In my nightmares, I’m a literary agent representing a descendant of one of the world’s most famous dead people.
I’m in a large, beautiful palace of a courtroom.
Presiding is the Acquisition Editor, a self-important woman
in her mid-30s.
In the jury box are 12 assistants and interns. None is much
more than their mid-20s. All are scowling at me and my client, now sitting
uncomfortably in a chair at the witness stand.
The bailiff has called our case, and I’m just leaving counsel’s
table to begin questioning my witness.
But I’ve not begun my short trek toward my client when the
judge declares, “The jury is dismissed. So is the witness. I will announce the
“But, your Honor,” I say, “Petitioner has not even begun to
put on its case.”
“Objection noted, Counselor. But, at a recent meeting, I
glanced at your lengthy petition, and I’m ready to pronounce the Court’s
Suddenly sensing that the judge resembles a female David Spade in one of those famous “No, no, no” commercials for Capital One, I again attempt to interject. “But don’t you—”
“Counselor,” says the judge, talking right over me, “I have
a large caseload. You’ve never appeared before me. You’ve never taken me to
lunch, much less called to see if I was interested. I don’t have any time to
hear your case.”
“But your Honor, my client is right here. She can fill you
in on critical facts that may not be clear from the Petition. Forget my
questions. Don’t you have any of your own?”
“Counselor, I ordinarily wouldn’t admit this, but if I ask
her any questions, the decision might get more complicated than it is right
now, and my reasons might turn out to be muddled or wrong. Therefore, I prefer
not to give the case any further thought. I hereby decide against your client,
and if you object, Counselor, citing some kind of violation of due process, I
will not respond. Petition denied.”
I awake from this troubling dream, only to realize it was taken from real life. Yes, I actually am in the process of representing a terrific book proposal by a descendant of one of the world’s most famous dead people. And so far, my experience in the cursory courtrooms of acquisition editors, especially those in the biggest and fanciest of publishing houses, leads me to this serious lament.
Are these editors too busy lunching with New York agents or attending fancy social events to indulge their natural curiosity about important proposals? In the course of their work, have these editors lost the ability or desire to express their curiosity through questions? Without these questions, are they satisfied they have enough good information on which to base their decisions? Without answers, are they capable of rendering thoughtful, well-reasoned decisions? Or do they know just enough to dictate a seemingly substantive sentence explaining their rejection in a brief letter or note?
So far, with one editor a notable exception, I know how I’d answer
those questions, and I’m not encouraged.
According to an old saw, the phrase “criminal justice” is an
“Literary justice” may be as well, and the fault, dear readers, may be in its jurists.