Are good books the ones being published?

book - Alejandro Escamilla
Photo courtesy of Alejandro Escamilla

T.T. Thomas and I recently discussed the role of literary agents. T.T., who’s been represented by one in the past, claimed that being able to recognize talent is a fraction of the skill a good agent must possess. She said:

Being able to judge what’s good and what’s great is only half of the half—gotta know what will sell. The pedestrian minds in this country are the majority, I fear, but hope springs eternal.

Having been assigned to a project team for two weeks earlier this year, T.T. and I know each other only through written correspondence. When asked if she would mind being quoted, she added:

By the way, knowing what will sell is only half of the half, too. An agent, one who is truly well-rounded, will know how to sell. I know agents, usually the more literate and conceptually sophisticated, who can spot a winner from the sales point of view, but they blanch and freeze when it’s time to ask for the sale.

I also know agents who can sell paper to a tree, but they have no idea if the book is good, great or screamingly bad—and it doesn’t matter to that type of agent. Whatever it is, he or she has no problems trying to sell it. The dynamics of the sale do not frighten this type of person, however inadequate his or her appreciation of good literature might be.

On balance, then, a good agent, with a good or great book, might sell it; a great agent, with a good or great book, will sell it. The book will get published; the author will have been represented.

Our conversation was inspired by the June 4 issue of New York magazine, which devotes some space to both new and under-appreciated authors. It includes profiles of six promising creative writing students, nominated by their instructors, along with the magazine’s sheepish request that readers vote for the young writers whose story excerpts they prefer. The vote gathering is not such a bad idea, but there’s no mention of a prize (such as a book contract) for the beleaguered winner.

In any case, I wanted to see if my pedestrian tastes encompassed not only wine but literature. What do you know? I picked the author with yesterday’s highest vote tally, proving I’m ordinary to the core.

You, too, can read and vote for “The Stars of Tomorrow.”

The adjacent magazine article mollified me. It lists 61 professional critics’ picks for the best underrated books of the past decade, including a slim volume sitting on my bookshelf—Achilles by Elizabeth Cook.

The end of the world as we know it

One of the provocative unintended consequences of putting words on the Web is having them recycled. As one who isn’t overly possessive of my own ideas, I’m still intrigued by any reaction to them. Committing words to text subjects them to analysis, and that includes statistical interpretation.

A professor of mine once described how she conducted a statistical analysis of the grammatical structure of a work of literature. It struck me as a particularly sterile and unimaginative way of examining a story, which, as it unfortunately turned out, was also the way she interpreted The Guest for her students’ benefit.

Statistics and the Web are natural companions. Some argue that literature and the Web are not, but I, who read many more book reviews online than I ever would in print, wholeheartedly disagree. I like having such easy access to so many people’s words.

My friend Dominic Celio told me of a website that captures specific phrases from blogs, categorizes them, and plots them. It’s called We Feel Fine. “Have you seen it?” he asked. “It takes a little exploring to get used to it, but I think it is a great idea.”


We Feel Fine’s interfaces are beautifully representative of the individuality it examines. The site’s creators, Jonathan Harris and Sepandar Kamvar, refer to the process as “harvesting human feelings from a large number of weblogs.” The statistics generated don’t seem as objective and impersonal as they might on paper. Still, it’s more than a little overwhelming to be confronted with the data and the various ways it can be sorted.

I shrink from the features that permit me to sort and categorize the emotions accumulated in We Feel Fine’s database. The numbers are too impersonal. Instead, I think about a young man near Dominic’s age in Buenos Aires who wrote these captured words:

i listened to nightwish i danced tango with my friends who have just married i arranged to play tennis next thursday so i feel better now however i know there are things i have to solve to repair the hurt in my heart