In this second episode of Swarm and Spark, a new literary column at The Millions written by an anonymous NYC editor and an MFA professor with the goal of restoring humanism to the literary conversation, we consider community and allies.
Send in questions, comments, confessions, or complaints you would like to see answered, knowing your confidentiality will be equally assured, to [email protected].
Dear Swarm and Spark,
I’m currently finishing my first novel, which follows an older woman whose life is upended following the return of her estranged daughter.
Now, I have very strong and specific tastes both as a reader and as a writer. I’m interested in the way larger social, political, and economic forces play out on a personal level. I like books that are grounded firmly in a time and place, especially if they deal with ordinary people who find themselves in the crosshairs of pivotal historical events. I also love books that have long descriptions of gardens and/or interior decor. Essentially, I’m a realist — even a naturalist.
Which brings me to my question. When writing a novel, it’s important to cultivate a community of like-minded mentors and readers who are — forgive the pun — on the same page. How do you find these people? When I was working on a prototype of my novel in college, one of my writing teachers told me that its protagonist — who harbors some frankly racist opinions — should become more open-minded by the end of the book. I would hate to read such a novel, let alone write one! Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to find a few people who share (or at least understand) my tastes, but how do I find more?
You have the right idea, I think — or, at least, a good idea that invites exploring. Writers need both comfort and critique during the creative process, and reciprocal reading relationships with smart and friendly readers can be invaluable. For some, this kind of “community” involves an actual in-person writing group; others solicit feedback from a handful of willing individuals. What matters most isn’t the number, or the forum, but the quality of the response. And for you, it seems, there’s the rub: It can be easier to get people to read your work than to be confident that they’ll respond in a helpful way.
How to go about finding those readers? Depends, in part, on the circumstances. When it comes to seeking out literary conversation, some writers live in a stocked pond — the hotbed of Brooklyn, the hothouse of a college town — although a competitive atmosphere can foreclose the kind of selfless response a writer needs. In the wider world, finding good readers often starts with searching out literary community, locally or otherwise: getting to know the person who runs a local reading series, or the owner of a new indie bookstore in a nearby town, or a writer whose voice on social media you admire. Reach out to introduce yourself as a writer; say a few words about your project; offer to exchange email addresses and keep in touch. Whether your new friend is a fellow early-career writer, or someone one step further along who may be interested in paying it forward, let them know you’d be interested in reading their stuff — and don’t be shy about asking if they’d have time to read a bit of yours.
But back to that rub: What if I find smart readers, but they just don’t offer the kind of feedback I’m looking for? Outside readers can have suggestions you’d never have thought of, but they can also come up with advice you’d never dream of following. The best way to elicit useful feedback is to be upfront about your concerns. What are your goals for the piece? What are you struggling with? If you’re facing a fork in the road — I can’t decide whether this 22,000-word novella wants to be a 5,000-word story or an 80,000-word novel — let your reader know. If you’re clear about what you want, the response you get is more likely to be news you can use.
That said, good readers won’t always restrict their feedback to answering your queries. If you ask a reader Should the hero of my literary thriller die at the end?, but the real problem is that the novel opens with 100 pages of undramatized moral philosophy, she’s right to bring that up. If you want to grow as a writer, it’s important to listen to every reasonable response. Your letter suggests you’ve been frustrated in the past by advice that ran afoul of your “strong and deeply held tastes.” This is why it’s helpful, when possible, to get to know someone before requesting a read: If you adore Ann Patchett and your reader’s idol is Anne Rice, you might not get the kind of guidance you’re looking for. It’s great to have at least one reader who shares your literary values — for instance, admiring novelists who excel in the kind of historical context you mention. But beware of limiting yourself to uncritical cheerleaders: Yes! Within you the naturalist tradition lives! may be comforting to hear, but it might not help you refine your work.
Ultimately, the point of getting feedback is to test new work against the sensibility of people we trust, even — no, especially — when their responses are challenging or unexpected. Rather than dismissing a reaction prematurely, do your best to understand it. It’s easy to conclude that your professor was wrong about wanting to redeem that racist protagonist, but it may be more valuable to wonder what sparked that recommendation. (One theory, purely speculative: It can be hard to build a novel around any protagonist who fails to change.) What really matters is how the conversation prompts you to see the work anew. If an otherwise sympathetic reader says Gee, these long garden passages are a little…long, you have a choice: You can dismiss the advice, telling yourself that you’ve written those passages for other readers like you — or you can reread them, with open eyes, and consider that you might just be a strong enough writer to make them work for an audience beyond the converted.
Dear Swarm and Spark,
I have recently finished a novel, but have had difficulty finding representation for it. I gather that, by today’s publishing standards, the book is something of a difficult read — not because of any plot pyrotechnics or because it has a cast of thousands or because it involves some recherché subject, but because it gives up its meanings gradually, requiring the reader to slow down and pay attention to the verbal signals it offers sentence by sentence. This kind of subtlety has always been the thing that drew me to literature; I’ve long felt that the best fiction works by expressing the inexpressible, often through indirection.
So I confess I find myself perplexed. Several agents, while expressing admiration for the novel, have implied it’s a tough sell in today’s market. One cited “the lack of literary courage among publishers;” another claimed that editors these days “don’t like complex protagonists.” Meanwhile, others — readers I’ve generally found perceptive — have flipped over it. The responses of these sensitive readers who “get” its aesthetics, who respond to the central character’s moral complexity, have sustained me during the past year, but none of them is in a position to further its fortunes.
Of course, I’m aware of other potentially complicating factors: it’s a first novel, written by someone with no publishing track record. But one of the practical difficulties I’ve encountered consists in getting through to literary agents in the first place: even those whose mission and vision seem aligned with mine will say on their websites that they are “closed” to queries. In other cases, the novel seems not to have attracted the attention of the young and perhaps impatient screeners at the top agencies, some of whom appear to have limited experience beyond contemporary publishing trends. As I told one writer friend: when your book is meant to be read for a second time, it’s frustrating not to be able to get even that first reading!
Are we really in danger of losing this all-important stage in the literary process — the contribution of open-minded, perceptive readers, eager to take on new work? I shudder to think so, and I’d be grateful for any insights or advice that might help me break through.
A Believer in Vision and Maturity
We live in an era in which, for 60 years, our school system has been teaching children to behave more like computers even as our society seeks to have computers behave more like people. What will be left us is the ore of story and history. We will gather around the fires of story-telling, one of the few acts computers can never replace. And why? Because we hunger for the intimacy of story. As Henry James says, we read to be close to someone’s soul.
All of which means your desire to tell a visionary story that matters is right and necessary, and, happily, experience suggests that good work always surfaces and finds its readership. That you encounter logjams — to mix metaphors — is a frustrating part of the process and has to do with your finding the right allies.
To mix more: conceive of the literary world as a cocktail party of reciprocal affinity. In other words, just as you’d be drawn to particular people at a party, so too in the literary world a particular agent’s sensibility already converses with yours. And your note suggests to me that you might benefit from doing a little more research now.
How? Find the four or five strong contemporary authors already gathered around your particular aesthetic conversation. In each case, scan their books’ acknowledgments, look online or call the publishing company where you’ll ask the underpaid editorial assistant who represents X. Then, and only then, write your query letter! I know of a well-regarded agent who each week with an assistant reads these queries aloud, and if there comes a false moment, the letter is not answered. Your goal with this first connection is to show that you’re not one of those who write agents in blind scattershot fashion after a hasty scan of Writer’s Digest.
To get a bit technical: use your first paragraph to demonstrate your understanding of the sensibility in the agent’s list. In the second, make brief mention of anything notable in your background, whatever makes you singular; the third can be a simple sign-off.
Sending this query serves as the equivalent of dropping a handkerchief on a table, which means you send no writing with it. Some writers might do as Woody Allen did in an early film and preempt critique of one’s work by including it, e.g., while this novel might seem to have quiet content, this story deals with the passion which made Michelangelo etc. Final advice: be briefer than this response!
You don’t have to be a lover of Lacan or Winnicott to find truth in the concept that if you truly see the other, the other will be more likely to see you. In this case, your other happens to be your first gatekeeper, an agent who — if you’ve done your research — will be a hard-working soul wishing to do well by authors and serve the collective campfire.
So long as your work has urgency and grace, you will see your work published, if, perhaps, not in the manner you imagined. In our time, the small presses have been a great source of cultural heat and light. But before you consider these, first ask yourself: can you clear those agent lenses!
Dear Swarm and Spark,
I’m wondering: what’s the latest HVAC technology in the offices of literary agents and editors? Do their climate-control systems now pump molasses, forcing these professionals to swim around in a viscous fluid, impeding their workflow? I do understand that publishing folk contend with a merciless barrage of queries, requests, and demands. But, honestly, what working person doesn’t? In my day job, if you promise, say, to deliver a contract by a certain date, and then you fail to deliver said contract (without providing even the limpest explanation for the failure), your reputation suffers, you undermine your bond with your client, and your boss scowls ominously. If the client you’ve failed enquires about the missing contract, you don’t then ignore that inquiry, or — worse — set another deadline for delivery that you know deep down you’re just as unlikely to meet. Instead, you sincerely apologize, then do everything in your power to make good. Literature is a higher calling — at least I think I believe that. Is that why so many (no, not all) literary decision-makers feel free to act like poorly organized middle-schoolers who figure they can always get another extension, they can always make up the test, and that anyhow they’ll be graded on a curve?
Vexed by the Hex
Duly noted! We’ll alert the principal.
Swarm and Spark
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.