Sunday, March 18, 2007

I Heart New York


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.


Thomas said...

Most industries are centralized, automotive in Detroit, film in LA, TV in NYC & Toronto, gambling in Vegas & AC etc.

What puzzles me is that so many writers live in New York. When I lived in New York every major book store had a lecture/signing several times a week. I went to many because I'm a bibliofile; I was broke and there was free coffee. I have not seen that density of wordsmiths in any other city. In Atlanta I'm lucky if the downtown Borders has an author in store every other month.

Agents I understand, writers, not so much.

Anonymous said...

I'm in the UK, so don't really know about NYC. But I do know that as a published novelist I suffer from living outside London. It's not just the agents that benefit from being close to the action. As a writer it's helpful if you can attend conferences, do publicity at major venues and events at the drop of a hat, have actual meetings with publishers and buyers and agents instead of only talking to them on the phone.

Given that authors don't earn very much, travel isn't easy. So it makes sense to move closer to the action - just actors tend to move to LA (or so I understand). I'm guessing that's why there are so many writers in New York.

After all, people move for their careers. Writing is just another career.

Anonymous said...

My agent is a New Yorker who lives and works outside of NY.
She is in NY every other month, minimum. She knows the people she has to know.
When I asked if she felt she was at a disadvantage, she told me "no more so than when I lived at the end of the D line in Sheepshead Bay.
Whatever that means!

Lisa Hunter said...

RE: fights on the 1 between 96th and 137th

Yeah, those Columbia University toughs at 116th Street could deconstruct you.

Anonymous said...

If you can tell bad writing from good, how is it that so much bad writing gets published? From reputable publishers?

The Rejecter said...

Columbia University at 116th is surrounded (a) by castle-like walls and (b) an ocean of white-ness, what with the overpriced bookstores and the semi-fancy-but-still-student-budget restaurants to make the parents think it's a safe neighborhood. Walk four blocks up and you're in solid Harlem.

The Rejecter said...

Anon -

I am no longer answering the "why are bad books published" question. I've tried to answer it many times before realizing it cannot be answered to anyone's satisfaction.

Jeff Draper said...


Thanks for taking my question seriously and answering it in the manner it was intended. About an hour after I sent it I remembered the episode of The West Wing when some Christian activist accused the White House staff of having 'New York attitudes' which was revealed as code language for 'you lousy Jews.' I knew you had the talent to handle the question either way but after the previous religious dust up in the comments I was a bit concerned.


The Rejecter said...

I'm not a good example. You'd be surprised how few Jews work in publishing.

Anonymous said...

I'm Jewish, born and raised in Brooklyn, but have lived most of my adult life elsewhere. Both my agent and editor grew up elsewhere, and have lived most of their adult lives in the city. Neither are Jewish. This is anecdotal, of course. I'll take the rejector's word on the the ethnic profile of the publishing industry.

It does make sense to concentrate in one place. Emails and phone calls are fine, but I have the impression that a lot of business happens over lunch. At least for me. It was over a meal that my agent found my editor.

End of the D train (we don't say line in the city) is still commutable to midtown.

The agents who do live outside of NYC mostly seem to feel the need to travel there several times a year so they can do lunch too. Sounds like a hassle.

Anonymous said...

Those of us who attended "good" schools in any major city understand the surrounding areas.
When I told my parents my choice was between New Haven and Philadelphia (I chose Philadelphia because of the program), these born & bred NY'ers nearly fell over. I might as well have told them I was attending American University in Beirut.
Now my wife is attending medical school in a southern city. Medical school located in a similar neighborhood, only now its got the additional out-patient drug & alcohol treatment centers attached. They don't do much to pretty it up for outsiders.
You deal with it.

Saipan Writer said...

I'm going to regret this, but here goes.

I disagree, at least in part. I think the publishing industry would benefit with decentralization away from NYC. Perhaps this is already happening.

I think it does make a difference where you live, and that the heavy concentration of agents and publishing houses in NYC (not exclusively NYC but predominately?) effects the overall sensibilities of what books are chosen. Not because NYC'ers are cynical or jaded. But because they're extremely urban.

The rhythms and pacing of stories chosen are fast, strong, almost harsh. But much of the world lives with slower rhythms, different beats.

When I came to this tropical island, I came from a city. I loved rock n' roll--it was (and probably always will be) my favorite music, but it was almost exclusively what I listened to. And it effected my perceptions.

When I came to this tropical island, I had urban sensibilities. I went to parties and wondered why people sat around in silence. I wanted to talk and listen, engage in fast chat and deep meaningful discussions. Now, I understand the silence, and can find the chat and discussions, too.

Clearly there's more than one America. There's more than one world. And while NYC agents and editors are not all alike, have their own tastes and preferences, and bring variety to the table, I do think the city's rhythm and pace effects their sensibilities and that finds its way into publishing. And there's room for wider diversity in books.


Unknown said...

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.

Not that living in Jersey is living on the cheap; it's all relative.


Anonymous said...

Hey, that's mean! Let me get out my stabbing knife. I'll cut you, man. I'll cut you.

Ah, sounds a lot like a Futurama quote in the wild. Lucky you.

Anonymous said...

One of my daughters is certain if you walk any further west than Jersey you just fall off into a void. Sorry, that is just how we feel about our home state. I'm not going to apologize for it. New York is the most wonderful place on the planet. Expensive, yes! Dirty, yes! Have to watch your wallet every second, yes! But, Lord, what a City!