Thursday, May 12, 2011

My most memorable crap job: ripping off aspiring authors for a noted literary agency (and how it relates to Decased Artiste Arthur Marx)

The job I’m about to talk about was far from the worst I ever had (shades of Derek and Clive!), but it was definitely one of the most memorable, since I was fired from it in the late 1980s for not being able to read two full novels a day and reject 10 aspiring authors a week. What kind of job was it? Well, I was hired nearly two years out of college (with some meager writing and editing credits under my belt) to work at a noted literary agency — still in business, so it will remain nameless here — to basically rip off aspiring writers.

I wasn’t ripping off the authors myself, but I still felt incredibly guilty doing the work, since I know a few aspiring novelists and have at least one or two writers in my family who might’ve fallen for this company’s horrible scam (which has its own webpage, saying the program has now been closed out, as if it were a writing “class” or institution).

Put plainly, you as a member of the public sent in an exorbitant fee to this name literary agency — I believe it was $250.00 — to have your novel, biography, or book of short stories looked at by an “industry professional,” with the expectation that, if they liked it, you would become a client of the agency. The firm was careful not to use the author’s names in their publicity for this scam, but if you looked them up at the local library, you could easily find out who they handled.

In the office there were two rooms in which gentlemen were hunched over in cubbyholes reading the applicants’ manuscripts or typing out evaluations of them. We were instructed that every evaluation had to be four single-spaced pages (back and front, two sheets of paper — you got very little for your $250.00!). You were expected to read two full manuscripts every day and write two evaluations — failure to do so would lead to a warning and then termination.

That office provided me with my last glimpse of the white-collar world that my parents worked in from the 1960s through to the ’80s: people chain-smoked in the office; shirt and tie was expected; and the IBM Selectrics were motherfucking finger-jammers that frequently raised their carriages at odd moments, making your typed page look like the work of a drunken wild man.

There were indeed two “industry professionals” looking at some of the ’scripts — if you were an applicant who got their evaluation, you were getting expert advice, albeit programmatic, routine (they wrote two of these a day, minimum), and bitchy. The lesser known of the two gents gave me a Henry Morgan-ish piece of paper I still have somewhere that said that he wished he could start every piece of correspondence to the writers with “Listen, stupid…”

The other professional was a noted genre-fiction author who has a bibliography a mile long and is still alive today (and whom I knew not so much as a writer but as an editor of mystery anthologies). He was quite nice to me, and we spoke about his late-1960s meetings with a then-decrepit author who is one of my all-time faves, the true father of the “noir novel.” He gave me advice on how to write the evaluations, and he was indeed the office pro in terms of writing rejection letters — listening to him talk about what was wrong in a manuscript he was looking at was indeed a lesson in how to structure a work of fiction. But then again, the rest of the staff working for the aspiring-writers program in the agency, aside from Grouchy Old Guy and Genre Novelist/Anthologist Supreme, were younger, untested souls like myself, who hopefully had good instincts and were voracious readers, but really wouldn’t be the people you’d turn to for advice on how to sell your novel to a literary agency.

But did ANY of the people submitting manuscripts ever get to have their manuscripts published and repped by the agency? Nah. During my tenure there, which lasted about a month, I found a manuscript I thought was very well-written. The subject was scrimshaw, which is admittedly not commercial in the slightest, but the gentleman’s style was clear, concise, and colorful, and he knew how to tell a tale (and it took him 500 MS pages to tell this one). I went to my supervisor, who went on to co-own his own literary agency after the parent agency was sold to the gent who owns it now. I informed him that the scrimshaw author was talented and asked what one did when one thought the person WAS a good writer who might be a “hot prospect” for the agency. Answer: get him to submit another manuscript and pay another $250.00.

When I was told this, I realized that the company NEVER found a decent prospect from these applicants and had no intention to; my supervisor said something to the effect that it was highly unlikely, but could happen. It was a quick way to fleece aspiring writers, who at best got a well-written evaluation by a professional author. At worst, they got a write-up from someone like me, who tried his best, but was still just a fucking 23-year-old kid who couldn’t possibly dispense reliable advice on how to write a publishable manuscript.

So where does Arthur Marx come into this scam? Well, apparently Marx had been handled by this agency at one point, but they were rethinking whether or not they needed him on the roster. My supervisor asked if I’d be willing to take a look at a manuscript pitch from an actual author over the weekend, and I of course said I would — why turn down the chance to evaluate and comment upon a four- or five-page pitch from one of the agency's actual clients?

When I found out the author in question was Arthur Marx, I was doubly enthused, since I had read both of his books on his father (whom I worship) and had also read his dual biography of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime. That book is a fascinating read in that it lionizes Dean and trashes Jerry at every opportunity. The book is filled with anecdotes showing how Dean was beloved by his show-biz colleagues and unforgettably nasty tales of Jerry’s pettiness.

It’s hard to pinpoint the most amazing passage, but from memory [thus, a paraphrase] I’d have to cite Marx’s recounting of the way that Jerry commemorated Martin and Lewis losing a lawsuit against the agent they claimed had appropriated their money: Jerry had an entire box of toilet paper made up with the agent’s face on every sheet. According to Marx, when guests were coming over, Jerry’s wife Patti would hide the agent-faced-toilet-paper, and Jerry would break it out again so his guests could wipe their ass with the face of his dreaded enemy. This story has appeared nowhere else in print except Marx’s book. I’m not sure where he got the story, but one thing’s for sure: Jerry has absolutely no reason to badmouth Groucho as he has done (saying that Groucho in essence needed writers for his material and had the kind of humor “overheard at cocktail parties”), except for the fact that Groucho’s son wrote a very nasty book about him.

What I was given to look at was an Arthur Marx animal memoir, recounting tales of his cute and adorable dog. It wasn’t much, but I wrote an evaluation saying I’m sure he could flesh a book out of the bare bones he offered in his pitch — why, he was a produced comedy writer, who had had a Broadway play of his turned into a film (The Impossible Years) and by that point had also served as a regular scripter for the sitcom Alice. The supervisor at the agency was happy to find that I couldn’t enthusiastically recommend the book from the pitch I'd read (and who the hell was I? Just some college kid…). Thus, he happily squashed the idea of an Arthur Marx cute-animal memoir — and I see from his bibliography that Marx’s next three books were a bio of Mickey Rooney, a tennis-themed mystery, and the inevitable coffee-table book about his dad.

Despite the fact that I had access while I worked there to xeroxes of some rare early works by some of the noir authors I loved best, I was relieved when I was fired from that literary agency. I’m sure the gents running the firm slept soundly while pulling their shoddy con, but it was horrible to be a part of it, if only for a few weeks. I had been able to bluff my way through those evaluations for a short time, but what it came down to was what I critiqued most what had bored me, and that I knew shortly into the process that ALL the writers giving $250.00 to the agency were to be turned down… albeit creatively. It’s sad to think that these agents (the ones who are still alive) have prospered in the years since I encountered them (in fact one of my current fave novelist/journalists is represented by one of them). Perhaps there’s a special circle in hell for con men who target aspiring artists….


Sherwin Sleeves said...

Another terrific read, Ed. I hope the scrimshaw book writer somehow stumbles upon this post. Did he ever get it published, I wonder?

Robert Cook said...

I'm pretty sure I know who you're referring to as the ace fellow employee at the literary agency where you worked...initials BM...yes?

I just finished reading a book of his personal essays on the field in which he toiled. I first read him back in the early 70s, when I found his work too bleak for my young optimistic naive mind. Now, I find it quite revitalizing.

Jeff Gee said...

I think Mr. Cook is correct about BM. I missed how funny his books were when I read them in the seventies and eighties.