent. Sometimes things do just go horribly wrong, and the author has to pick up the pieces; and if it goes on too long, if the writer is cut off from writing because the social self has to be put into play again and again, the writer is likely to crack up - or just not be nice. You imagine, that is, that an agent will be the sort of person who is used to making allowances for difficult circumstances.

If a book is technically challenging in various ways, even a crack team may have problems - all that experience may not help with a book that does things no one has seen before. So you have some kind of sense of what it is reasonable to expect people to cope with - which is to say, how much extra work you need to do to give them a chance of doing a good job. And of course, if you're doing all that extra work, it will take longer to hand in a manuscript in the first place. Again, what you hope is that an agent will understand that you're just trying to make people look good. You give yourself a lot of extra headaches so people with a reasonable level of publishing expertise can draw on the experience they already have - and still publish a book like nothing anyone has ever seen.

Well. In his commencement address at Kenyon College David Foster Wallace invited the audience to imagine going to a crowded supermarket after a 10-hour day, being exasperated because our default assumption is that we are the center of the world. He suggested:

But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible.
Needless to say, it was not only not unlikely but the simple truth that I spent three months looking after my mother, followed by a number of nights sitting by her in the ICU. Admittedly I was not holding her hand, I was dealing with various requests every five minutes. Also, admittedly, she did not have bone cancer.

DFW goes on:

It just depends what you want to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Um. I don't think I could bring myself to urge Bill to see a stroppy e-mail as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars. Er. I know I can be a nuisance; in a somewhat prosaic attempt to mitigate I once offered Bill a 30% commission. Ähm. I think I would find it easier to offer Bill a 50% commission than to invite him to see dealing with me as infused with love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things.

(My ex-father-in-law, mildmannered GP Eric Levene: I'm a simple businessman.)

Long story short, I think things could have worked out with Bill if I had had more information from the start. They could have worked out if I had had three finished books rather than two. They could have worked out if I had had a reliable source of Ecstasy and black market Adderall (I'm working on it - better luck next time - but I just don't have the contacts). They could also have worked out if Bill had understood what it means to a writer to be en famille for 3 months. Things could have worked out, and I still have a sneaking fondness for the 30% solution - but he is a high-risk proposition for someone like me. If you're the kind of writer who would never dream of insulting an agent with a 30% commission - if you could unblushingly invoke the force that made the stars - you might well scrape happily by with a single book and no drug dealer.

My mother is home again and doing very well.

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