What We Talk About When We Talk About Rejection, Part One

My boss "Steve," a literary agent, was talking. "Steve" is a literary agent, and sometimes that gives him the right. The four of us were sitting around the conference table drinking bourbon. It was Friday afternoon. Fluorescent light filled the conference room from the big fixture on the ceiling. There were "Steve" and me and Cretinous and his seventh assistant Winston--Winston, we called him. We lived in New York. But we were all from somewhere else. There were takeout containers on the table. The bourbon kept going around, and we somehow got on the subject of books. "Steve" thought real literature was nothing less than literary literature. When he was young he'd spent twenty years as an editor before quitting to become an agent. He'd left editing for good, he said, but he still looked back on those years as the most important in his life.

Winston said the agent he assisted before he assisted Cretinous loved him so much she tried to promote him. Cretinous laughed as Winston said this. He made a face. Winston looked at him. Then Winston said, "She told me I have what it takes to be a real agent. She kept saying, 'You can do it, don't you see? You don't have to be an assistant any more.' But she wouldn't pay me. My paychecks kept bouncing." Winston looked around the table at us and then looked at his hands on his glass. "What do you do with a boss like that?" he said. He was a nervous person with a gentle face, dark eyes, and brown hair that was cut short. He liked ties with penguins on them, and old-fashioned cufflinks. He was forty years younger than Cretinous, had suffered periods of melancholy, and during the late nineties, before he'd gotten his MFA, had been a stockbroker, a "stuffed suit," as he put it. Cretinous sometimes, unaffectionately, forgot Winston's name.

"My god, don't be silly. You can't be an agent, and you know it," Cretinous said. "You're not clever enough. You can't even put letterhead in the printer the right way. I don't know what you are, but you're sure as hell no agent. "

"Say what you want to, but I know she was right," Winston said. "I know she was right. It may sound crazy to you, but it's true just the same. Agents are different, Cretinous. Sure, sometimes she tried to sell film rights herself, okay. But she was a good agent. In her own way, she was a good agent. And she knew I had what it took, Cretinous. Don't deny me that."

Cretinous let out his breath. He held his glass and turned to "Steve" and me. "She rejected John Grisham," Cretinous said. He finished his drink and reached for the whiskey bottle. "Winston's a nincompoop. Winston hits 'reply-all' instead of 'reply to sender.' Winston will always be an assistant. Winston, don't look at me that way." Cretinous's scowl could have stood up on its own and walked across the table.

"Now he wants to cut me down," Winston said. "Always cutting me down." He wasn't smiling.

"Cut you down?" Cretinous said. "I know what I know, and that's all."

"What would you call it then?" Winston said. "How'd we get started on this subject, anyway?" Winston said. He raised his glass and drank from it. "I thought we were supposed to be talking about manuscripts." He snuffled now, weeping quietly, and I thought that would be the end of it.

"You'll just never be an agent. That's all I'm saying, Winston," Cretinous said. "What about you guys?" he said to "Steve" and me. "Seen any good manuscripts lately?"

I shrugged. "I'm the wrong person to ask," I said. "I send all the good stuff to "Steve." All I see all day is goddamn werewolves and vampires. What the fuck drives these people, anyway? It's as if they think there's only one kind of book. But what I think you're saying, Cretinous, is that you wouldn't have rejected John Grisham. "

Cretinous said, "The kind of books I'm talking about is," Cretinous said. "The kind of books I'm talking about, you actually make money."