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Are Literary Agents and Publishers Racists or Just Dumb?

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Guest Post by Jason Hill

“Are agents and publishers racists, or just plain dumb?” I ask my friend Cassandra as we sip our cappuccinos in Café Einstein in Unter den Linden in Berlin where I’ve been holed up on sabbatical for five months writing my third book, and where she is on a quick business trip to secure the foreign rights for a client.

Cassandra is an American literary agent who specializes in Chick Lit. She grins sheepishly and then says emphatically: both. Cassie has heard this question before. I’ve published two non-fiction books—my latest one last week, Beyond Blood Identities, with a great publisher—but cannot for the life of me get my novel, Jamaica Preacher Man published. It’s been turned down now by over forty agents, all of whom praise it for its virtues but end up saying: “This is just not for us.”

Cassie orders another coffee—American this time—either that or we are going to Starbucks for a pint-sized real coffee. It’s what she hates about Europe—they’re so stingy with the coffee. Why can’t they serve cappuccinos in soup bowls? She asks indignantly. Cassie is from Idaho and don’t ask how a guy from Jamaica became good friends with a gal from Idaho. We met in college in 1991. She was a real Diva wearing heels and pearls to class, and at the end of the lecture I asked her if her pearls were from Van Cleef and Arpels. We became inseparable after that. Cassie wanted to be a Hollywood Star, failed miserably and decided to join a literary agency. She wishes she could take me on as a client, but my story ain’t exactly Chick Lit material. She does not know of agents who would take on international fiction because she moves in Chic Lit circles.

Listen, Cassie says to me, fixing me squarely with her huge blue eyes while she periodically looks around in exasperation for our waiter. Agents predict what publishers will want and they give it to them. Publishers think agents will spot the next “new thing,” whatever that is, and deliver it to them. If there has been one single Jamaican novel published in the last three years you can forget it. Been there done that!

But it’s not fair, I protest. Hundreds of Chick Lit novels get published each year. Hello! She interrupts: Let’s just say thousands get published. Why is that? I ask, knowing she’s exaggerating the numbers. She shrugs. Blame it on Sex and The City. Blame it on the modern, autonomous, liberated urban woman. There is a deep level of narcissism in it all, she confesses. These women want to see themselves depicted in the characters in novels they read. They are insatiable. They love recognizing themselves. We give them psychological visibility.

You give them trash, I counter.

Steaming coffee in hand, Cassie ignores my remark and delivers the facts: You’re a black man writing a literary novel—not supposed to be happening, she says. Furthermore, you’re competing with other ethnic writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie the Nigerian novelists and now this other Nigerian fellow who wrote some short stories Oprah loved. She can’t remember his name. I choose not to mention I know who she’s talking about. She goes on. The perception is that the American readership can only handle a handful of ethnic novels, as they are referred to, each year. Plus. She takes a huge gulp of her coffee, but her eyes never leave my face. Black men don’t read—at least that’s the perception. People will assume your writing should appeal to black men.

Jesus Christ, I say a bit too loudly. I’m writing for a wide readership, folks who enjoy plot-driven and character-driven literary fiction. People who read the New Yorker. I thought editors and publishers were supposed to shape sensibilities rather than slavishly follow them.

Cassie gives my hand a quick rub. She reassures me that she’s read my novel twice. She thinks it really is good, structurally brilliant and that the characters are as complex and the relationships as ambivalent as in real life. I even cried, she says. But then adds: But all Chic Litters cry after some scene or another. You don’t understand how things have changed. They want a repeat of what’s been successfully done already, nothing too original. Cassie eyes me nervously and I know she’s itching to say something. What? What? I demand. Okay, she says. Now see, if you were a black woman writing about slavery but from a different angle. Part of Women’s Romance. A plantation owner who falls in love with his beautiful black slave. She nods knowingly. Trust me, that would be snapped up and Oprah would produce the movie. I can’t resist, so I say: but a black male slave who falls in love with his white slave mistress? She makes a funny face. People—women would find that disgusting, and white men would be pissed off that she loved him back. They’d get angry.

I lean back and just let the depression sink in. I begin to wonder who these people are, these readers she’s describing. You’ll find an agent. You will. You will. You will, she repeats like some shop-worn mantra. She goes on and on to re-praise the virtues of the novel. She tells me of the women who faced numerous rejections when the Chick Lit genre was burgeoning. I’m grateful she does not tell me to become an honorary white woman and start writing Chic Lit novels for educated white middle-class women. Anything is possible from Cassie! She sure as hell lifts my spirits by telling that she sold four books at auction in the last eight months—igniting a bidding war in the process, and that two sold for over $400,000. A movie deal is in the works for one of them.

I lean forward and think about the novel I’ve written—the thing that is just not for them. This coming of age story of a twelve-year-old boy in Jamaica. Set primarily in the violent socialist regime of Michael Manley during the 1970s, but in the United States as well, Brockton Findley, the book’s protagonist, learns painfully to accept his emerging homosexuality in an extremely homophobic country that kills gay people on sight, and to come to terms with the brutal rape and murder of his best friend, Sonya. Sonya’s death is one among many murders and rapes of friends that Brockton endures in the country’s volatile political milieu. Much of the novel centers on the close relationship between Brockton and his father, Basil. We see, along with Brockton, the man’s descent into madness, as he comes to believe that he is Jesus Christ. Brockton endures a traumatic purification ritual conducted by his father to heal him of his homosexuality that could have cost him his life.

The novel is also a political and family saga of both the maternal and paternal sides of Brockton’s family. Told in both the first person and the third person voices, the novel introduces us to Brockton’s maternal great-grandfather and great-great grandfather, Sephardic Jews who left Syria for Jamaica in the 19th century. The story unpacks their marriages, the lives of their children, and the hardships they endured as Jews in the British colonies. Jamaica Preacher Man offers a rare glimpse into 19th-century Jewish Jamaica right after the emancipation of slavery and the triumph of one Jewish man in the face of immense prejudice.

We learn why Brockton’s paternal grand-father, Charles Findley, came to be placed in a detention camp by the British government in 1943. Charles was the country’s leading pioneer in the independence movement—a communist who preached revolutionary insurgency, a trade unionist, and author. During his detention his wife, Anna, was pregnant with their fifth child. We come to understand the nature of the painful love affair between Anna and Colin Montgomery, the British officer who was Charles’ personal jailer, and just how close that affair came to costing her husband his freedom.

The novel about relationships and how they indelibly mark the lives of those who are coerced into them. It is the story of Brockton’s intense relationship with a possessive mother whose emotional security lies in his hands. It is about his estrangement from his brother, Yannick, to whom he was close before his mother claimed him, Brockton, as her favorite. The novel is about the only safe haven the boy can find in this world: dreams of living in America and the company of his maternal grandmother, whose husband committed suicide in the presence of his two grandchildren, Yannick and Brockton. Not only does Brockton have to deal with this tragedy in the midst of a severe drought, massive power outages, and states of emergency, in the end he must also make a choice between his father and the world he longs to live in, America—a choice that will forever change his life and destiny

Cassie, I say, after going over the novel again in my mind. There are choices that we have to make in life and we have to live with them. I knew I’d have a struggle; I never knew it would be so insurmountable. But this story has to be told. I don’t and will never believe that American agents and publishers are racists. Never. I would never have come to this country if I did think that. I think aside from having become corporate cr
eatures they’re simply scared. I’ve seen it in the rejection notes I’ve received from so many of them. They go against their intuitions, those that tell them they have something special and fall back into the de-fault emotion of fear. This climate is simply not one that fosters and maintains excitement and enthusiasm. I tell her I have to go. She asks me what’s the rush. I tell Cassie that there are ten more agents I have to write to before the end of the afternoon. We kiss on the cheeks, and hold hands while I promise to see her when I return to New York in late December.

Then I turn and walk quickly. I walk into a world I cannot claim to understand, nor always love. I walk towards uncertainty and a future that frightens me every time I open my eyes in the morning. I walk towards a word filled with insensitivity and a profound lack of refinement. I walk towards a world I am convinced does not care any more for me than it does for anyone else. I am, in the end, nothing special. I walk towards a world of silence in mourning and in solitude.

I walk into this world because it is the only one I have.

Jason D Hill's latest book is Beyond Blood Identities. The Amazon link is here.