There was a debate recently on social media over indie press Tyrant Books’s tweeted proclamation that “they no longer accept agented authors.” The pro-agent side argued that agents were necessary as advocates for the economic and creative interests of authors, while the anti-agent side claimed that agents were bottom-line-focused gatekeepers of the middlebrow, inescapable duller of maverick creativity. This fight reminded me that I have my own interest in promoting independent literature, at least my own!
I generally dislike splits along the lines of indie vs. corporate, avant vs. middlebrow, maverick vs. complacent, because, like all binaries, they are over-simplifying and mutually reinforcing in their reductiveness.
To give the indie side of the debate its due: my own attempt to get a literary agent suggested to me that they tend, no doubt under intense economic pressure, to be a bit too consumed with the middle of mainstream culture. Like any gross generalization, this is unfair to individuals, and I certainly had more success with agents than with small presses, as several agents did generously ask to see more of my work before deciding it wasn’t “a good fit.” But an old interview from The Millions suggests some of the problems with agents as arbiters of literary value:
TM: How do you recommend aspiring writers find agents?
EH: I’m easy to find. Just treat me like you would any celebrity, because that’s sometimes what it feels like for an agent to go to a party. I once dated a writer for months before I found out he was trying to sleep his way to representation. I get it, it’s nice to meet me. In general, I’d recommend cutting to the chase. I’ve had good luck with new writers lately — no mouth breathers in the bunch at The New School’s MFA program — I met some in person on campus, listened to the ones that approached me, invited them to send pages if I thought it was something I’d be interested in, and did/am doing my best to follow up on each one.
It’s rare that I try to go out there and find new clients — they have to come to me. This is almost always done by referral from another writer, editor or colleague. I do look at slush email but only if the queries are short and exciting to me. If they are, you’ll hear one way or the other. If they’re not, I usually just delete.
The it’s-who-you-know clubbiness of the agent/author exchange, as portrayed above and which is in my experience typical, is obviously hostile to writers whose personalities, let alone whose works, may be in any way outside the norm, not to mention outside of the circles of those who would, by virtue of their class and education, already be in a position to get a literary agent. Whatever agents’ value to writers’ careers after the agent has accepted the writer, their function as gatekeepers is not an unalloyed good, and a reform of their practice (if not a minimization of their power) would probably result in a more diverse literary market in every way.
On the other hand, indie-world often constructs itself in too-precise opposition to the middlebrow, and thereby comes to represent not a substantial alternative to mainstream values but a rote inversion of them. I made this point in a long review I published in 2012 in Rain Taxi; the review, ironically enough, was of a Tyrant Books publication, Blake Butler’s excremental novel Sky Saw (at one point, I mis-typed the novel’s title as Shy Saw, and a Germanophone friend suggested I leave the typo as a bilingual pun on scheiße). I ended the review, give or take a paragraph and a couple sentences, with this:
Sky Saw’s promotional material emphasizes this thesis of language’s enliveningly destructive force, even as it also suggests its troubling limitations. The first blurb on the back cover is a lengthy contrast between Butler and Jonathan Franzen taken from a Bookforum review. Franzen, today’s realist standard-bearer, is quoted as saying that the composition of Freedom involved “‘pressing language more completely into the service of providing transparent access to the stories I was telling and the characters in those stories.’” The Bookforum critic dryly concludes, “Blake Butler is the opposite of that.” In other words, if you want domestic tales told with Oprah-ready narrative clarity and philosophically-naïve linguistic transparency that evades “the barf of phrase,” Blake Butler is here to disabuse you of your complacent illusions. Then, as if to prove the point, albeit with a lack of charity more disgusting than any imagery in the novel, Sky Saw’s promoters quote an exasperated Amazon.com reviewer (by her full name, no less) who blames herself for failing to find one of Butler’s previous books properly instructive: “I must be a daft idiot cause (sic) this book made me want to kill it and myself for even trying so hard.” The message from Tyrant Books is clear: this poor plebe should have stuck with Franzen’s pedestrian prose! It is perhaps not incidental that this figure of back-cover ridicule is a woman, because domestic realism’s main audience was and is a largely female one.
Extremity carried on too long becomes its own form of complacency—an observation that may apply not only to Sky Saw but to its enabling tradition of bad-boy shock tactics from Sade to Bataille to Burroughs. The full-frontal assault on middle-class morality is, after all, as old as the middle class itself, and what do we have to show for it? Even Franzen’s Freedom contains a scat-fetish scene. There is almost nobody left to shock by the mere act of flinging shit in a novel. Instead of attempting to reanimate the bourgeois family with the realists or to liquidate it with the avant-gardists, maybe we should turn our attention to some other subject entirely, or at least place our emphasis elsewhere.
As suggested by my invocation of male/female stereotypes above, the indie/mainstream opposition is too often also a proxy gender war, going back to modernism, of bad boy against good woman, and while it’s true that some great novels have been written by bad boys and good women, the binary is a stultifying and unimaginative one. You can see the results not only in the undying Beat routine of many indie presses, but also in the commodification of identities in more mainstream publishing, as anatomized at length by Anis Shivani in his thoughtful polemic against “the ascendancy of identity politics in literary writing.” Mine is only a straight white man’s complaint to the extent that straight white maleness has now been as thoroughly commodified as any other identity. (This might well be just desserts, but then again maybe it is not good that this equality-in-debasement, everybody dragged down to the same level, is nearly the exclusive understanding of equality in today’s world, as opposed to the older humanistic model of universal advancement.) Sometimes it does seem as if you have to be either a Cormac McCarthy or a David Foster Wallace, either a Faulknerian hellfire regionalist or a tormented boy-genius maximalist, to be recognized as a writer by the scanners of commercialism. To play along with an entirely inane but not-entirely-wrong way to advertise my fiction: Wallace’s subject matter in McCarthy’s style. (I do use quotation marks, though!)
Which brings me, all complaining aside, to my purpose: I wrote this little piece for a weekend consecrated to commerce. As the hour has just turned to midnight, small business Saturday has begun, and you might celebrate with an independently-published novel that combines the philosophical heft, unorthodox imagination, and incisive cultural critique of small-press fiction with the aspiration toward grand storytelling and memorable characters that is the hallmark of mainstream fiction at its best.
Portraits and Ashes is an artist’s book and an apocalypse, a satire and a romance, a quest and a stillness. Set in a city preyed on by a totalitarian death cult, it tells of the troubled artists who may be the only citizens able to offer resistance. It can be purchased here in print or ebook format.
To whet you appetite I offer two paragraphs loosely connected to the argument above. In this passage, my heroine, Alice Nicchio-Strand, while in the throes of a strange love affair, writes a book attempting to mediate between the claims of the avant-garde and those of common humanity (and if there is another character like Alice Nicchio-Strand in contemporary fiction, I would like to hear about her):
For six months, their ménage à trois went as planned. In those six months, she drafted and sold to a university press her second book: a creative piece, an artist’s book, that described radical and probably impossible artworks that would not, if realized, represent existing landscapes but rather create new ones, unprecedented and dangerous. A lake shimmering at a forty-five degree angle on a mountain’s slope, monstrously large orange fish dotting it here and there, hanging as if from their gaping mouths by the slanted, placid surface of the water. An open-air prison cage in the blazing heat of the desert full of parti-colored birds small enough to slip through the bars but too obscurely indolent to do so; the birds would die and be replaced from time to time. An art gallery that was also a meat locker, dim and frigid, the long rack-ribbed bodies and striated shanks dangling from hooks in dancers’ postures suggestive of a cattle ballet; after their tour of the gallery, the patrons would reward the artists by purchasing the choicest cuts of meat. A beach where each liquid wave that crested and spumed fell as a pane of crystal, smashing and scattering itself in glittery crystals across the shingle. A xeriscape where amid the spiny cacti and orange poppies and wine-stained yarrow grew the bodies of women, long and sinewy fragile-looking stalks with thoughtful faces, who survived on little and would accordingly live long.
Her fanciful little book won her plaudits from the coterie of artists and thinkers she most respected and earned her comparisons to certain revered intellectual fabulists. Somehow it also certified her as a brilliant artist even though she had scarcely made a work of art since deciding to get her Ph.D., because she had not changed her mind about finding the imitation of reality pointless and the creation of more reality almost impossibly difficult, a task with a failure rate so high and a risk of repetition so great that it should only be attempted once or twice a lifetime. Her book struck a compromise: she revealed her extreme and even occasionally murderous visions without inflicting them upon reality. In this, she aimed both to honor and to censure all those hard men of the twentieth century who’d mistaken their dreams for something that had to be done to the world by force. Years later, when she was in the midst of another of her maddening dry spells, when she had abandoned teaching and abandoned writing and had taken up the directorship of the city’s Modern Art Museum out of sheer imaginative exhaustion and desperation, this compromise could not protect her from the intellectual seductions of Frank Jobe, a creature who seemed to have stood up and walked out of the pages of her book.