Category Archives: Jim

7

Lessons from the romance industry

A few weeks ago, the wonderful people at Long Island Romance Writers asked me to speak at their annual luncheon. What follows is the speech I gave at that event:

In the summer of 1999, I had completed my freshman year of college and realized that the money I had saved up throughout high school to spend in college was all gone. I knew that what I made working at the mall Record Town for three months wasn’t going to keep me going through another year, so I made the obvious choice: I sat down in front of my school’s career database and applied for 40 part-time jobs. I was not careful about my choices. I had two criteria: they paid at least minimum wage and they were at least relatively easy to get to from my dorm.

The next day, I received a message that I had missed a call from Stacey Glick at what was then Jane Dystel Literary Management. At this time in my life, I was so scared of speaking to strangers that I would write down scripts of possible sentences I could use on the phone. “Hello, this is Jim McCarthy,” I wrote down. In case I forgot?

Within 24 hours, I had been interviewed, offered the job, and accepted. Knowing how awkward I was at the time, I can only think that there was a dearth of viable candidates. Here’s what I knew on my first day at a literary agency: Nothing. I knew nothing. I didn’t know what an agent was or what they did. I DID know that Judge Judy was on the client list. This was enough for me to feel preeeeeeetty fancy.

I interned off and on for a few years. I quit three times because I thought I needed to go get internships that would help me in my future career. Considering I majored in Architectural History and minored in Dramatic Literature and Women’s Studies, I welcome you all to imagine what that alternate career might have been.

The day I graduated from college, someone quit the agency. Miriam Goderich sat me down and said, “Listen, we’ll give you a job, but if you quit one more time, you can never come back.”

When I started to sign on my own clients in 2003, I didn’t really know what I would be looking for. I always heard how hard fiction was to sell, but I also knew that it was what I loved to read. My favorite authors through high school had been Stephen King and Jackie Collins. I wanted to read about what would happen if Lucky Santangelo had to visit Salem’s Lot. Conveniently for me, paranormal romance was beginning to break out. I hitched my wagon to that train and was off and running.

In the 12 years since I signed my first client, a lot of things have changed, and a lot of trends have come and gone. I represented chick lit until its ignoble death. I was selling vampire novels when they were the only things people wanted. I was selling vampire novels when they were the only thing NO ONE wanted. (On a side note, I asked Miriam Goderich to edit this speech for me, and she included this comment here: “This is the place to mention my philosophy that vampires and Elvis will always sell.”)

I’ve been told that the market for contemporary romance is dead. I’ve been told that the market for contemporary romance is super vibrant and then watched it become all that anyone seemed to buy for six months until lists were declared over-saturated with…contemporary romance.

I’ve witnessed the rise and fall and rise of self-publishing. I saw authors who struggled for years become millionaires. I saw bestselling authors whose sales slowed to a trickle.

I’ve had phone calls where I was told that novels with black protagonists are too hard to sell into the market. I’ve seen the WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign start to make a wonderful difference.

I’ve heard the romance industry derided for being the silly, frilly, fluffy stepsister of publishing. I’ve…okay, actually that still happens, and you know what? Screw ‘em. Romance is a $1.4 BILLION dollar a year industry that makes up a larger market share than any other genre by a large margin.

The romance market has the savviest readers and the most well-connected author community. All of the greatest innovations in the ebook market began with romance authors and readers. And in no other category have I seen authors band together to demand improvements in contracts, control over their careers, or more transparency throughout the industry. And in no other section of the publishing arena have I found writers more willing to support their colleagues’ efforts. I’ve seen friendships build out of initial meetings at RT or RWA that have lasted for years, brought about collaboration, and led to mutual marketing assistance or sometimes just to lending a supportive ear when the business gets tough.

Because this business does get TOUGH. As much as things have changed in my decade and a half in publishing, that has been consistent. I recently saw a well-published author compare writing to trying to build a castle on quicksand. And I understood where she was coming from—there are so many unknowables out there, and one of the most defining characteristics I’ve seen in authors over the past 15 years is that no one ever feels secure. Bestsellers worry that their next book will be the one to tank. Midlist authors convince themselves that if they haven’t broken out yet, their time will never come. And debut authors worry that they will never be good enough to have people want to spend money to read their books.

I’m sure there are SOME authors who feel secure, but I mean…even J.K. Rowling published under a pseudonym so that she didn’t have to deal with the weight of expectations that would be placed on her next book.

That may all sound very negative. But here’s the thing about the author who tweeted about the quicksand: she’s still writing. Passionately. She hasn’t given up. And while I haven’t spoken to her about this particular issue, I’ve heard from a lot of people in similar situations that there’s one reason they never stop: they can’t. Tough as this business gets, the rewards are simply too sweet.

Whether you have to wake up at four in the morning to find some alone time to work on your writing or the responses to a submission make you feel like pounding your head against a wall, there comes a moment—when you get your first deal or receive your first fan letter, when your printed book arrives in the mail or you get that first check for earnings—there comes a time when you know that the words you passionately committed to paper are being read by strangers out there in the wild. There is someone out there who has read your work and been moved or excited, entertained or titillated. Someone out there had a unique experience because of something you alone have done.

I don’t write. I’ve never thought for a second that I have the talent or the discipline to do so. Hell, I joked about how I would stretch this speech out with sections of interpretive dance if I couldn’t come up with enough words to fill the time. (You all better hope I can fill the time because I cannot dance). But when I watch these moments of joy and of discovery, I do get jealous of my clients. I’m thrilled for my own small part of the process, but knowing that feeling of someone else lighting up over your written creation? There’s something magical there.

No one has ever taken up writing because it is easy. No one sits down at their computer and thinks, “I need some cash. Why don’t I just write a novel?” Or if they do, they are crazy people. No. I would venture to guess that all of you started writing because of a need. A need to express yourself. A need to get the stories in your head onto paper. A need to share some piece of your inner world with other people.

So whenever the business becomes tough, as we have determined that it will? Remember that. Remember you have already done something extraordinary and that whatever bad thing is happening at the moment (rejection, disappointing sales, rights reverting, rights not reverting)…it is a road block. It is one of the inevitable frustrations that comes from being brave and bold enough to be chasing your dreams.

The past few years have seen a lot of turmoil throughout the publishing industry. Two of the biggest publishers in the world merged. The percentage of books acquired electronically sky-rocketed. The number of authors finding a way to succeed outside of the traditional path went from zero to…like…a lot. (I don’t have exact figures. But seriously, it’s a lot). So when I’m asked a question like, “What has changed since you became an agent?” my answer is a forceful waffling. Everything has changed. Nothing has changed.

In the Nothing Has Changed column, you can argue that just as many people as ever are writing, there haven’t been enormous gains in the numbers of readers, so one basic tenet of the entire industry has stayed exactly the same. We (the royal we: authors, agents, editors, booksellers, the corporate drones at Amazon) are all trying to figure out how to get the most product by writers into the hands of the most readers. Author writes. Someone sells. People read. Who the someone selling is has more variations now, but it’s still a pretty straight line.

In the Everything Has Changed column, you can dump every piece of technology that has come up in the years since I started: iPads, Kindles, nooks… You can dump in various tech initiatives: Oyster, Kindle Worlds, Smashwords… You can pick trends that have taken the industry by storm whether they are super fun and encourage creativity like fan fiction or they were desperate attempts people glommed onto to seem relevant in a new technological age (…).

So when I try to balance these columns and decide whether much has actually changed in a real way, I arrive at this: for all intents and purposes, the system is very much the same with one crucial difference: authors are more empowered than they ever have been before.

THAT is the gift of the self-publishing boom. Over the past few years, romance authors have led the way in taking a degree of control over their careers that many others would never have even imagined. Authors who had robust backlists and were sick of being told that no one wants a reprint? They made their books accessible and sold tens of thousands of copies. Others who were told they had product that simply wasn’t marketable to any real audience? They tossed off rejection and went on to sell hundreds of thousands of books on their own.

And so publishing divided into maybe three camps: those who believed self-publishing was a threat to the status quo and would destroy the business, those who believed self-published books were trash and not worth their time since all of those authors would burn out quickly, and those that believed that all innovation was good for not only publishing as an industry, but for the future of the written word. Obviously, I am Team Trash: self-published authors will all burn out and things will go back to the better ways of before.

I kid! I once did a panel with an unnamed agent who WAS in that category. We stood in front of a room of 40-50 published authors, some of whom had moved parts of their lists to self-publishing. To them, this agent said something like, “I represent superstars. I don’t need you. There is better to be had.” Now, I am a generally a very relaxed person. But suffice it to say, things went…somewhat poorly. And while the red hot rage I was feeling blurred a lot of my memories of what happened, I do know for sure that at the end of the panel, I was holding all four microphones that had been on stage in the hopes that no one else would speak. I think I only succeeded in making people shout to be heard. It was…delightful.

Sorry for that tangent! Meanwhile, as you might expect, I am actually very much a believer that all innovation is for the better, and the fact that authors have become able to take more control over their careers is a wonderful thing. I do believe in the future of traditional publishing. I think there will always be authors who are best supported by having an agent, an editor, a publisher, and so on. There are enough potentially wonderful things built into the system that at its best, it is irreplaceable.

I also don’t believe that independent publishing will go anywhere. There will always be authors whose work is either misunderstood or belongs in a market that publishers don’t know how to reach. It is invaluable to be able to reach audiences without having to go through the admittedly cloistered publishing community.

I’ve felt the changes most when I’ve been at writers’ conferences. Five year ago, if I was at a conference, you could feel an odd sort of deference to agents and editors. There was that sense of, “Oh my God, there are so few of them, and they determine whether I have a future at this thing that I love.” I’d get the question, “Do I really need a literary agent?” and my answer was always yes. Now I walk into conferences, and I’m not scared to wear my Agent name badge. People still want to talk to me, but I don’t get pitched at urinals. No one breaks into agents’ hotel rooms to leave manuscripts on their pillows anymore (yes, those things really happened). It’s because there is an alternative, and that is such a good thing.

Do I believe that agents are incredibly helpful to authors? Of course I do. I don’t know if I could handle going to work every day if I didn’t believe that. But there is something both challenging and delightful about knowing that whereas clients may formerly have felt like they needed to clutch on for dear life, we all are that much more aware now that we have to be great at our jobs or else people will leave us. I don’t know if it’s masochism or misplaced enthusiasm, but I find that incredibly exhilarating.

As someone whose job description is Author’s Advocate, I have to be happy that those authors are becoming more empowered, increasingly pro-active, and better informed by the day. That happens right here in rooms like this and with authors like you, and I thank the romance community for supporting each other, for keeping us honest, and for keeping us on our toes. We are all the better for it.

I want to tell two quick stories of authors I represent who to me stand out for their incredible strength.

Victoria Laurie was the second or third client I ever signed on. We’ve done more than 30 books together across multiple series—adult, YA, and middle grade. She first queried with the book ABBY COOPER, PSYCHIC EYE, a novel about a psychic intuitive who accidentally gets involved in a murder investigation. I rejected that book. I sent Victoria a letter saying that I loved the main character and thought her voice was incredible. The book, though, didn’t know whether it was a mystery or a romance, so the pacing was wonky, and it didn’t hold together. I said I’d be open to considering future work. Victoria wrote back the next day and told me that it was the nicest letter she had ever received. I momentarily panicked and thought she somehow missed the part where I rejected her. But she hadn’t. Six days later, she sent me a revised novel. I rolled my eyes because I thought there was no way she could have done the necessary work in six days. Long story short? I sold the book about a month after that, and it became the first in a series that continues to this day. What I discovered after we agreed to work together? I was the 114th agent that Victoria had queried. One hundred and fourteen. I don’t think I’m strong enough to be rejected 112 times and keep going. But I’m so glad that Victoria did. I adore her. I adore her books. And she even modeled a character in one of her series after me. I’ll never tell which one.

And then there’s Michelle Rowen. I sold Michelle’s first novel BITTEN & SMITTEN very easily. It went on to very solid sales and the publisher bought more and more books by her. Then her editor left. Sales stopped being what they once were. And we had to move publishers with her. Again and again. And again. It was a tough road. I remember sitting with Michelle at a Romantic Times convention several years ago, as she said that there were times she wanted to give up because it was hard and it was frustrating, and sometimes she didn’t know if she had the strength to keep going. And I remember telling her that it would kill me if she stopped because she was too talented to give up. She kept going. Not because I asked her to, but because she was always strong enough to keep going, even if she had doubts. Michelle wrote the novel FALLING KINGDOMS under the name Morgan Rhodes. It was her 25th book. It was her first New York Times bestseller. I’ve had other bestsellers. This is the only one that I cried over. Because the road was so long and so hard, Michelle’s persistence was all the more inspiring, and her success was all the sweeter.

I share those stories because to me, they’re the best to hear at the beginning of a career. Publishing can seem so impenetrable and impossible. And it can, truly, be incredibly difficult. Everyone needs to know that. But everyone should also know that even when it isn’t working out, it still can. Your greatest asset is your writing. But almost equal to that? Your endurance, your fortitude, your belief in yourself. Ignore the overnight successes. You only hear so much about them because they’re so rare. Go into publishing with your game face on—prepared to fight for your shot and open to enjoying the good news along the way, even when the road is bumpy.

On June 10th, it will have been 13 years since I went full time at Dystel & Goderich. Since then I’ve sold over 300 books by more than 45 authors. It has been an incredible experience. Or a series of incredible experiences, depending on how you look at it. I’ve watched publishing change from the inside for long time, but this remains the same: Being an author is one of the world’s hardest dream careers. But when it works out (and it very often does), nothing could be sweeter.

0

The Tournament of Books is back!

Every year, I eagerly anticipate the arrival of The Tournament of Books over on The Morning News. It’s a bracket-style competition to select the best novel of the previous year. Wonderfully, unlike any other award system, it is completely transparent, acknowledges exactly how silly it is to give out awards, offers a running commentary of the judging process, and is one of the only places on the entire internet where the comments section is filled with intelligent, thoughtful, considered feedback. It’s basically Internet Utopia: where smart people freely exchange opinions about books, dissent is welcomed, and everyone is a reader.

 

For the past few years, I’ve entered to try to become the special guest judge. I keep trying to convince them that the perspective of someone in the biz could be a unique one in the tournament. They don’t seem to believe me any more than I believe myself. I still think it would be fun to take part.

 

Almost as good as taking part? Knowing someone else who is! This year, DGLM’s own author Tayari Jones will be one of the judges. Tayari’s first novel, LEAVING ATLANTA, was one of the first things I read after being hired full time a dozen or so years ago, and I still have the loveliest memories of reading it while weeping quietly at my desk. It’s just a good thing she’s not one of my personal clients since I would probably harass her for behind-the-scenes scoops the whole way through.

 

So with two months to go before the tournament kicks into gear, it’s a near foregone conclusion that anything Sharon Pelletier or I read for pleasure will be on the list of finalists. Happily, this year I’d already read six. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng and Adam by Ariel Schrag are my favorites so far. Time will tell how many others I might get to. The trouble with reading for a living is that you don’t always have much time to read NOT for a living.

 

Who has delved into the list? Who will follow along with me? Or better yet: who HATES one of the books on the list? I always like to hear folks grumble!

23

The R Word.

On Friday night, I went to see a screening of the movie Dear White People, a wonderfully funny and warm but still very biting comedy about race relations on an Ivy league campus. (“Dear White People, the amount of black friends required not to seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, your weed man, Tyrone, doesn’t count.” ) The filmmaker, Justin Simien, said that he wants the movie to start a conversation—nothing gets better without a dialogue. He also cited as his inspiration great black cinema of the ‘80s and ‘90s and movies like Do the Right Thing that had things to say and left you feeling not just entertained but moved, sometimes uncomfortably so.

So race was at the front of my mind the next day when I went to the NYC Teen Author Book Festival to see some of my authors present on different panels. The audience was probably 90% white women in their 30s and 40s. This is an observation, not a judgment. But it’s something I kept thinking about because in the middle of New York City, that’s an awfully homogenous crowd.

I was not alone thinking about race that day. One of panels was called “Summer Reading” and the four authors discussed their novels, each set during the summer. At the end, an audience member stood up to say that she had been at the festival for two days and only seen one author of color. She also mentioned that she works with underprivileged teens in Hartford whose summers wouldn’t at all resemble those in the books being read from. She wanted to know what the panelists had to say about that.

It was an uncomfortable moment not just because a big issue was being raised but because my first thought was, “These four authors have nothing to do with planning this event and shouldn’t be asked to speak to such a large issue when they were just there to talk for five minutes about their particular novels.”

That’s a lie. My first thought was, “Please don’t let my client say anything stupid.” Listen, I’m an agent. It’s just in the bones.

Happily for me, my client on the panel, Gae Polisner, actually had a very thoughtful response, explaining that she writes fiction that comes from a very internal place and that her leads resemble her because she can only write from a place she knows and understands and just hopes that she touches on truths universal enough that they’ll resonate across the broadest spectrum of people possible. That is a great answer for an author. It does, however, leave some great big questions for an industry. Take a look at these articles by Walter Dean Myers  and his son Christopher Myers.

Those articles were spurred on by a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin showing that of 3,200 children’s books released in 2013, 223 were by authors of color, and 253 were about people of color. That’s less than 7%. To give some perspective, nationally, approximately 27% of the population is people of color.

Happily, I have easy answers to this diversity gap.

Ha! Just kidding. I don’t have easy answers. I actually don’t have any answers—just more questions. Like where is the root of the problem? Is it in the largely white make-up of the publishing industry? Are we weeding out material by and about experiences we simply don’t understand? Is there an institutional racism that hasn’t been broached yet? Is the problem that people of color aren’t encouraged to pursue careers in writing? Is it possible that there aren’t enough of these books being published because there aren’t enough being written? And, perhaps my own biggest question: are we too overwhelmed or scared to ask these questions because we don’t know what we’ll uncover about ourselves?

I won’t lie—I almost scrapped this blog post several times. It makes me nervous to bring up such a big subject because I don’t want to get it wrong. I don’t want to offend, and I don’t want anyone to cringe while they read it. But in the spirit of Dear White People, let’s do it. Let’s have the conversation.

2

Hating winter, loving contests

I do not love winter in general. Snow appalls me. I do not enjoy temperatures under 40. And I look terrible in hats. But two things happen in winter that bring me glimmers of hope: awards season (which I will not be discussing here) and the announcement of the Morning News’ annual Tournament of Books (which I will).

What the Tournament explains as its aim is revealing how silly the act of choosing works of art as the “best” is while also reveling in a little literary bloodsport. What it gives ME is a chance to obsess about a whole bunch of novels I meant to read in the previous year but hadn’t gotten to yet.

Every year, I get it in my head that I’ll read all of the novels in the tournament before it starts. I’ve only actually done it once, but like clockwork, when the list came out, I started stocking up on books. Especially because I had read a whopping ONE of the 17 books in contention this year. That being Rainbow Rowell’s delightful ELEANOR & PARK.

This past weekend I tore through one and a half of the other books on the list and bought a dozen more. I am a man on a reading mission. And I will stay that way until something gets in the way of me completing the task (like work…or life).

What I wonder is, does anyone else ever feel the need to be prompted to read more? Do you go through moments when the books keep piling up faster than you can read them until you eventually move whole piles and start new shorter to-be-read piles? And does anyone else want to join my read-‘em-all before March challenge? I got through HILL WILLIAM and a little over half of LIFE AFTER LIFE (which I’m loving!).

Full list here! http://www.themorningnews.org/article/announcing-the-morning-news-tournament-of-books-x

2

Stumbling into YA

When I first started agenting, I was unsure what kind of books I’d be working on. I assumed there would be lots of commercial fiction because I loved reading it. I figured I’d do some offbeat literary fiction because, well, same reason. I had no idea that I’d end up working on young adult fiction. That ended up being a (very, very, very) happy accident.

The only reason I got into YA was that my client Richelle Mead sent me a young adult manuscript that became Vampire Academy. I loved the novel, so I figured I should probably learn about the category in order to be able to work on it. That book ended up doing preeeeeeeeetty well. Needless to say, more YA followed, and I fell more and more in love with the category and signed on more and more authors in that realm.

Tumbling into teen fiction has so far been the happiest accident of my career. Well…my career itself is somewhat of a happy accident. I landed an internship that I thought would last a few months, and DGLM just never managed to shake me.

But the most surprising fact of finding myself representing YA books is that I never really read them as a teen. Sure, I really dug R.L. Stine’s Fear Street series, but other than that, I didn’t read many children’s or teen books. Not because I was so sophisticated a reader that I barreled past them. I was actually just a bit of a late bloomer when it came to the love of reading.

I’m still trying to catch up on the classics. I grabbed The Giver a few months ago. I only recently read The Outsiders. I read my first Roald Dahl novel THIS YEAR (and you guys…he’s super amazing). I still need to get around to A Wrinkle In Time. And yet the more of these books I read, the more hooked I am on the category and the more thrilled I am to watch it expand and grow. It has been an unexpected ride, and a completely joyful one.

I will also add as a side note that I am not only looking for YA. I still adore commercial adult fiction, offbeat literary fiction, and I’d kill to find some amazing narrative nonfiction. The ONLY downside to my success with YA is that sometimes people forget I’m looking for other stuff too!

2

Have I succeeded?

I asked my Twitter followers for blog ideas because, hey, I’m just back from vacation and a little swamped, so stop judging me!

My favorite was from @KatieNewingham who said, “Define what a successful book means in industry terms.” It’s an interesting request and one where the answer is both simpler and more complicated than might be expected.

Let’s take the simple answer first: a book is a success if it turns a profit. It’s really that simple. If your publisher makes more money than they spent on you? Success. Of course, it’s impossible to really know when that happens because it’s not as straightforward as looking at advances, but by and large, that’s the easiest gauge.

I don’t know whether this still holds true, but I remember hearing a few years ago that only 20% of books published earn out. So would that mean that 80% of books failures? Well…yes and no. Because some books are published to earn houses prestige—whether that means going for books likely to win awards or publishing notable figures—the sort of things that will help draw other authors into that fold. Others are published because a house believes in an author and thinks that holding onto them is important. Look at Jonathan Franzen—his first two books were well-reviewed and probably performed nicely. Then THE CORRECTIONS happened, and…well-played FSG!

As far as the new JK Rowling, which Katie brought up? That novel looked like it was failing. It had gotten nice reviews across the board, but the sales were abysmal. It never even broke 100 copies a week on Bookscan. If Robert Galbraith were, in fact, a debut author, he would have had to hope that his publisher remained optimistic that he had the potential to break out on a future book because on its own, those numbers were never going to support another release.

Now that we know who he is? It’s supremely smooth sailing.

In the end, publishing, like any business, just wants to turn a profit. So we gamble on books. Sometimes that gamble pays off; and sometimes we just keep plugging away until it does. Because of that, it’s a business that rewards patience, or at the very least determination and tenacity!

11

I’ve TOTALLY read that…

Here’s something I don’t bother doing: lying about what I haven’t read. It’s my general feeling that even the most exhaustive readers have some major blind spots in their reading history. And I’m not saying something like, “Oh, I’ve not yet had a chance to finish the last volume Remembrance of Things Past.” I’m talking about things like, “I’ve never read Jane Austen. Or George Orwell.” Both of which are true for me. No Pride and Prejudice. No Animal Farm.

It’s not just adult books, either. I never read A Wrinkle in Time. Or any of the Narnia books. I’ve never read Judy Blume. Or Roald Dahl. For god’s sake, I’ve never even read The Giver.

I’m not saying I won’t ever read these authors or books. I just haven’t yet. And I think that’s fine. Better that than faking it, as far as I’m concerned. Not to say that anyone in publishing would ever fake having read something in order to sound smarter. (AHAHAHAHAHAHA)

So admit it: there are giant blind spots in your own reading history. Get it off your chest: what are they? What novel can you not even believe you haven’t read? What book has been sitting on your bedside table for seven years that you still haven’t picked up? Cough. Crime and Punishment. Cough.

And do you ever lie to save face, or does that feel like a fool’s errand to you?

7

Eleanor & Park & Lauren & Jim

For anyone who was unaware, Lauren Abramo and I decided some weeks back to do our first ever online book club. We went with Rainbow Rowell’s delightful novel ELEANOR & PARK which, disappointingly, we both enjoyed. As such, no one was treated to watching two terribly opinionated agents facing off against each other.

 

For anyone who wants to see how the action went down, go to Twitter and check out #eandpdglm.

 

Here’s a confession: I’ve never taken part in a normal bookclub. We have one in the office where we all read different books and pitch them to each other, but that’s obviously different. With this one, though, I got to see what it was like to join with other people to chat about the same reading experience. Obviously I talk about books every day, but there was something so refreshing about doing it in a setting where nothing was at stake.

 

But as a newbie to the world of the traditional bookclub, I was a bit disappointed that no fights broke out and no names were called. I have to ask those of you who do this more regularly: are these events more fun when there’s someone to argue with? Or what about when a book is complicated and you really need to hash out some points?

 

And on a more selfish level, I’m curious—we know how many people were actively involved in our Twitter chats, but we don’t know how many people followed along later or what people thought about the format. So here’s a question: should we do it again? If so, should be keep it on Twitter? Do a different genre? Pick something more controversial? Add in a pie tossing at whoever makes the least popular comment?

 

Let us know! Inquiring minds, and all that…

1

“She seemed to realize that she’d lost her right to knock.”

Were you with us on Twitter this past Tuesday, when Jim and I chatted with a bunch of folks about the first half of Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park?  As promised, we want to take the conversation to the blog as well, for those who couldn’t make it.  If you want to read it without the SPOILERS you might find below, why not give it a read in the next two weeks, then come back and check out part one’s conversation here, and join us on May 14th at 6 p.m. EST on Twitter (#EandPdglm)?

I’d say the subject that most dominated our discussion was the 1980s setting.  Jim and I both felt that though we love how it plays out in the book, it might have given us some pause as agents considering the book in the slush pile: as Jim asked, “Do kids care about the 80s?”  Fortunately, we had some researchers in the chat to uncover the answer for us.  Anecdotal evidence from Susanna Donato (@SusannaDonato) and DGLM client Brian Bliss (@brainbliss) suggests that teens didn’t mind the choice, might even have been intrigued by it, but would not have cared about the music referenced, which is the source of much of the bond between the two characters.  I was perplexed when Bryan reported that his teen creative writing students wouldn’t have bothered to look up the bands on Park’s mixtapes, until I realized that I didn’t bother to look up the comics that take up an equal amount of the narrative, if not more.  Of course, I’ve heard of them, but it doesn’t mean I fully understand the context.  In the end, I don’t feel like I’m missing anything.

After all, that moment where Park first realizes Eleanor is reading his comics along with him and stops to let her catch up has plenty of impact no matter what.  That was one of Kellie Lovegrove (@k_love671)’s favorite parts of the book.  Other favorite moments in the first half included: the very end of the first half, which made Susanna’s heart race.  She also loved when Park asked his grandmother for batteries for his birthday so he could give them to Eleanor.  Jim swooned over “You look like a protagonist…You look like a person who wins in the end.”  And for me, the line referenced in the title of this blog entry, which I loved so much I ran across the room to get a post-it to flag it.

So if you couldn’t make it, tell me, what was YOUR favorite part?  And what did you think of the time period?  Do you have the same sense of dread about whatever Richie reveal is coming our way in the second half?

On May 14th at 6 p.m. EST, Jim (@JimMcCarthy528) and I (@LaurenAbramo) will reconvene at #EandPdglm to talk with everyone about the rest of the book.  If you haven’t gotten started yet, please jump on in!  It’s a pretty quick, short, wonderful read.  (Though Jim and I were rooting for a contrarian to come along and mix it up—are you that person?  Come tell us why!)  I can’t wait to find out how the rest of the book will unravel.

And in case you want to catch up so you can join us next time, here’s a handy dandy widget with all the good stuff to come out of our chat under the #EandPdglm hashtag:


 

 

5

Teaching English

Last Friday, I met one of my newest clients for the first time. Amy Hanson, besides being the author of the glorious novel THE THIRD ACT (coming soon to editors’ desks around town!) is an English teacher. And lucky for her, she has say over what books she will teach. We chatted a bit about the fact that she teaches Jennifer Egan’s A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD to her high school students. As someone who would marry that book if I could, I was jealous of the teenagers who got the chance to read such a vibrant, thrilling, daring novel in class. I also started thinking a lot about what I read in high school and how valuable teaching current fiction can be.

 

Let me first say that I believe deeply in teaching the classics. I actually believe every student should have to read LORD OF THE FLIES and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I’m much less certain that I feel CATCHER IN THE RYE and THE GREAT GATSBY are as important as they’re made out to be. And sure, everyone should read some Shakespeare, but how about some August Wilson? Amy teaches Ibsen! That thrilled me to no end.

 

That aside, I remember the day my English teacher delivered copies of Richard Russo’s THE RISK POOL to our desks, and my mind blew open. Here was a novel that had been published in my lifetime. And there were things in it to learn? Mesmerizing.

 

As most people reading this can probably also claim, I had already found books I loved by this point. SONG OF SOLOMON and SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE remain two of my favorite novels precisely because of when I first encountered them and how defining the first reading of each was to me. But it was that notion of great literature as a living, evolving thing that most struck me. Maybe I just wasn’t terribly bright, but until then it had never occurred to me to think of new books as potential future classics, or to approach them with the open mindedness that they might very well be brilliant.

 

So then the question becomes: which contemporary books should be taught? A few of the first novels I thought of would likely be terribly dull for teenagers or just be those kinds of books you don’t enjoy until you’ve experienced certain things: THE CORRECTIONS, BEL CANTO, THEN WE CAME TO THE END, GILEAD… Right now I’m leaning towards Bonnie Jo Campbell’s brilliant collection AMERICAN SALVAGE and Junot Diaz’s peerless THE BRIEF AND WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO.

 

What about you all? What contemporary work of fiction would you add to a high school curriculum? And if you are a teacher, what do you wish you could add?

 

Also! Don’t forget that Lauren and I are hosting an online book club. We’re reading ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell, and the first Twitter chat will be April 30 on the first half of the book. Follow along with @JimMcCarthy528 and @laureneabramo. And check back here for updates on our progress!