This is Not a Scene from Mean Girls: what #queryfail and #agentfail really say about the literary world

I've been semi-following the #queryfail and #agentfail debacle for some time, with guarded interest.  Yes, a morbid part of me wants to watch a bunch of authors and agents have a web 2.0 go at each other, just as a morbid part of me loves cheesy action flicks and sappy romances (it's entertainment, pure and simple).  But frankly, the whole thing also makes me feel dirty: I don't like thinking that the agent-author relationship has been reduced to a high school drama, because, if you really want the truth, I'm not any good at dealing with high school drama, and I don't want it to be true that a world I fundamentally respect, in spite of its faults, is no more virtuous than some bitchy cafeteria. So it's been interesting trawling through the ostensibly educational comments that agents have made about authors, and vice versa.  And, yes, it's so terrible, the agents are just so mean, and, like, really, can I help it if they don't think my last name will look good on the cover of a book?  And equally, those agents are rats, they never respond, and ohmygod all I want is a form rejection letter but boo-hoo they're too busy on Twitter and Facebook and getting drunk at inappropriate hours to spend ten seconds on the masterpiece that took me ten years.

But still.  So much has already been written about all this since #queryfail debuted as an idea in March that I couldn't really find anything to write about it that wouldn't seem like a needless rehash (no pun intended) of a needlessly popular topic.  But yesterday, something clicked in my mind as I was reading this post by Jean Hannah Edelstein on the Guardian's book blog.  For several paragraphs the post is a spectacularly uninteresting, though possibly necessary, reminder that literary agents do a lot more than sip champagne at the Ivy over glamorous lunchtime meetings.  But towards the end of her post Edelstein finally hits upon something genuinely intriguing.  "Agents serve as a crucial linchpin," she writes, "...ensuring that the publisher-author relationship stays positive so that nuanced contractual disagreements don't get in the way of the writing and editing of a good book."  She then reminds us of a growing trend, whereby writers, frustrated perhaps by the enormity of the conventional publishing-machine, the hoops, the rejections, the time spent crafting fiddly query letters which may or may not end up hash-tagged to the general amusement of a thousand onlookers, hungry for fodder or a quick ego-boost, reject the machine entirely and bray that self-publishing will bring about the happy end to literary agents.

"All of which is fine," writes Edelstein, "so long as these writers are happy to devote their lives to all of the extensive hard work that goes in to making a book exist – and sell – long after the final words have been written. The problem, of course, is that all of this work is so extensive that it can really eat in to your writing time."

Funny, that.  Edelstein has hit upon something that many of us, as writers, may have forgotten in the scramble to get back at the cruel agents who participated in #queryfail, or may have forgotten even before the first Twitter-savvy agent hit "#": the point of obtaining a literary agent, surely, is not so we can make another tick in the success column and feel that somehow, we've won the game.  It's so that we can commence a complicated and rewarding relationship with someone who will, ultimately, allow us to do what we most desperately want to do: write for an audience.  Agents are enablers, not sticker-happy 2nd grade teachers who are there merely to reward our hard work.

So how has it come to this?  I don't know for sure, but I can hazard a guess.  The problem is not that writers, as a species, are fundamentally stupid and self-loathing, nor that agents are universally vitriolic and inhuman.  The problem, as illustrated by the #queryfail and #agentfail trends, but certainly not started by them, is that somewhere along the line, the literary world stopped being so much about words and ideas and started being about winning and losing.

We see this every day.  The only aspect of the literary world that's continually stressed is that it's competitive.  As a writer, it's all you hear.  Publishing houses, literary agencies, newspapers, magazines, tiny online literary journals, seem to exist solely to remind us of the unlikelihood of our success, to remind us that from the vast pool of writhing would-be authors, we're probably not going to be picked out as special.  It's not personal, just circumstantial: statistics matter most.

I understand the necessity of reminding people that they need to work hard, produce nothing but the best--it keeps you from becoming lazy, from thinking for even a moment that you do not have to care deeply about what you do and then spend more time than you thought possible crafting and nurturing every sentence.  What I don't understand is why that's all we're ever reminded of, and I applaud Edelstein for suggesting that there's more depth to the agent-author relationship than failing or not failing.

So the problem with #queryfail and #agentfail, and the subsequent deluge of commentary about both, is not that either is fundamentally unfair, mean-spirited, or an example of Twitter gone wrong.  But neither can we laud #queryfail and #agentfail for providing a much-needed insight into the minds of agents and authors--articles attempting to glean anything useful from the stream of drivel and hilarity, such as this one, fall spectacularly flat (anyone who is seriously looking for an agent already knows to read submission guidelines like they're going to save your life).  What we can do, however, is wonder why we're so worried about failure, and so desperately convinced that writing and publishing is some sort of blood sport, that we've forgotten to do whatever it is we love--and, more crucially, forgotten that each party, the agents, the authors, needs the other.