So I was reading this article from Poets & Writers online, a Q&A with four literary agents, and I came across this answer to the question of whether the agents thought that MFA students' focus on the "business of writing" was good for them:

RUTMAN: Ultimately, no. If that is more of a priority than the work, it can't be all good. I mean, it's fine that they have a sort of professional track and that they're exposed to whatever realities they are ultimately going to encounter. But when they take a sort of sporting interest in it...

STEINBERG: It's a good way to eliminate potential people, for me at least. When they ask me, "What's the query letter consist of?" I usually think, "Well, that's probably not a potential client."

RUTMAN: It's true.

This was an eye-opener for me, not because I disagree necessarily, but because most of the things I hear from agent blogs and industry websites and conferences is "YOU MUST UNDERSTAND THE BUSINESS!!!" And here are four agents (most of whom represent literary fiction, by the way) who are saying that too much of a focus on the business means that writer isn't really a potential client.


But I think that makes a great point -- a writer's business is to write a good story. That is a writer's primary economic value to an agent or a publisher. Query letters, synopses, understanding the market, those are all things that can aid a writer in the process of getting published, but they aren't ends in and of themselves. A story is.

Take me, for example: I have a fairly demanding full-time job.* I also do other things: I teach a class for fun, I see my friends, I walk my dog, I (sometimes) vacuum. In other words, I have a precious but limited amount of time to spend writing and and even more limited amount of time to spend "learning about the business."** So I read publishing news, and subscribe to some online blogs, attend some conferences, and spend time on my query letter/synopsis/summary/blah blah blah. And when I get published,*** I will spend time doing promotion as well.

But the story is still the main point.

That's what the agents are saying, I think. A writer who can do a solid query letter or synopsis**** or who can stand up in front of a room from of people and speak about her book is great. I'm sure many agents would prefer that their clients are able to do those things. But those things are all icing on the cake of being able to write a story.*****


* to put it in perspective for any lawyers out there, last year I billed 2400 hours.

** If anyone wants to pay me to quit my job and write full time, please email me. I'm happy to oblige. :)

*** 2009, The Year of Optimistic Thinking!

**** which, by the way, these agents all say they don't even read! I hope that, as a courtesy, they don't require synopses in their submission requirements. The only thing worse than having to write a synopsis would be having to write a synopsis for someone who's not even going to look at it.

***** The rest of the article is pretty interesting as well. Take a look at this exchange:

STEIN: Don't write "Because of your interest in international fiction..." or whatever you think the agent's interest is. That means you've been trolling some Web site, and that freaks me out. Don't let me see that you've been trolling some Web site that says I like a certain kind of genre. If you know who I am, you should know who I am because you've done some kind of research that has to do with the specific books I represent. That should only be because you've fallen in love with one or two of those books. And that's pretty unlikely because those books haven't sold very many copies. So you probably shouldn't be writing to me to begin with. [Laughter.]

RUTMAN: "Just avoid me altogether. I haven't helped any of these people, really, and I'm not going to help you."

STEIN: Exactly. There shouldn't really be anybody writing to me at all.


Very interesting stuff! Thanks for posting.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009 at 8:24:00 AM EDT  

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