Who’s Destroying “Literature”—Agents, Readers or Writers Themselves?

by | November 18, 2015 | General | 3 comments

by Donna George Storey

They say you have to have a provocative title to get eyeballs, but I couldn’t seem to come up with anything involving Fifty Shades of Grey this month and still keep my self-respect. Yet we all know there’s been a seismic shift in publishing over the past years, and few are certain where we’ll be when the rubble is cleared away.

Let’s face facts, “literature” and publishing are not what they used to be. Or at least not what I thought they were supposed to be as an undergraduate English major, dutifully paying homage to the Great Authors in my literature classes and paying somewhat more cynical, but nonetheless respectful, homage to the Possibly-Great Contemporary Authors who came down from New York to teach creative writing classes one afternoon a week.

Back in those golden days, being published meant your work was chosen by an eminent publishing house, carefully shaped by an expert editor, lovingly shepherded to market, and eventually taught to dewy-eyed undergraduates as a deathless example of the heights to which human creativity could climb.

I started publishing my more-or-less-literary work in 1997 when the vestiges of that old mirage were still quivering in the desert air, but I quickly learned that when your work is published, most (all?) authors, get a different view of the matter. Simply put, publishing is about making money, and any artistic value is secondary. Case in point: Fifty Shades of Grey.

Is anyone to “blame” for this turn from our higher nature toward the baser rewards of profit? Whether you see an impersonal historic force at work or prefer to find mustache-twirling villains, it’s always entertaining to point fingers. Onward to the first culprit.

Villain #1: The Agent

A literary agent is the traditional gatekeeper to elite publication. In the fantasy version, she or he selects talented new authors from the hopeful queries s/he receives, becomes best friends with said authors, and loyally supports their inevitable enshrinement in the literary canon.

In reality, of course, agents take a percentage of their clients’ earnings and thus, to make a living, need clients who actually earn something. A friend recently took a query-writing workshop from a relatively successful agent and came away with an interesting lesson. Agents care far less about the synopsis of your novel than your “platform,” or what you can contribute to profits through your established reputation, professional connections and marketing savvy. 

Agents are said to like “comparables”—that is a comparison to commercially successful works as in “My novel is a cross between the Bible and Fifty Shades of Grey” or “Harry Potter, Twilight and Pride and Prejudice.” This, of course, encourages a highly conservative approach to choosing clients. If everything must be comparable to a previous commercial success, where is the room for something different? Hollywood since Jaws gives us the answer… nowhere.

Still one can’t help but pity literary agents, whose jobs are clearly threatened by the Internet. Publishers Weekly recently posted an announcement from HarperCollins to the effect that they are starting a “digital-first” imprint to publish “new authors of visionary and transformational fiction” (like Fifty Shades of Grey?). This imprint, HarperLegend–a poignantly hopeful name–is open to unagented manuscripts, although the publishing house affirms it still deals mainly with the agented kind. But, really, why not hire more young college graduates to mind the slush pile and cut out the middlewoman?

Agents may deserve some blame for the death of the value of art over money, but like it or not, at least they’re going down with the ship.

Villain #2: The Reader

In my research for my historical novel, I’m learning about leisure pursuits before the advent of radio, television and the Internet. By 1890 or so, public entertainments—dance halls, amusement parks, and picture shows—were rapidly gaining in popularity, but most good clean fun was still had in the home where families sang around the piano and read aloud from edifying works while the ladies did their needlework by the kerosene lamp.

Writing short fiction for commercial magazines was still profitable enough to make F. Scott Fitzgerald a handsome income in the 1920s and as late as the 1970s, I remember that novels by Philip Roth, John Updike and Saul Bellow were must-reads for anyone who claimed the slightest cultivation.

Who reads now?

Sure, there’s free stuff on the internet, but what makes a reader shell out money to produce those profits the publishing houses require? Perhaps it was always so, but the main motivation seems to be “what’s in it for me?” Are we talking a self-help book that will assure instant, painless weight loss or immediate financial bounty? Did a celebrity write it? Is it already a bestseller all my friends are talking about that includes child abuse and tattoos? Did it win a literary prize and also come with the requisite child abuse and suicide? Can I make my own decision about what I want to read rather than rely on someone else’s opinion? (Nah, too much work. I rely on Amazon one-star reviews myself. If the pans are smart, I pass.)

Now the thoughtful reader has been a dying breed for quite some time. In her biography of Mary McCarthy, Carol Brightman writes of the critical response to The Group, a 1963 best-seller that frankly (for the time) explored the erotic lives of eight Vassar graduates:

“With reviews and parodies such as these, a new chapter in American literary life had begun, one in which the prominent reviewer wielded more power than the author, not because of the priestly functions of criticism but because fewer people took reading and writing seriously, and thus reviewers got the last word—especially when they were also famous authors, blocked, for the moment, from the ‘creative stuff.’ Dealing in reputations rather than texts put them in the cockpit of a world where reputation, meaning celebrity, was the common coin of the realm.” (Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World, p. 461)

Perhaps the thoughtful reader was never as abundant as we’d like to imagine, but we see that celebrity was certainly an important factor in publishing long before Rob Lowe took up his pen.

Villain #3: The First Fifty Pages

As those of you who have approached literary agents know, a fortunate query will be followed up by a request for the first fifty pages of the manuscript. If the agent believes these pages suggest a selling book, s/he will request the complete manuscript. Thus, it is very important to make sure the beginning of your book promises commercial success. The leisurely novel openings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are a thing of the past. The reader must be hooked as quickly as possible.

I recently read that it is likely that surprisingly few publishing insiders actually read the entire book. Certainly don’t expect the marketers, promoters or critics to do so. Recently I realized that this focus on the early hook explains a lot about my dissatisfaction with many of the books I read, whether fiction or nonfiction. Far too often, the promising, lively opening chapters fall flat so that by the end I feel duped and resentful of the author for betraying his promise. From now on, I’m going to pay attention to the timing of this downward dip of art and interest. I wouldn’t be surprised to find the decline beginning somewhere around page 51.

Here’s where we writers need to take responsibility. Yes, we must polish up those first fifty pages to be noticed by the professionals in the industry, but the rest of the book should be worth reading, too. Worse still are successful authors who are cajoled into reprising their bestsellers with sequels that seldom live up to the original. This is the saddest con of the publishing business.

In the end, however, I would suggest that the greatest villain is a naive, idealized view of the publishing industry, a view to which I must plead guilty in my life before my work was published. Books may seem like friends, but they were born of the bottom line.

Thus, a solitary writer cannot control the market, the publishing procedures, agents, editors or readers. We can try to write for reasons other than profit, even as we must pay some mind to marketability so that our work has the chance to reach a broader readership. Each of us can, in our own individual way, try to rebuild the fine art of storytelling as a way to connect with our readers in the spirit of trust, not profit.

By the time the tremors of new technologies in communications have subsided, publishing may end up a very different business, or it may have more or less the same fundamental characteristics in new wrapping. Yet readers will always love and appreciate a good story well told. All we have to do is write it.

Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman and a collection of short
stories, Mammoth
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey
. Learn more about her
work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com
or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor

Donna George Storey

I want to change the world one dirty story at a time. When I posted this mission statement on my website, I hoped my cheeky ambition would make my readers smile. I smile every time I read it myself. And yet I’m totally serious. I truly believe that writers who are brave enough to speak their truth about the erotic experience in all its complexity—the yearning, the pleasure, the conflicts, and the sweet satisfaction—do change the world for the better. So if you’re here at ERWA because you’re already writing erotica, a big thank you and keep on doing what you’re doing. If you’re more a reader than a writer, I encourage you to start dreaming and writing and expressing the truth and magic of this fundamental part of the human experience in your own unique voice. Can there be a more pleasurable way to change the world? I'm the author of Amorous Woman, a semi-autobiographical erotic novel set in Japan, The Mammoth Book of Erotica Presents the Best of Donna George Storey  and nearly 200 short stories and essays in journals and anthologies. Check out my Facebook author page at: https://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor/  


  1. Lisabet Sarai

    Hi, Donna!

    This is a provocative post, but I think it's based on a false premise. Your concept of "literature" has always been a myth. Publishing has always been a business. How many of the classic authors we learned to revere in high school English class were actually hacks writing for money and the common people? Quite a few! Dickens certainly. Shakespeare, undoubtedly. Jane Austen? I wouldn't be surprised though I don't know enough about her background to be sure.

    I don't think any of these authors thought of their work as "literature". They were writing to entertain, or to provoke. They simply happened to do it well.

    The modern giants you cite — Philip Roth, John Updike, Saul Bellow — were motivated by the desire to support themselves as least as much as by a driving need to create "art".

    Meanwhile, I've read at least a few books in the past few years that I'd recommend as literary gems, most recently Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior and Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus.

    Also statistics show that there are more people are reading and buying books than every before.

    So it's not that literature has been destroyed, or that people aren't reading. The problem (if there is one) relates to 1) the sheer volume of what is being published, which follows the 90% (of everything is crap) rule, and 2) the shallow view promoted by today's social media. Also, perhaps, the deficiencies in education in the U.S., where kids in general aren't encouraged to read and enjoy books.

    I never had the literary dream, so I don't share your disappointment, I guess. I kind of fell into publishing by chance (even though I'd always been a writer).

    Books are more available than ever. And that makes me rejoice.

  2. Donna

    I agree with you on everything you said–my portrayal of "literature" today anyway is very tongue-in-cheek. It's probably been more than thirty years since I believed in anything I describe here, but the fact that people buy books because they win the National Book Award or the author published in The New Yorker shows that many readers want some cultural seal of approval. Not that this is terrible. No one has enough time to sift through every book to figure out which are worth the time. I will admit that I'm still disappointed that the cultural elite can't seem to give prizes to books that transcend so many of the stereotypes of "serious" fiction. Most of them are all-too-predictable in theme and even stylistic "innovation" is familiar. I will stand by my contention that a focus on "comparables" encourages sameness and a "this won't sell" attitude toward something different!

    • Lisabet Sarai

      I do very much agree about the "comparables" issue. Every successful book generates a flood of near-copies or mashups. Very boring.

      It's hard to find a publisher willing to take a risk.

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