It’s a dispiriting thought, but one that must be grasped: literary agents are looking for something to flog, and bandwagon jumping is, they imagine, one of the safest ways to go about doing it – hence all those 50 Shades of Shite clones taking up shelf-space in your local WH Smith.
It works like this: they’re looking for something that fits easily onto their list (so you can forget challenging, difficult books – in terms of subject matter and certainly in terms of writing style), and what fits easily onto their list is stuff they’ve successfully placed onto someone else’s list: a publishing editor’s usually. Publishing editors are also interested in shit they can sell, which is why they all have their version/clone of whatever’s water-cooler hot in flogalot terms at any given moment. It’s a dumb business with pretensions. Most of them like to think in terms of working in the arts, which is, of course, bollocks. They’re middle-folk trying to turn a profit.
Which brings me to the question – the point of this post – do they know if something’s good, or just if it will sell? It’s perfectly possible to look around you, note what’s selling, project what might sell (indeed, why not have a self-important meeting about it?), and then try to turn a profit by getting your hands on more of the same. Spiv & Trotters Literary Agency: “S&M novels and religious thrillers are big at the moment, so we’re interested in those – though we’re also looking for Teen Naval Gothic love stories because we think they’re likely to be big in the run-up to Christmas.”
Novels like Animal Farm or Pale Fire or The Trial would be incomprehensible to them; they simply wouldn’t know what to make of them. We live in an age of focus groups, of audience reaction and participation. Modern agents don’t have the temperament or discernment to take a work away, and think, Actually this is good, artistically good. It deserves an audience. What they’re after is a sense of immediate recognition, a sense that they like this, that their friends will too. Being good doesn’t come into it; potentially popular, of course, does.
Undiscerning people need discerning people to draw the distinction between the two. That statement has a whiff of elitism about it, but that’s not the point. Girls Aloud are not as good as Beethoven, and not just because someone’s critiqued the issue for you. In your quiet space, you should be able to listen to both, and know that one is better than the other. That’s discernment. And if you can’t do that, you’re ignorant (at least in this area of life and art), and I rather fear this is something that’s true of most literary agents.
Money, of course, pollutes everything. Livings have to be made. I understand that. I would, however, modestly request that you don’t imagine you’re doing art when all you’re doing is shifting goods to make money.