Saturday, December 09, 2006


In Praise of Olive

A couple years ago in the V_____ V____ -- their Dickensian personnel practices demand 19th century nomenclature -- I unveiled my minor discovery that Olive Logan was the first literary agent in America:

One of the hardest things in art, outside of creating it, is to be that very first person who looks at an unknown and his or her work and says: I like it. Any idiot can second the motion. But to look at an unknown and say, "You, yes you, you are worthy"—that is different. That means taking a risk, to say yes where probably dozens have already said no.... [Yet] In an industry that could be numerically defined by how much it rejects, the first agency in Manhattan was itself a flop. In the 1870s, famed stage actress and author Olive Logan began an agency with her author husband, William Wirt Sikes—but it failed because the manuscripts were terrible. Logan and Sikes were less gatekeepers than a representation service, and publishers had no great use for that. Logan, Manhattan's first modern literary agent, died in an asylum, destitute and demented—thus setting a time-honored pattern for all her other authors to follow.

To be fair, Logan and Sikes had no business model to follow. Nobody imagined publishers ceding their role of screening unsolicited manuscripts.... But now many publishers will not even look at this manila-enveloped tide of humanity: They happily leave that drudgery to agents. Publishers, to their great relief, no longer have to be the first to say: I like it.

It's probably worth pointing out that Logan also authored a number of books and wrote for Harper's, so actually she's an even rarer creature: the writer/agent. One of her books -- a memoir of stage life -- turned up on eBay a couple days ago and is already getting bids.

Say, here's a question: has anyone ever written a history of literary agents? Some scholar should. I'd certainly read it....

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?