Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Handsome Is: Adventures with Saul Bellow – a memoir by Harriet Wasserman

Could an agent-client relationship start more disastrously? When a notorious womanizing author decides to seduce his agent’s young assistant, Harriet Wasserman is just a girl who can’t say no. After all, it’s Saul Bellow. When their date (and the sex itself!) ends badly, they make the decision to put the unpleasantness behind them as if it never happened.

In the early 70’s “Male Jewish American Writers” were considered the high point of literary culture. Since Diarmuid Russell already represented Bernard Malamud, when his rival agent and partner read a Bellow story in Harper’s Bazaar, Henry Volkening wrote a letter offering his services (Bellow’s first two novels were already out, having been published without benefit of an agent’s negotiating skills).

At that time, young agent assistant Harriet Wasserman already has her hands full: she worked for the two senior partners who were not on speaking terms with each other! The two agents would “communicate” by standing in the hallway outside their respective offices and issuing “proclamations” for the other – and Harriet - to overhear. When both chain-smoking agents contract terminal lung cancer within months one of one another, it’s not long before the young assistant becomes a full fledged partner. She takes on her ex-lover and future Nobel Prize winner as her primary client.

They spoke on the phone at least once a day for more than twenty years. Ms. Wasserman reveals that Bellow trusted her so much that he never read any of his contracts; her say so was enough for him to sign them.

Through Harriet Wasserman’s eyes, we learn about the complex workings of a literary agency as well as get an insider’s look at the publishing biz, including her opinion on exactly what it takes to get a book onto the NYTimes bestseller list.

What’s her advice to agent clerk/assistants on how best to learn about the biz? Read everything you file. “Filing isn’t just filing if you read what you are putting into that folder.”

Of Russell and Volkening’s justification for taking on a particular client: “Their only criterion for taking on representation of a writer was their belief in the work’s high literary quality. They never compromised for commercial reasons. Once they made their commitment, their faith in the author was unshakable, and eventually rewarded, sometimes after years of rejection after rejection.”

Agent/editor feuds are related along with the pros and cons of one- vs. two-book contracts (with or without the vacation rental in Spain thrown in to entice the author to sign). Bellow’s power as a client is also made clear: any unknown writer he recommended got signed by the agency and his publisher.

In one hilarious incident, Bellow, at a public appearance is besieged by a gaggle of wannabes all wanting to foist their manuscripts on him. Always keen to accompany Saul anywhere, Harriet is standing close by. He points her out to the crowd of budding scribes and says: “Oh, here’s my agent. You can talk to her about your manuscript.”

One author recommendation that does pan out for Wasserman is that of Bellow’s late-in-life friend, Allen Bloom. His nonfiction title: THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND not only outsold Bellow’s books, but landed Bloom that most coveted of author positions, a seat on Oprah’s couch. It’s Bloom, not Bellow who brought the agent her biggest commercial success.

She reveals that Volkening taught her a dirty trick, one utilized by agents who are too pressed for time to actually read a manuscript in advance of an author meeting: Just memorize a couple of lines from the MS and recite them back to the author as “proof” they’ve read the entire work.

More revealing was the role Harriet Wasserman played as not only Bellow’s first reader but as critique partner. That the Nobel winner would need constant, ongoing feedback and creative input from his agent on his works-in-progress, that he’d send freshly written sections to her piece-meal for her approval, that he was insecure about his writing and badly hurt by reviews (which he read!), came as surprise because his blustering public image and persona was that of the arrogant, confident literary legend. An astute observer, Ms. Wasserman notes that “the subject of each new work seems often to be a reaction to the criticism of the work that came before it.”

From his trip to Sweden to pick up the Nobel, through his 5 marriages and four divorces, through serious illnesses and fun trips to exotic places, through incredible critical acclaim and harshly negative reviews, through it all Agent Harriet was there at Bellow’s side. But as the great man aged, as his health faltered, Bellow attracted the attention of Andrew Wylie, an agent who prefers that least troublesome and demanding of authors: the dead kind. There are reasons why this carrion sniffer is nicknamed “the jackal.”

Years earlier Wylie had become infamous for making a vulgar and highly public insult of Bellow’s book, MORE DIE OF HEARTBREAK. In spite of the many witnesses to this disgusting gesture, Wylie not only denied it to Bellow but decided to convince the author to sign with him. When Agent Harriet gets tag teamed by “the jackal” along with Bellow’s son (and literary executor) she doesn’t stand a chance. It’s a stunning blow she suffers, but Wasserman relates this final episode without rancor; she leaves the reader to their own outrage over how her 25-year long relationship with Bellow came to its awful end.

Spanning nearly 30 years of the publishing industry, this well written, lively memoir is a must read for anyone who's in the biz or aspires to be in it.