Back in the eighties when I had one novel done and had been publishing short stories, I landed Harriet Wasserman, a big-time agent who had previously worked at the prestigious Russell and Volkening agency. Snagging her made me feel I was truly launched as an author. Up to that point, I had only one fiction publication: a short story in Redbook which had won a prize at my MFA program, made me a lot of money at the time, and garnered fan mail. The judge of the contest was Martha Foley who had been editing the yearly anthology Best American Short Stories, and Redbook had an audience of 4.5 million readers. But after that, I hit a wall and couldn’t get anything else published for five years.
Wasserman invited me to lunch at a classy restaurant, told me she loved my novel and that my short fiction was ready for The New Yorker. I felt that I was truly launched as an author.
Wasserman’s outer office was filled with copies of books in many languages by her major client Saul Bellow, bookcase after bookcase trumpeting his fame and her connection to him. Having her as my agent made life seem golden. And yes, I admit it: I assumed that sooner or later I would meet Bellow somehow—or at the very least, that Wasserman could secure a blurb from him for my novel Winter Eyes about Holocaust survivors trying to start a new life in New York.
What happened next was like a bad love affair: she never wrote, she never called—what had I done wrong? Wasserman never sent me copies of rejection letters from editors, so I had no idea where the book had been submitted. The only actual response she shared was that an editor at Knopf thought my novel was “too short.” She rarely answered my written queries or returned my phone calls, and after a year and half of this bizarre treatment, I gave up and ended the relationship by registered mail, swearing I would go it alone from then on. I felt burned.
It turns out that I was actually lucky to drop her as my agent because in the 90s, Wasserman was accused of not passing on royalty checks to her clients who included major authors like Oscar Hijuelos, Richard Bausch, Alice McDermott, and Reynolds Price. She’d lost Bellow to a more famous rival agent, Andrew Wylie, was apparently furious, and wrote a confessional memoir about her devotion to Bellow who took most of her time, it seemed, and even took her to bed.
Unagented, my novel ended up being accepted by St. Martin’s Press and I had fantastic editing and copy-editing there. Though I did go on to work other agents, some of whom were duds in different ways, my first agent won the prize for most unprofessional. Ironically, over the years the books that earned me the most money were books I sold by myself. I should have seen that first experience as an omen.