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Week 3: Agents and Archives

We spent this week’s class at the The British Archive for Contemporary Writing, with the intent of studying the correspondences between authors, their agents, and their publishers. Having never been (formally?) published myself, this was an absolute delight.

Although there were about a dozen different writers whose letters we could look through, I spent most of my time looking through Andrew Cowan’s box–one could almost craft a short story on the conversations found within. His first book, Pig, took six years to write. Very little of the considerate editing and evolution of this book was discussed in the letters. Instead, there were pages and pages of rejections. The agents Cowan asked for representation turned him down in a variety of ways, from the generic (“we don’t have the time”) to the honest (“I’m swamped at the moment, perhaps try this other fellow?”) to the bittersweet–a hand-written letter explaining why an agent wouldn’t represent Cowan. The publishers responses fared little better, in that there was almost no attempt made at sincerity. The range of emotions, from the authentic to the annoyed, was very present in the conversations.

After nearly a year-and-a-half of rejections, Cowan, on a whim, submitted his novel to consideration for a Betty Trask award. And he won.

The tone of all the letters thereafter shifted. Agents both flattered him with praise and promoted themselves through their existing clientele; publishers offered their offers while recognizing that he was probably receiving many others. It was an interesting experience to browse through, like watching a movie whose ending you already know. Of course the book would get published and everything would work out: the existence of the letters is proof of that.

Aside from Cowan’s letters, I only quickly purused through two more stacks. Tash Aw’s archive revealed how he pitched his multi-narrative The Harmony Silk Factory to agents, by sending them several disparate chapters rather than the first few pages. And Sara Taylor’s archive highlighted the evolving drafts of her novel, The Lauras.