The Scott Meredith Literary Agency

A few pages from the chapters SCOTT MEREDITH LITERARY AGENCY from my book THE KILLING OF AN AUTHOR.


If there are thirty things about myself that I hate—and there are possibly more—then Number 23 is my discomfort with the law, a discomfort that makes me sweat or become self-conscious when a cop or a customs officer gives me the once-over or the twice-over (even though, nearly a hundred percent of the time, I have done nothing to be afraid of—don’t snort or smoke or booze or brawl or spit or pee on the pavement, and dreaming of making whoopee with the woman in front of me is not, as far as I know, a felony). So when, in May 1981, I graduated from my Master’s Degree program in Literature and Journalism at American University in Washington D.C.—my stepping stone to the Great American Writing Dream, along with a course in Book Editing at Harvard University’s summer school, taught by a senior Little, Brown editor with the help of Strunk & White and Words into Type—I decided, unlike many other more adventurous foreign students on student visas, to get myself job training the legal way. I applied for a six-month “practical training” visa and headed off to the Big Apple to make my fortune as a wordsmith.

The great wave of South Asian immigration had barely begun, and the New York journalistic world of 1981 was still a white person’s world. At the various “editorial” employment agencies and newspapers and magazines that I called, I was given the brush-off by the secretaries who, when informed of my M.A. in Literature from American University, with a Distinction, brusquely disposed of me by asking me to take typing tests. So what if I couldn’t type sixty words per minute on an unfamiliar keyboard without mistakes? Could James Joyce? Did the young Ben Bradlee, who got his first job in the Washington Post after admitting quite frankly that he hadn’t written anything? (“Well, nobody’s perfect,” replied the managing editor, and gave Bradlee the job anyway.) I had been admitted to American University solely because of my 98 percentile GRE English score, before they had even seen me, and then awarded a scholarship and an assistantship solely because of my good grades during my first semester; were these employers rejecting me solely on the basis of my appearance? 

But one day, responding to an enticing advertisement offering the chance to do tons of pure writing, I was given the courtesy of being asked to take a test that was not primarily a typing test, but a writing test—though I would have to pound out my writing on a not-too-familiar IBM Selectric. I was told to write a letter containing a literary evaluation of a fictional client who had submitted an article.

Apparently I performed well enough in the test, or so I was told later by the vice president of the agency, Ted Coles [not his real name], who not only knew the Little, Brown editor who had taught me at Harvard, but said he was impressed by my “flow”—or what I frankly thought of as my linguistic bullshitting art, which had been refined over years of writing India’s essay-type university examinations. I danced up and down in my Flushing apartment for weeks after, so thrilled was I to get the job—which involved reading novels and writing about them for hours and hours—in a distinguished literary agency, located in that nerve-center of world publishing, Third Avenue in the Fifties, right next door to Random House and Knopf! Not writing boring business letters or dense economic reports, but simply letting go, merrily slinging the bull, slinging the joie de vivre and the weltanschauung, giddily opening all my valves and letting my pistons pound like a race-car driver in a Ferrari on a lonely Texas highway after having spent ten years in an underground prison cell. I was grateful. So low had my self-confidence dived thanks to my recent experiences that I knew it was the only job in America I could ever get. And I needed, for the sake of my fragile manhood, to have a job, to have a weekly pay check, whatever its size.

Or perhaps I simply needed an excuse to wear a tie, for you had to wear a tie at the office. It didn’t matter if you wore the same frayed tie every day of your life, it didn’t matter if you had holes in your underwear—it didn’t matter if you wore no underwear—but you had to wear a tie! The tie was their crafty stratagem to help camouflage our extremely low pay from our own eyes: in my case, two hundred dollars a week, or one hundred sixty after taxes (yeah, I had become that holy American icon: a taxpayer, and a tie-wearing taxpayer to boot!). The tie made me feel important as I rode the elevator each day at precisely 8:55 a.m. with other important tie-wearing people, alighting at an important twelfth floor office to breathe in the air of importance exhaled by real agents who occupied their own offices, with real windows, in the hallowed, carpeted corridor that led to the Boss’s hallowed office, probably guarded at its portals by Cerberus.

Passing through this consecrated corridor, I and my “reading specialist” colleagues parted company with the real agents midway and took a sly left turn into the cubbyhole office six of us shared. We knew our place. We were the “fee agents.” We handled the “fee clients.” The sucker section.
Well, at least we had jobs, unlike the troublemakers out there. Unlike Them.

This was how it worked. 

The agency bought mailing lists of would-be writers or writers-in-training: those who had sent out in the mail for some writing manual or magazine or “free” offer, and thus betrayed to the Omnipresent Mail Order Industry an interest in scribbling, or in unburdening their souls, their lives, their fantasies, their craziness onto hundreds of sheets of white, and sometimes cream-colored, paper. Their own Great American Writing Dream. Every week the agency zeroed in on a few hundred of these and mailed them a flyer reproducing some old news clipping about what a great and innovative tiger of a literary agent Mr. Scott Meredith was: the founder of the literary auction and the agent to famous authors and politicians, although he had scornfully turned down Richard Nixon (no doubt a cause of Nixon’s relatively early death). Apparently, the ever-hungry Scott was now voracious for new clients. However, he would naturally have to charge these untested tyros a fee for reading their masterpieces and reporting on them until their marketability and immortal genius had been established beyond doubt.


Anonymous said…
scott Meredith was bad for upcoming writers as well as the publishing buisness itself. May the remainder of his sleazy company fall! Rot in hell SMl!

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