Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
So now every day I spend a little time winnowing my list of agents to submit to, trying to glean from their submissions guidelines whether they’d be attracted to my funny little book, We Were Together. It’s hard to go by their featured titles because all the agencies look more or less the same in the clamor of covers they put up. And if they have any famous authors in their corral they show them in big fonts. I always doubt that I could have a shot at the agent of Junot Diaz or Jonathan Safran Foer or David Foster Wallace or Zadie Smith, so I tend to hold off on querying them till the end – if I still have to. Generally they don’t consider queries anyway.
It’s especially telling when I look at an agent’s list of authors and I know not a one. What does that say? I guess it’s nice to see that they don’t pay the mortgage thanks to celebrity memoirs, but by the same token shouldn’t I recognize a few fiction writers? I mean, I do try to keep an eye on that world. Who are these people? I get the feeling that many of them are the MFA profs who probably snatch up most of the literary fiction slots in publishingdom, with their favorite students sucking up the rest of them. Not household names, but New York likes credentials and teaching people how to write short stories for The New Yorker is one kind.
Ironically, because agents are the first gatekeepers in the system, whose goal is to keep schlock from infiltrating our thriving culture, what does seem to pay the bills is genre fiction. Mainly thrillers and action novels, from what I can tell, but also romance and fantasy. A modicum of sci-fi. A pretty good helping of YA.
You realize as you sift through the agent databases that there’s just not a lot of room for literary novels now. And that Joyce Carol Oates keeps taking up one of the slots every six months or so.
Yet – story of my life – you persevere.
But doesn’t perseverance have potentially negative consequences too? Like I said, there’ve been times when I would have preferred to be out from under the burden of “failing by quitting,” as I think Ray Bradbury defined failure. I’ve probably missed out on aspects of life that quitting might have offered. Like interest in something more satisfying than feeding myself through a metaphorical buzz saw every now and then.
For instance, ten years ago I could have thrown myself into learning jazz guitar with the kind of energy and commitment I’ve given to my writing. Not to become a performing musician; just to be a better guitarist and to learn as much as I could about music. A lot of agents might have advised me to go in that direction, had they felt comfortable speaking the truth. I remember a friend of mine had a father who was interested in being an artist, and at some point in his college education an instructor said bluntly, “You don’t have what it takes, I’m afraid. Find something else to do.” I don’t know any aspiring artist who would have taken that at face value. Each and every one of us would instead blame the instructor for not seeing genuine talent and we’d belligerently pursue our dream in spite of him. Just to show him. Except that you never really get to show that guy, do you? Usually because you didn’t hit the big time, just as he predicted.
Maybe our culture puts too much stake in perseverance. That’s all I’m saying. There’s that old saying about the definition of insanity …
Think about it though. If you were an aspiring baseball player, you’d know before you were thirty – usually a lot sooner than that – whether you were ever going to hit it big or not. With artists of any variety, you can keep bashing your head against the boulder as long as you like, and a lot longer than you should. I think of the author of Stones For Ibarra, Harriet Doerr, who published that book – her first – at the age of 74. I’m not sure whether she was trying to publish in her earlier decades, but the fact that her debut took place at that age always kept me going. Then again, that was in 1984 and the business was a lot different then. And Doerr earned a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, leading up to publication of her book. She published one more novel and a story collection before she died in her nineties.
So I don’t know. I’ve been putting a lot more effort into learning jazz guitar these last couple of years, but I’m still not ready to chuck the literary career.
I’ve got fourteen years on Harriet. A lot can happen in fourteen years.