The Literary Agent of Yore (Unspeakable Rascal!)


Arts & Culture


An illustration by Lauren Stout for Lawton Mackall’s Bizarre, 1922.

My continuing odyssey across the World Wide Web—I’ll read it all, someday—has yielded these two gems from the public domain, both early constructions of the literary agent as a type; neither, I’m sorry to say, is very flattering.

Now as then, agents get a bad rap. In the popular imagination, they’re usually seen as unscrupulous middlemen, always on the phone, insistently plying their wares. The agent, we’re told, is a necessary evil at best, or, at worst, the first in a line of craven corporate interests designed to suck the marrow from a writer’s work, making it suitable for a wide and churlish readership. In movies, writers are always seeking agents, falling out with agents, or at the very least nervously talking to agents, twisting the phone line in their fingers. And then there’s the editor-agent relationship, in which the agent never wins: he’s either part of a profit-obsessed cabal keeping subversive “new voices” out of print, or he’s a tasteless entrepreneur disturbing the delicate rapport between editor and author.

I’d thought all this was a fairly recent phenomenon—I had always imagined it came from the eighties, when publishers couldn’t conglomerate fast enough and the soul was said to have fled the industry—but these two old books suggest it’s been going on much longer than that. Which makes sense: in publishing, the sky is always falling. Every year is an abysmal year for books and a terrific year for books. Editors no longer edit, except when they do; publishers care only for their bottom line, except when they don’t; the three-martini lunch is always dead, always quietly continuing. That’s what’s fascinating about these excerpts: they’re both about a century old, documenting that same thwarted intersection of art and capitalism.

First, from Arnold Bennett’s Books and Persons, an essay collection composed of work from 1908 to 1911, the parts cited below being from 1908:

The author will insist on employing an Unspeakable Rascal entitled a literary agent, and the poor innocent lamb of a publisher is fleeced to the naked skin by this scoundrel every time the two meet. Already I have heard that one publisher, hitherto accustomed to the services of twenty gardeners at his country house, has been obliged to reduce the horticultural staff to eighteen …

I am prepared to offer £50 for the name and address of a literary agent who is capable of getting the better of a publisher. I am widely acquainted with publishers and literary agents, and though I have often met publishers who have got the better of literary agents, I have never met a literary agent who has come out on top of a publisher. Such a literary agent is badly wanted. I have been looking for him for years. I know a number of authors who would join me in enriching that literary agent. The publishers are always talking about him. I seldom go into a publisher’s office but that literary agent has just left (gorged with illicit gold). It irritates me that I cannot run across him. If I were a publisher, he would have been in prison ere now. Briefly, the manner in which certain prominent publishers, even clever ones, talk about literary agents is silly …

According to “a well-known member of the trade,” the business is once again—the second time this year—about to crumble into ruins. This well-known member of the trade, who discreetly refrains from signing his name, writes to the Athenæum in answer to Mr. E.H. Cooper’s letter about the disastrous influence of royal books on the publishing season. According to him, Mr. Cooper is all wrong. The end of profitable publishing is being brought about, not by their Majesties, but once more by the authors and their agents. It appears that too many books are published. Authors and their agents have evidently some miraculous method of forcing publishers to publish books which they do not want to publish. I am not a member of the trade, but I should have thought that few things could be easier than not to publish a book. Presumably the agent stands over the publisher with a contract in one hand and a revolver in the other, and, after a glance at the revolver, the publisher signs without glancing at the contract. Secondly, it appears, authors and their agents habitually compel the publisher to pay too much, so that he habitually publishes at a loss. (Novels, that is.) I should love to know how the trick is done, but “a well-known member of the trade” does not go into details.

And then, even more remarkably, “Lucy the Literary Agent,” from Lawton Mackall’s 1922 collection, the aptly named Bizarre:

“I know you will agree with me,” said Lucy, “that these stories by Perth Dewar are quite remarkable, quite the most distinctive things of the kind that have been done in years, and that your readers will like them immensely.”

Ethridge the Editor said nothing. It was unwise to contradict her; for of all the personal-touch literary agents, Lucy was the personal-touchiest. So he let her run on and on, trusting that eventually she would run down. Also she wasn’t bad looking—in her aggressive way.

“You’ve read them?” she queried suddenly.

“Why, certainly,” he lied, glancing with studied casualness at the Reader’s Report slip attached to the blue manuscript cover.

Ethridge never read anything he could possibly avoid reading. He was one of those successful editors who edit by belonging to the best clubs and attending the right teas. Mere perusal of manuscripts was not particularly in his line.

The Report slip said: “Costume stories of Holland in the 17th Century. Only moderately well done. Not suitable for this magazine.”

“Who is this Dewar person, anyhow?” asked Ethridge defensively.

“You mean to say you haven’t heard of him? Why, my dear Mr. Ethridge! Dewar is a man of independent means—lives on his estate down in Maryland and writes stories between fox hunts. Enormously gifted.”

She failed to add, however, that Dewar had offered to let her keep any money she received for the stories—provided she could get them printed.

Resting her white elbows on Ethridge’s desk and eyeing him with calculating coyness, Lucy knew that he had not read the stories. She would make him wonder if she knew he hadn’t.

“What do you yourself honestly think of them, Mr. Ethridge? Candidly, now. You’re always so delightfully frank with me, Mr. Ethridge. That’s why it’s such a pleasure to deal with you. How did they strike you?”

“Really, Miss Leech, I don’t see how in our magazine we could possibly—”

“Now, Mr. Ethridge!” She held up a reproving finger, laughing roguishly. “But what’s the use of our trying to discuss imaginative literature here in your busy office with the telephone ringing every moment—or threatening to ring—and your discouragingly pretty blonde secretary—the minx!—popping in continually to see if we’re behaving!”

Ethridge smiled complacently. Why be an ogre?

“I tell you what. Let’s have supper at my studio this evening,” continued Lucy. “It’ll be so much more satisfactory to discuss things sensibly, without interruption.”

So he did, and they did.

At breakfast it was finally decided that the series by Perth Dewar should consist of ten stories, including four still to be written.

Ethridge salved his conscience by resolving secretly that they should all be published in the back of the book.

In due course of time the first story appeared. It contained a mean reference to the Knights of Pythias, or Mormonism, or a former Vice-President of the United States, or something; for which reason the issue containing it was suppressed.

Whereupon the buried issue became a Living Issue. The intelligentsia rushed to the rescue with highbrow hue and cry. Round robins were circulated. Newspaper columnists got sarcastic. Liberal cliques chittered. Perth Dewar became suddenly significant.

The issue containing the second story was sold out the day it appeared.

By the time the third one was out, Professor Lion Whelps, of Yale, proved in an article in the Sunday Times, that Dewar’s attitude toward women was like Turgeniev’s, and Professor Brando Methuseleh, of Columbia, discovered he had cadences. Sinclair Lewis inserted a mention of him in the forty-ninth edition of “Babbitt”. Nine British novelists hurried over to lecture on him.

And Ethridge?

He was made. In acknowledgement of his peerless editorial acumen that could discern true genius at a glance, the directors of the magazine doubled his salary and gave him a bonus to keep him from being coaxed away by the “Saturday Evening Pictorial”.

And Lucy?

Ethridge married her to keep her quiet.