The Three Hard Truths About Agents

by Dennis Palumbo

There's an old joke about the relationship between writers and agents: a writer comes home to find police and fire trucks crowding the street. As he scrambles out of his car, he sees that there's nothing left of his house but a pile of black dust and smoking embers. Stricken, he asks the officer in charge what happened. The cop shakes his head and says, 'Well, it looks like your agent came to your house, murdered your entire family, took all your valuables, then burned the place to the ground.'

To which the writer responds, with an astonished smile: 'My agent came to MY HOUSE?'

A telling joke. As a former Hollywood screenwriter, and now a psychotherapist who works with writers, I'm very familiar with the complicated, symbiotic connection between writers and agents.

However, asked to write something here about agents, I feel uneasy. Not because I don't have strong opinions about them, having had varied experiences, good and bad, with agents over a twenty-year span. What makes any discussion of agents so difficult is that, in my view, the most important aspects of a writer's relationship with his or her agent have almost nothing to do with the agent, and everything to do with the writer.

Let's face it. If there's a relationship that's as shrouded in mythology, half-truths and just plain misconceptions as that between agent and client, I've never heard of one. Who's read A. Scott Berg's biography of Maxwell Perkins without thinking, 'Jeez, I wish I had an agent like HIM?' That is, until you read about some of the deals legendary agent Swifty Lazar got for HIS clients.

On the down side, we all know horror stories about agents abandoning clients, misrepresenting them, assailing their work, diminishing their esteem. Even the best agents 'blow hot and cold' with their writers, or get distracted by the excitement of snagging a new, WUNDERKIND client.

So, before talking about what the writer needs to recognize as his or her own contribution to the sometimes puzzling, often painful relationship between writer and agent, let's list some sobering facts:

First, your agent is not your parent. It's not the agent's job to encourage, support or validate your creative ambitions, INSOFAR AS THEY REFLECT YOUR INNER NEED TO BE LOVED AND CHERISHED. Such needs were your birthright, and hopefully, were given to you during your childhood. If, however, they were not, it's not an agent's job to pick up the slack.

Secondly, your agent is in business to make money. This is not a crime against humanity, an affront to the arts, or a personal repudiation of your aesthetic dreams. It is just a fact.

And, lastly, while your agent may indeed admire your talent, and share with you lofty creative and financial goals, he or she is not inclined or obligated to care about them as much as you do. In fact, NO ONE cares about your career as much as you do. Which means the burden of worrying about your artistic aspirations, income, reputation in the field, and level of personal and professional satisfaction rests entirely on your shoulders.

These three points aside, what every writer needs to understand is that the very nature of the artist's position in society contributes to the asymmetry of the relationship between writer and agent. The moment a writer offers his or her work for evaluation to the marketplace -- whether to a book publisher, a magazine editor, a film producer or a TV network -- that writer is instantly placed in the vulnerable position analogous to that of child to care-giver. Since the marketplace holds the power to validate one's work, it retains the ability to mirror back to the writer either affirming or shaming messages about the writer's worth.

When dealing with an agent -- a person equally embedded in the machinery of the marketplace -- the writer's vulnerabilities encourage him or her to either exaggerate or minimize the agent's opinion; to place an unrealistic burden on the relationship with an agent, in terms of its providing solace and support; and to use, as a child does, the agent's responses as a mechanism for emotional self-regulation.

The reality is, this primarily fiduciary arrangement can't tolerate such burdens. The writer expects too much in the way of esteem-building, validation and empathy. Like those who claim to be looking for a 'soul mate' in their romantic relationships -- which often betrays a desire for an exact mirror image of oneself so as to minimize conflicts -- a writer who searches ardently for an agent who really 'gets' him or her at a profound level is doomed to disappointment.

Which means that every unreturned phone call by the agent, every less-than-ecstatic response to a new piece of work, every real or imagined shift in vocal tonality during a conversation is experienced by the writer as a concrete indicator of one's self-worth. The wise writer understands this, if only theoretically, and should at least strive to keep his or her relationship with an agent in context. Maybe it will lessen the blows, whatever they are and whenever they come. Then again, maybe it won't.

On the other hand, unlike one's parents, if you don't like your agent, you can always try another one. You'll probably discover that each new agent is just DIFFERENT, not better, than the last. And that when it comes to agents, 'soul mates' are few and far between.

Which is good, because then you can get back to your writing, the one true source of any success -- financial or otherwise -- you're likely to enjoy.

Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter, etc.), Dennis Palumbo, M.A., MFT is now a licensed psychotherapist in private practice, specializing in creative issues. The above article is adapted from his new book, 'Writing From the Inside Out.'

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