I love your blog and spent most of this morning going through the archives. Your sense of humor had me literally, not figuratively, laughing out loud. (Invisible gorillas on a plane sent me on a laughing jag that had me crying.) After reading through several posts and responses and such, I'm struck by the following question:
Is it possible that New Yorkers are the wrong people to be deciding what America likes to read? Is it concievable that they are perhaps a bit to jaded/cynical/angry (you know, New Yorkerish) to make the necessary decisions regarding the value of literature?
I ask this as someone who understands that to live there and thrive you need an ego the size of John Edwards' mansion. Since I have a comparable ego and I'm sometimes reminded, usually by my wife, that I'm not as clever as I think I am, I feel fully qualified to ask this question and the response would fascinate me.
Hey, that's mean! Let me get out my stabbing knife. I'll cut you, man. I'll cut you.
But seriously, instead of quoting what I heard on the subway last week, let me actually answer your question. With a couple notations:
(1) Not all literary agents live and operate in New York. Many live in LA, and work mainly in film rights. Instead of being cynical and jaded I guess you can assume they are more phony and have better tans. Whatever you want to think. And there some legitimate agents who live in other states, because most of agency work is done over mail/fax/phone anyway, but these are usually people who know people in New York because they worked there at some point. It's a very "you have to know someone to get somewhere" industry (for those who work in it, not the writers), so being in New York is kinda crucial.
(2) Most literary agents were not born and raised in New York and do not, in fact, live there. They may have moved to New York in search of a career in publishing because it's rather necessary to do that, and once they made enough money, they bought a house in New Jersey and now they commute. For tax purposes, a lot of agencies and a couple publishing houses are based in places just outside of New York (like Bayonne or Lyndhurst), because taxes in New York State are really high.
(3) Not all New Yorkers are mean. That said, don't pick a fight with anyone on the 1 line between 96th Street and 137th. Seriously.
All joking and non-joking aside, if I wanted to be psychological about it, I would say that we seem jaded and cynical because the industry makes us that way. We happen to operate in an industry based on crushing people's hopes and dreams most of the time and then finding a few people who are actually great writers. We then champion those writers, and hopefully only half of them are crushed by some executive higher up on the line than we are. While not as bad as being that guy who stands outside the Spring store and hands out flyers all day to people who don't want his flyers, publishing is definitely a job that can get you down. Even when you find something great, odds are against it that it will succeed at all, much less to the extent that you want it to. It has to sell to a good company, get all the right attention, get good reviews, make a couple lists, and sell a lot of copies. Then, hopefully, the writer actually has enough talent for another book. (Some writers legitimately only have one book in them, especially if they're writing a memoir)
We operate this way because it's the only way to operate. I reject people because they're bad writers, or at the very least, are good writers with a bad book idea. But it's not quite the same as someone who works for Nabisco and is in charge of deciding which new chip line will make it out next quarter. No one is emotionally invested in those chips. Writers, on the other hand, have poured their hearts and souls into their work. It's their baby, and we're killing it.
Sometimes we get letters from homeless people who have returns as post office boxes. We get letters from dying people who just want their story told. We get letters from paraplegic veterans. We get letters about SIDS. And if the material is good, we accept, but it rarely is. Once I asked my first boss about a homeless person's sci-fi novel, which sounded really bad. I felt really bad about rejecting him. She only shrugged and said, "I give to charities for the homeless. If his book is bad, we can't sell it."
Harsh? Yes. Realistic? Yes. The way the world turns? Yes. I don't think they would do it any differently in another city, because accepting bad writing would be a bad economic decision and the agency would go under if we couldn't sell our clients' manuscripts.
As for whether the New York crowd is qualified to make decisions, well, it's not actually that hard to tell bad writing from good writing. We get our skills from experience and reading a lot. None of that has anything to do with where the office is located.