Documents for a Museum of Publishing?

The Killing of an Author is the story of a writer with a dream, a quest for freedom and justice, and a quest that also comments, in its later chapters, on institutional racism (as well as the subversive-crushing element) in publishing ... but in a way, many of my major books do. And I feel I have recently been shut out of the conversation ... so far. Only The Revised Kama Sutra received considerable attention ... but when the West snorted at it (on the whole), India (I mean the Establishment), until then giving it a rave reception, followed suit.

[Finally, after Charleston and Eric Garner and a number of unarmed black teens fatally shot by police for minor non-crimes, it has suddenly became permissible, in America, to talk about institutional racism. Until that moment, anyone who mentioned the subject was slapped with a canned response: "Race Card!"

But people (some people, Fox News and its vast booboisie following excluded) have now opened their eyes and realized that, despite mega-actor Will Smith, Literary Shah-en-shah Salman Rushdie and President Barack Obama, institutional racism is still prevalent for the vast majority.]

These are the afterthoughts to one of the most powerful chapters in my book, The Killing of an Author--not surprisingly, a chapter that the Publishers Weekly reviewer chose to remain silent about (and you can easily guess why when you read the book).

The chapter is titled "The Scott Meredith Literary Agency," and here are my reflections on that chapter, in 2015.

So there we were, six fee-agents in our cubbyholes, many of whom (with one notable exception, sci-fi prodigy Barry Malzberg) had not ever written a novel or at least not acquired enough critical experience to pretend to give the detailed critiques that seasoned literary agents with at least two decades of publishing experience could give. We pretended to be such agents; our reports were signed “Scott Meredith,” and they used the first person frequently, as in “my fellow agents” and “as I said to my client Isaac Asimov the other day.” That was the element that was fraudulent—highly fraudulent—that we were pretending to give them what they expected: $200 (in 1981 and 1983 dollars, which the equivalent of at least $300 in 2015) worth of critique.
Or, to put myself in the shoes of the client. Sure, if I as a writer with a novel that I had worked on for four years was willing to pay for a $200, four-page critique by a seasoned agent and take my chances, including my chances of being discovered and represented, it would be what I deserved, and probably more than a fair value—if indeed an agent with twenty years of experience and a list of famous clients wrote it.  But if I had been told that someone just out of university, even with a Master’s Degree in Literature (and a 3.8 Grade Point Average, as I did have), would be lecturing me about writing and the publishing experience, and half of that would consist of canned bullshit—even though at least one-quarter of that might be very perceptive and right on (which, speaking of myself as the faux “agent”, I sometimes was), I would probably not pay at all; or at least, I might be willing to pay $50, and perhaps more for an exceptionally good critique--but it would have to be my considered, informed decision.

Which—$50—would, at the time, have constituted very fair wages to me, the “agent” (or Superagent Scott Meredith’s Mini-Me).  Because I was actually getting paid just $20 per novel, or ten percent of what the client had paid Scott.

So what have I and people like me to say in their defense for what they were doing? First of all, I didn’t even fully understand the system (the financial aspect of it, and the aspect of “pretense,” and the relative absurdity of it all) when I was offered the job. All I knew was that I had gotten a job in which I would be paid for writing, writing about books, writing at length, in a literary agent’s office ... and possibly with a chance to have my own novel accepted when it was ready. It was also the first job of any kind I was offered in New York, to which I had just moved along with my wife; we had very little money in our pockets, and she, too, had just gotten her first job ... so it was a very tense time for us, and it was a matter of "manhood" for me to contribute my share to the expenses of starting life in a strange city. (This concept or burden of manhood was something I was to accept, reject, or minimize as time went by—as a somewhat more of a social construct and a lesser value than art, accomplishment, and creating the kind of novel that no one had ever written before--which I, and some others, believe I eventually did.)

So the job was like a lifesaver thrown to someone who had, at many employment agencies, been asked to take a typing test ... and sometimes, disqualified or openly refused without any test.

So what is the reality, then, in the publishing industry--at least the reality that existed around fifteen years back? Many would-be writers or would-be editors enter the publishing industry at very low starting salaries, or as unpaid or semi-paid interns, all in the hope that, sometime soon, they will get a promotion, and eventually end up earning six-figure salaries as agents or senior editors in big publishing companies. If those who enter thus have a trust fund or family money to back them up, or come from elite universities, they can afford to leave a job they discover to have unethical components; in any case, they get promoted up the ranks very quickly: class is still a factor in elite circles. When I interviewed for a job at The National Lampoon (the humorous/satirical magazine), I noticed, later, that everyone who worked there came from Harvard or the Harvard Lampoon, and that, probably, they had called me in just out of curiosity. (In any case, I'm terrible at interviews; I'm usually much better than the way I present myself, which is shy, anxious, diffident. And I never went to charm school.)

So, in an unjust system, I had become an instrument, an unwitting tool of injustice and of exploitation. We were exploited, and in turn we (the realization took a bit of time) exploited or deceived other writers. The only salve to our conscience was this: What is the alternative? Do you have a better job for me? And if I don’t take this job, will not someone else jump at the chance to take my place?

Four months later, I did leave the job—to join my prestigious Indian job, which was at the time, also was a position and a symbol of power. But I didn't remain in there for too long, because I missed my wife, who had chosen to stay back in New York, happy with her new job (also, we had not yet decided whether to return to India for good). So I returned nine months later, and finding the search for a new job in New York difficult once again, returned to the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, which was at least a known devil ... until I found the courage to reject this concept of manhood altogether, leave the job (after having written a few subversive letters that alerted a few of Scott's clients!), and start working on my novel (by which time, our financial circumstances had improved considerably, and I had also found a part-time teaching position as Adjunct Professor of English).

The question that others must ask is: how was this system possible? How did Norman Mailer, Isaac Asimov, the estate of P.G. Wodehouse, and the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy NOT discover that their agent was an unethical man who exploited poor or unknown writers (and his weak employees), and choose a different agent? Why did publishing houses not refuse to work with this agency? This is what the System did: it purchased souls, it purchased loyalty, it purchased justification—for whenever people who occupy chairs in publishing houses and agencies pretend to pronounce on your novel or the literary work of your life, often being interns or persons with barely any experience who have hardly glanced at your novel, but have been giving the job of disposing of the slush pile with fake reviews, if need be ... they have to find reasons to justify it to themselves. And then, they start to believe these reasons, as I almost did, getting out just in time, before I was totally corrupted. (Had I been the sole provider in a family with young children, would I have had that luxury? Not really.)

By the way, I am still in possession of photocopies of many of the “reports” that I wrote: around 100 pages, which I photocopied before leaving, knowing that they contained my literary labors, and that I would be telling this story sometime, and knowing that I had been exploited and underpaid by my employer. I am willing to sell these papers to a potential collector, because they belong to some Museum of Injustice or Museum of Western Publishing—which we need to have, because the increasing corporatization of the publishing industry means that there will be fewer and fewer stories to tell (and don't let the Amazon phenomenon tell you otherwise--the freedom I get from publishing on Amazon is meaningless, it means my book is visible to me ... and someone who is determined to burrow under a mountain of Amazon-pushed books to find my masterpiece ... that's all). However, I need the airfare, plus expenses, to get to the place where these papers and my other writings are stored; thanks to financial difficulties, I have been separated from them for the last fourteen years. So, the airfare could be set off against the price I am paid for these papers. Those of you who support what I have written (which one Asian Age reviewer described as "going where no Indian writer has gone before") and wish to encourage my quest, could also consider purchasing one or more paperbacks of my books at (all the books there except "The Taste of Water" are mine).

Because, as writers, we should never cease to hope ... and never give up, and never be afraid of telling the truth. Or this is what I said to around one dozen members of the audience that decided to spend a recent Friday the 13th evening listening to me speak about writing.And that is what, in my best moments, I have tried to practice.


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