Agenting in the Time of Trump

One of the reasons I took a job at a literary agency, as opposed to a publisher, was that I didn’t want to sacrifice my humanity on the altar of professionalism. Publishing companies employ a lot of individuals with independent spirits, fierce intellects, and keen eyes, but they’re still conglomerates. Most have shareholders, quarterly SEC filings, and the other trappings of latter-day capitalism that to me always felt divorced from the arts.

Imagine now what it must be like to be a feeling, thinking person at Simon & Schuster, which as of this writing has still not pulled the Milo Yiannopoulos book. (It may even wind up published, provided it somehow survives vetting by the legal department.) It isn’t easy to speak out against an employer, even when that employer has decided to give a fascist a quarter of a million dollars while hoping to profit off that hate, capitalizing from the book sales, possibly even footing the bill for an author tour—which, well, a Trump supporter shot a protestor at a Milo Yiannopoulos event at the University of Washington. Who would want to be the publicist stuck scheduling that tour? I don’t envy editors at S&S right now, either; I’d be thinking of staging a walkout! But who knows what the fallout of that would be. There’s no union for book editors. We’re professionals, after all.

I’ve always relished my independence, and do so even more now that we’re faced with the Trump regime and its endless attacks on truth, justice, and the American way. I’m encouraged by my company’s position on the necessity of being political at a time like this—but could I really let someone else in the company be my mouthpiece? Far from it, and after a lot of chiseling, I’ve been able to pull together some of my own thoughts.

Like many other people, within publishing and without, I’ve been engaged in activism since the events of 11/9, and that has only ramped up since the inauguration. I accompanied my wife to the Women’s March at her invitation. I’ve spoken to or faxed Congressional offices, trying to add to the tally of people who support health care for all, who oppose a head of the Department of Education who has no experience at all with public schools—to say nothing of my vocal opposition to hatemonger Steve Bannon. I have felt a moral obligation to do so, and I am grateful that I have a voice to raise, even if it will never reach the eloquence or the fire or the sheer intellectual weight of a James Baldwin or a Rebecca Solnit or a Frederick Douglass.

The morning of 11/9, I went to the childhood home of Theodore Roosevelt with my ten-year-old stepdaughter. There we learned about a flawed man who nonetheless wanted to use his power and privilege to do good. He succeeded in many ways, and makes for an inspiring figure.

Donald J. Trump is no such inspiring figure. He saw the fear in the hearts of rural and small-town white voters, and he said in response, “I am your voice. I alone can fix it.”

The voters that bought into this fear-mongering gave the rest of the country a clear message. They demonstrated that the United States has ethnic nationalists who would rather keep power in the hands of white people, clinging to the past and the celluloid myth of a better America in the Eisenhower years, than face a multicultural, politically correct future that brings with it an unfamiliar way of life. In doing so, they chose nepotism over pluralism.

A different Roosevelt, Franklin Delano, famously noted that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Fear won a narrow victory on 11/9. White officials suppressed the minority vote in swing states because they were afraid of losing, and a narrow majority of white voters chose fear over hope. Now we have an administration that embodies that fear. Trump has done what he said he would do, and the merchants of the old order who so fear change, who so fear the loss of a white ethnic majority, who fear the loss of control of women’s bodies, have been using every weapon in their economic and legal arsenal to fight the public, to spread misinformation, and to maintain control.

It is against that backdrop that I feel it is essential to resist. To paraphrase Woody Guthrie, it is the job of a literary agent to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. In normal times, that usually means helping our clients as best we can, and butting heads with publishers where need be.

And yes, I can offer the most by offering the client services I have already been offering for years. I work with people who speak truth to power, whether in more serious ways or  more entertaining ones. I continue to seek out new voices, #ownvoices, and I want to work with a greater variety of projects written by immigrant authors and those who are from historically marginalized groups. These are the people who make our country, and our world, great, again and again, in spite of the systemic oppression and violence and all the old wounds that the human race has afflicted upon itself since before the dawn of the written word.

In these times, it also means taking the skill set that badgered one particularly tardy publisher to cough up five years of back royalties for a client who’d pretty much given up on them, and using it to fight for our rights as Americans and as human beings. It is essential to resist fascism, essential to stick up for fundamental human rights. My clients will probably always be better at it than I am, but I would never aspire to be “above the fray” when being so would make me complicit in such inhuman acts as turning a five-year-old refugee away at the border.

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