by RIP RENSE
GENT AMONG AGENTS. . .
Attended an "agents seminar" the other day for advice in book publishing. By the time it was over, I
needed an agent badly. A purgative, a tranquilizer, a mood-elevator---something. I mean, I
was write disgusted. Edit the last two hours out.
I should have known better, having attended
another "seminar" a few years back. That was a queen-fest, where about six
arguably female agents lorded over a couple hundred "aspiring writers," giving
"advice." That is to say, they fired off petulant utterances with the aplomb of
Marie Antoinette, while the plebians scribbled furiously. I have a 'maybe' pile THIS
HIGH, so don't send blah blah blah. . .Oh, God, ALWAYS double-space!. . .I get HUNDREDS of
manuscripts every WEEK!
Then there was my experience
some years ago with megasuperduperqueenbeeagent Sandra Dijkstra. One of her underlings
sent me a postcard saying they had a "very enthusiastic first reading" of my
manuscript, and could I get in touch with Ms. Dijkstra to explain more about it? Why,
sure! This was, after all, the woman who represented Amy Tan.
The phone conversation, as memory serves, went
about like this:
"Hello, Ms. Dijkstra?"
"My name is Rip Rense, and I was referred
by (underling.) She said that you wanted to know more about my manuscript. Now, I don't
want to take too much of your time---"
"Well then DON'T. I have a LOT on my
I have a flaw, you see. Discourtesy freaks me
out. I only know of two ways to handle it: walk away, or shout at it. In this case, I
walked. Dijkstra referred me to another underling, who invited me to spend $500 (!) on
their "editing service." This, I figured, was either a graduate student half my
age, another freelance writer with unpaid bills, or a rat running around inside a small
metal wheel. I didn't have the five c-notes, and wouldn't have spent them on
anything other than CDs, anyhow.
So I am not favorably disposed
toward agents. Still, because an old friend had suggested the seminar, I allowed my hopes
to rise to the level of you never know. . .
There were three this time, and they shall be
known here as Flora, Dora, and Meriwether. Flora was dressed in glamorous bookworm
chic; a little lady in Gucci black, with big insect-eye glasses. She was vaguely
cordial. Meriwether's garb was as smart and pragmatic as her advice, although her only
truly useful remark betrayed the sheer futility of the event: "Cream rises to the
top. If it's good, it'll probably get published." ("Good," of course, means
Dora was a kind of perfection. She embodied
absolutely everything objectionable in an agent, if not a human being. Insouciant, petty,
egomaniacal, perhaps megalomaniacal---this was a small-time thug. Saddam Hussein, dyed
blonde, in a skirt. Her tone conveyed all you needed to know; if you spoke no English, you
couldn't have mistaken the arrogance. I actually had to avert my eyes whenever she yapped.
Here is one of her more salient outbursts (quoted from memory):
"And I don't look at manuscripts
about middle-aged male angst!"
I refrained from mentioning how
this would eliminate, oh, Cheever, Vonnegut, countless other bankable authors. I refrained
from asking "How would you like to hear a male agent say he doesn't look at
manuscripts from menopausal housewives?" I refrained from asking if her remark
included black, Asian, or Latino middle-aged males, or if she just meant to imply
"whites." I refrained from inviting her to kiss my angst.
Here is Saddam Dora's other salient remark
(also quoted from memory):
"I can't STAND obsequious cover letters!
DON'T send obsequious cover letters! You know, that start out, 'I don't mean to take your
time, and you don't know me, and this is my first book, but. . .'"
I love what the shrinks call
"validation," formerly known as "confirmation of perceptions." This
was fabulous! Dora was a stereotype, in 24-carat cold. The Hollywood "player"
who interprets courtesy as weakness. She might as well have said, "be a rude,
aggressive, pompous snotrag like me." This is pure La-La Land ethos of an ilk I've
encountered for years, yet always leaves me amazed.
So I confess, dear readers. My
self-restraint unrestrained itself. Just slightly. I muttered, standing in the back of the
room, "Screw you, lady," prompting heads to turn, and the woman next to me to
physically remove herself from my immediate proximity. I almost heard her thoughts: white
male chauvinist pig. Or, could be a terrorist!
Had my friend who invited me not been in
attendance, I would have walked out, validating Dora's perceptions of middle- aged male
angst with a raised third finger.
The rest of the seminar was made up of more
dumb questions than you hear at a presidential press conference. Poor bozos who can't
write, but are very good at making clickety-click noises on computer keyboards, posing
bonehead queries (which, oddly, they all pronounced, "kwair-ee," perhaps wishing
to separate themselves from the gay community) all closely related to "what do you
expect in a book proposal?" The best answer came from pragmatic Meriwether, who
suggested investing in an instructional book. Yes! Is there anything that says
"hopeless" better than that? Buy a book to learn how to. . .write a book
proposal? The snake eats itself!
And. . .
There was the Asian beauty in
the hot red dress announcing that an editor "had interest" in her manuscript
(undoubtedly another cross-cultural naval-gazer); the naïve blonde asking the perfectly
reasonable question, "Can I just submit three good chapters, even if the book isn't
done?" (Eliciting a coarse response from Bookworm Flora worthy of Saddam Dora:
"JUST FINISH IT!"); the elderly woman asking why rejection letters never offer
the slightest bit of constructive criticism (ah, the good old days!); and my favorite
specimen of the seminar---a fidgety curly-headed guy in horn-rims who kept waving his arm
like the 6th grader who knows the answer. I don't remember his question, but part
of it included this:
"I know you are onion-dated with
Which brings up another aspect of this game:
the term, "writer," has changed. It has been rendered mechanical. Once, it
connoted Dickens, Steinbeck, Jane Austen, but now it connotes. . .anyone who writes.
People who turn out sitcom scripts or press releases call themselves writers. Well, I say
that they're writers the same way that bricklayers are architects. I mean, Bookworm
Flora---whose recent works have literary pretensions---circulated a how-to handout that
had the infectious "there's" in front of a plural object, right in the headline!
In the end, my "screw you
lady" remark came back to haunt me. A roly-poly pixie in thick glasses with
an enormous, half-exposed bustline, turned to me and said, "If you knew you weren't
going to like what they had to say, why did you come?"
(Should it surprise anyone that she had earlier
described herself as a "poet?")
"Well," I responded, "I didn't
know what they were going to say before I came, now, did I? I was expressing my
displeasure with what I perceive to be discourtesy."
"Well," said Roly-poly, "that's
I refrained from thanking her for notifying me
of my prerogative rights, and got the hell out of there.
Truth be told, I was onion-dated.
© 2002 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.
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