Twelve seconds and two piles

I once met Rachel Calder at the University. Yes, I mean the famous literary agent who runs Sayle, one of England’s oldest literary agencies. And no, I didn’t meet her for twelve seconds. I had a very helpful, proper, sit-down meeting with her, and she spent a considerably long time, perhaps fifteen minutes, with me. I am thankful, and always will be.

It was a very helpful meeting, because, she demonstrated how exactly a literary agent looks at your work. (I do not know if other agents would agree if she is representative of all agents or not, but she seemed to imply so.) I had my cover letter, Synopsis and the first chapter of my old, now abandoned, novel. I will try to reproduce the scene as accurately as I can. First, let me shift to present tense; it works better that way. She is sitting across a round table with a glass top, in a dimly lit room. Light from a shaded lamp falls on her from her right. She is very well dressed; it’s a winter evening, and I like her sense of style. She wears spectacles with a simple, thin, stylish, black frame. I am as formally dressed as I can, in all black and grey. Now it starts. I should warn you, of course, the speech is reproduced from memory, so it can never be accurate. Besides, I cannot write native English speech with any authenticity. So, consider the following as just a summary, not the actual conversation.

She greets me warmly enough for a cold evening; I sit down. I have a set of my papers with me, in a neat docket in slate grey paper, which I shopped for that evening. But these get wasted as the University has already made these available to her, well, without the docket; I had sent them to the Faculty Leader who was coordinating this meeting. So, she takes my cover letter, glances through it in three or four seconds. Then the synopsis; here she spends another eight seconds. So a total of twelve. During these eight seconds, she says: “Okay, Cochin…seventeenth century…the Dutch-Portuguese period. Interesting!”

I feel relieved. She leaves my papers on the tabletop and looks at me, with the air of a doctor who keeps aside the biopsy report and prepares himself to tell you you have a little cancer in your abdomen, or any other part of your anatomy. I want to tell her, “You did not see my first chapter”. But I don’t. If my memory is not flawed, she removes her spectacles at this point. She leans forward. ‘Very interesting’, she says, ‘I think I should keep it aside to read later’. I feel better. Then she adds: ‘John, every morning when I get to work, I have these eight to ten submissions. I go through them, exactly as I went though yours. I don’t have the whole day to go though submissions; I have many appointments waiting, with many clients, publishers and so on. So, I keep these two piles. If a submission appears to be uninteresting, it goes to the pile called “rejected.” She stops. Should I say anything, I wonder. ‘If the submission seems very promising, I keep it in the pile called ‘‘to be read’’. She resumes. ‘And it is in that pile I would keep your submission.’ I am reassured. Rachel Calder, the head of Sayle, the agency that represented James Joyce, is going to read my first chapter. Then the second. And then, the decisive third. After that, she is going to call me. No, I don’t think she can wait till morning. She is going to call me in the night. I think. At that moment, I hear her speak again. ‘That means, you are out. Because I never have time to read anything from the “promising, to be read pile”. I never read them. So, you will not be read ever’. My fragile spirit, which is sitting on the table’s glass-top like a useless piece of crystal, falls on the wooden floor and shatters. She doesn’t notice; she explains: ‘To be read, your work has to be so compelling at a glance, that I am forced to cancel most of my appointments for the day, and I should just sit down and read it. If that doesn’t happen, you don’t ever get read’.  I am still listening, trying to look like as if I won a lottery. I realize I haven’t spoken a word after greeting her. But I cannot think up anything to speak, which could make a difference. But this is not a fair way to judge a literary work, I think. She speaks as if she can hear me think: ‘you may think that is an unfair and haphazard way to judge a book. There may be many great books that are not so compelling at a brief glance. But unfortunately, that is how the industry operates’.

I do not think she said anything after that. If she did, I did not hear. As I walk home in the cold Cambridge night, with the large and beautiful Christ’s Pieces to my right, (don’t ask me which pieces, it’s a park’s name!) I realize we are living in a world where everything is judged in a glance. To be successful, you need to survive that crucial, yet lazy, glance. I conclude I can never be so interesting at a glance. So I decide not to care anymore. I swear I am not going to write thinking I can ever interest an agent or a publisher. I decide I am writing to leave behind something of value, not necessarily to sell. If my work has any true value, someone sometime is going to stop by and notice. And if my work doesn’t have value that survives its wait, perhaps years or decades or centuries, it should remain unknown. As someone dear to me told me once, Vincent van Gogh did not sell even one painting in his lifetime. By the time I reach the dark Tennis Court Road, I feel better. ‘Thanks Ms Calder; you saved me the stress of being in the rat race; I am not running’, I say to myself. It is so liberating, I realize, to be working with total disregard to the market and its twelve-second glances.

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