I went to see the film made from David Gerrold’s story “The Martian Child” last week. As I’m a diehard John Cusack fan, I enjoyed it. I also have known David for years, so I was curious about how his story would translate to film.
The story itself translated pretty well, I thought. But Hollyweird did its usual number in presenting the main character’s life as a writer, and his relationship with his agent and publisher. (In a word: unrealistic.)
As Michael and I left the theater, it suddenly occurred to me that Hollywood is at least partially to blame for the inordinate numbers of aspiring writers that are scammed by literary agents and publishers these days. The agents and publishers shown on the silver screen bear little to no resemblance to the way it really is, and that helps create a lot of confusion in the public perception.
In “The Martian Child,” the writer, “David Gordon,” has a close personal relationship with his literary agent. The agent comes over to his house frequently, they play golf together, they go out to dinner every few weeks, etc. And, of course, this high-powered agent lives in the same town where David the writer lives. The agent continually begs David the writer to let him read a bit of what he’s working on, giving the impression that if David handed him manuscript, he’d plop down on the curb without moving another step and read it then and there.
This is hardly an isolated instance of Hollywood’s skewed portrayal of the publishing industry. Remember Romancing the Stone with Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas? At the end of the movie, we see Kathleen Turner’s romance writer character sitting in her editor’s office, having just brought in the ms. for her new book. The editor is reading the last page of the ms., and crying like a wee infant. The editor looks up, eyes brimming with tears, and tells her writer that she’s wonderful, the story is wonderful, it’s the best thing she’s ever read, etc., etc.
Need I tell you sophisticated folks who read this blog that these kinds of things are completely unrealistic? My agent and I have certainly shared meals on many occasions (I’ve been with her since 1984). We even went horseback riding at my house together on one notable occasion. But I’m a longtime client, and we get along well together, and always have. Still I suspect I could count on the fingers of one hand the social (not business) interactions we’ve shared in the 23 years of our association.
I believe that Hollywood’s distorted portrayal of agents and publishers inadvertently softens up aspiring writers, making them vulnerable to the blandishments of scammers. Imagine a writer who knows nothing about how things work in publishing (and hasn’t done a speck of research, of course). This writer may have submitted her book to a real agent or two, almost by acccident, only to receive cold form-letter rejections. Then our writer queries Bouncin’ Bobby or Cris Robins or Leanne Murphy or any experienced fee-charging bottom-feeder. And voila! The writer is suddenly told, in the warmest, friendliest possible terms that her book has “promise,” that the agent wants to “represent” it. Even if the scuzzball doesn’t say it right out, the implications are clear: “I like you, I like your book, we’re going to be good buddies and you’re going to have a career, just like those writers you see on television and in the movies!!!”
No wonder they fall willingly into those fee-charging arms.
There’s an old joke told among professional writers, one that aspiring writer types never “get.” Seems there is a writer who has (typically) missed his important deadline for turning in his latest book. This writer comes home from yet another session of procrastinating, rather than writing, to find chaos surrounding his house. Police cars are slewed all over the road, fire trucks are pouring water on his burning roof, his wife has a black eye, his children are sobbing hysterically. The writer leaps from his car and races over to the nearest cop. “What happened?” he yells.
“Well, sir,” says the officer, “it seems that your literary agent was here to talk to you about your missed deadline, and when you weren’t home, he went ballistic. Punched out your wife, terrified your children, and then set fire to your house. He’s still at large.”
The writer stares at the officer, his mouth agape in incredulous shock. For a moment he can’t even speak, then he whispers, “My agent…came…to MY HOUSE?”
-Ann C. Crispin
Chair, Writer Beware