How To Deal With A Literary Agent

In our continuing column on how to be a writer, we are pleased to feature an excerpt from The Spectacular, a story by a first-time contributor to Five Dials, Keith Ridgway. The following is fiction, of course.

I had lunch one day that June with my agent, Stanley Whitmarsh. I see him once every six months or so, and he explains to me why I have no money. I travel west to eat and drink with him – into the strange part of London, the comfortable, monied, afternoon London of Notting Hill and Holland Park and Shepherd’s Bush. It is not really London at all. Publishers and agents live there.

The books I write are well reviewed. Nobody buys them.

We shook hands outside Notting Hill Tube station and trotted under the black sky to a gastropub, convinced of an impending downpour, and Stanley chose the wine. He wanted to know what I was working on. I made something up. The truth was that every sentence I started bored me half to death, despite the poplar tree. Who gives a damn, frankly, about novels?

—Rosemary left me, I said.
—Oh God. Oh Clive. Oh I’m so sorry.

He put his hand over mine. I was embarrassed.

—It’s fine. It’s okay. It’s mutual.

I extracted my hand awkwardly. Stanley’s remained there like a vacated shell.

—She left you, you said.
—Yes, but. We both agreed that she should. That I should, I mean. I’ve moved out.

He inclined his head a little and took his hand back.

—What happened?
—Nothing happened. I should give you the new address.
—Are you okay?
—Yes, I’m fine. Really.

He wanted to talk about it. I didn’t.

I imagined people noticing us. There is the writer Clive Drayton, having lunch with his agent Stanley Whitmarsh. This has never happened.

—Money, I said.
—Is there any due?

He didn’t think so, but he would check, he told me, whether there was something due from Italy, which it was possible there might be, and Spain, about which he was less sure. It would be nothing very much in any case. Bits and bobs. Dribs and drabs. I wanted to get drunk.

—It’s difficult for everyone, Clive. You know that. Literary fiction is not doing well. It’s big successful trash, memoirs… you know… celebrity shit.
—I need…

I trailed off and poked my crumbling burger with a fork.

—What? You need what?

I had been about to say that I needed some way of making my rent. Mr Malik had taken for June in advance, and I had enough for July and August, and September, perhaps, if I ate only rice. But I would be flat broke, and after that the only option would be a humiliating request to Rosemary. Or an aggressive one, demanding half the value of the house. The advance I had been paid for my last novel had long gone. It was the trickle of royalties from an inexplicably popular Japanese translation of my first novel which had provided me with my living for the previous few years – a trickle the weakness of which had been much obscured by the healthy flow of Rosemary’s earnings as a marketing consultant. My latest cheque had dwindled to a few thousand. And that was running out.

—I need to feel that I’m not wasting my time.
—You’re not. It’ll come back to us. The important thing, though, is this.

Stanley has a habit of announcing that he’s about to say something important, and then pausing for an age while he thinks of something important to say. I played with my food and noticed that I was drinking the wine faster than he was. He wasn’t keeping up. I wondered if it was a signal that there would not be a second bottle. I thought about getting a new agent.

—Great writing, he announced suddenly, spitting a particle of chicken at my chin. Great writing wises. Rises. It rises. It comes to the surface.

He closed his eyes briefly, regretting the image.

—They’re going to forget about celebrities any day now. They’re going to forget about the brand name. They’re going to stop thinking that those peripherals have anything to do with them, with their role, and they’ll put them back in their place. They’re going to remember great writing. Because they’ll want to be great publishers again. Because that’s what it’s actually about, and readers will remind them. This is temporary. You’re a great writer. You just have to keep going. Your time is coming. I know you don’t care about money.
—I know that’s not what’s important to you.
—Who told you that?
—Let me finish.
—I care about money.
—I know you do. Through me. I am your carer. Of money. I’m not your carer. God.

He guffawed unpleasantly.

—I care about the money for you. But my point is that great literature has been a staple of our culture for six hundred years, seven hundred, whatever. It’s not going to disappear because some arsehole has worked out how to turn a fat profit on the autobiographies of other arseholes who’ve worked out how to write their name with their own shit.

He took a gulp of his wine. Stanley’s grip on metaphor is all wrong, like a boxer handed a tennis racket.

—The market’s top heavy, ridiculous. Either you’re a hit or you’re nowhere.
—I’m nowhere.
—You are building a backlist of quality, Clive. Reviews, translations, respect. All you need is for the climate to change – even a little. And… or… to have a bit of luck with the next one. Or the one after that. Something that catches the bastards’ attention. That’s all it takes. A spark. Then you’re in the window. You’re on the shelves in numbers. You’ve got your public.

He nodded, pleased with his reasoning, and waved his cutlery at me.

—Then your career will catch up with your talent. You’re too good a writer to be doing well now. You can’t write badly – that’s your problem.

I looked at him incredulously.

—Of course I can write badly.
—There isn’t a paragraph of bad writing in any of the four novels for which I am your humble agent and representative.
—Don’t talk shit, Stanley.
—You’re too hard on yourself.
—And anyway, I resent the suggestion that I can’t write badly. It sounds like a deficiency.

He laughed, but I was serious. I should be able to write anything I want, at will. In any way I want. A writer who can’t write badly is not really a writer at all. Writing is, after all, a performance. An actor who cannot affect a limp or an American accent is not much of an actor. I tried to explain this to Clive, but it distracted him into film talk. There was once an option sold on one of my books. It expired. I asked him had he ever heard back from them. He had not.

I filled our glasses, restoring ostensible parity. But I had drunk much more than he had. Through the window the street was dry and busy. The threat of rain was empty. No downpour had occurred. People walked normally, in all directions, in great numbers. No one seemed to care about anything very much at all.

—Would you get a job? Stanley said.
—Something to tide you over
—Tide you over. See you through.
—Until when?
—Until you finish the new thing.
—I don’t know how to get a job. I haven’t had a proper job in ten years. I’m a writer. What are you talking about? What kind of job?
—Don’t panic, he said. Teach? Creative writing.
—I couldn’t do that.

He had forgotten.

—You could. Everyone wants to be a writer. God help us. As if we didn’t have enough shit-awful writers. You could raise them to the level of shit-bad writers.
—I thought you said those days were ending. And anyway, I don’t know how to write badly, remember? I am too talented to make a living, apparently.

Stanley stared at me seriously.

—You’re depressed, he announced. Tell me about Rosemary.

I told him about Rosemary. We got a second bottle.