Friday 3 June 2011

How to Write to a Literary Agent

So you write a novel and send it off to your agent, let's call him Mr Pinker. Mr Pinker shows it to a publisher - Duckworth for example - and writes back to you saying that they didn't like it, but he accidentally includes the reader's report in with the letter. You don't know how to respond to his mistake and it's terribly awkward.

Unless of course you're James Joyce, the novel is Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and you have Ezra Pound dealing with the agent on your behalf. Then you're fine and dandy. Because Ezra Pound writes letters like this:

Dear Mr Pinker,

   I have read the effusion of Mr Duckworth's reader with not inconsiderable disgust. These vermin crawl over and beslime our literature with their pulings, and nothing but the day of judgement can, I suppose, exterminate 'em. Thank god one need not, under ordinary circumstances, touch them. Hark to his puling squeak: too 'unconventional'. What in hell do we want but some change from the unbearable monotony of the weekly six shilling pears soap annual novel; ... the dungminded dungbearded, penny a line, please-the-mediocre-at-all-cost doctrine. You English will get no prose till you enterminate this breed ...

Canting, supercilious, blockhead... I always supposed from report that Duckworth was an educated man, but I can not reconcile this opinion with his retention of the author of the missive you send me. If you have to spend your life in contact with such minds, God help you ...

Why can't you send the publisher's reader to the serbian front, and get some good out of the war...

Serious writes will certainly give up the use of english altogether unless you can improve the process of publication.

In conclusion, you have given me a very unpleasant quarter of an hour, my disgust flows over, though I suppose there is no use in spreading it over this paper. If there is any phrase or form of contempt that you care to convey from me to the reeking Malebolge of the Duckworthian slum, pray, consider yourself at liberty to draw on my account (unlimited credit) and transmit it.

Please, if you have occasion to write again either in regard to this book or any other, please do not enclose the publisher's readers opinions. Sincerely yours,


P.S.  ...  as for altering Joyce to suit Duckworth's readers - I would like trying to fit the Venus de Milo into a piss-pot ....

Since you ask, enterminate isn't a word, but Malebolge is. It's pronounced Mal-e-bolsh and it's the eighth circle of Hell in Dante's Inferno. The Malebolge are the evil valleys where the fraudulent are punished in various horrid and amusing ways.


1 comment:

  1. What a fabulous letter! How I would have liked to have seen JB Pinker's face (my great grand-father) on reading it. Guess nowadays the equivalent is that button sometimes mistakenly pressed - 'Reply to All.' Anyway, thanks for posting this. Happened across it trawling for family references. Much amused.