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  1. #1
    Shanan Smith

    Obscenity and literary agents

    The following is an email dialogue I had with a literary agent about my novel Slow Burn. (It was my very first email/contact with one).

    Excerpt from lit agent


    Thank you for your inquiry. I suspect it is time that we quit the e-mail tennis and get down to a few facts. We can assist you in taking your property to acquisition editors in major, small or mid-size publishing companies. When we go to acquisition editors, we always insist on knowing exactly what is between the covers of your entire book. We do this to protect your reputation and our reputation. We have had a number of books come through that profess hate, racism, the denigration of women, perversion or horrific attitudes towards children. We do not think that our writers, either published or unpublished wish to rest in this company. I won’t my name to any of that nonsense.



    From your email I can see that you have had some success with youth fiction. My concern is that my work is far from being appropriate for someone who is say 14 years old or younger. If anything it’s geared for those in their late teens to early thirties.

    The main character also uses profanity and there are some images that people may find offensive. Damen, (the main character’s boyfriend) goes through a phase where he tries to get his artistic talents noticed by drawing provocative/controversial tattoos on her.

    “. . . .I found him passed out in the chair next to me with his forearm covered in ink and our coffee table strewn with Polaroids of his latest creation.

    There on my anemically white back was a highly detailed drawing of the Pope pulling up his embroidered white robe with one hand and frantically masturbating with the other. But instead of a penis he was stroking a phallic Jesus. And instead of semen Catholic schoolboys marched out of Jesus’ mouth in their uniforms around my torso and left leg down to my toes.

    How did I sleep through this?

    In another picture, there was a close up of the last boy. On the sole of his shoe was Damen’s signature getting as far away as possible from the Pope and his mess. Another picture was a close-up of the ecstasy in the Pope’s contorted face as he tossed back his head and with rolled eyes swallowed the dollar signs falling from my shoulder. Another picture showed a close up of his skinny liver-spotted legs in a garter and torn brown stockings.”

    This character also expresses himself by painting a series of pictures based on his favorite dead baby jokes.

    . . . .Then there was Pinky. The punch line of “What’s pink and red and sits in a highchair.” She was a plump little creature with a mouth full of razor blades dribbling blood down its bib as big blue tears slide over its cheeks. He let the paint run so that the tears left no face behind as they made their descent to the bottom of the canvas.

    I hated it.

    Then he incorporated cheap plastic baby dolls into his work. In a piece he called, Dizzy, Damen nailed the doll wrist first to a sheet of plywood and put a marker in its other hand. The little doll would draw its circle until the marker ran dry.

    “You know how you end this,” he told me spinning Dizzy around and around. “Nail its other wrist,” he smiled and then stretched out his arms like Jesus on the cross. “That’ll be our little joke.”

    Then there was Time Out, a doll put together from the parts of other dolls. She took the longest to make because Damen wanted to both smash the doll's features and leave the imprint of a shovel behind. So it took hours of microwaving the head and smacking it with a shovel to leave the mark he wanted.

    Ding. Whap. Ding. Whap. Ding. Whap.

    “What’s more fun than spinning a baby on a clothesline,” he said as we watched the little face turn round and round on the glass tray. “That’s right,” he smiled. Taking the head out with his novelty lobster claw oven mitts “Stopping,” Whap. “it” Whap. “with” Whap. “a” Whap “Shovel”. . .

    While there are certainly lighthearted moments in this novel too. I wanted to double check the darker ones with you before I consider submitting my manuscript. And again I was also curious about how you agency could help with marketing a book such as this. It’s not the typical small town Canadian novel about farm life and the wild frontier.

    Much thanks,

    The lit agent


    Dear Shanan:
    I am a lawyer who firmly believes that our society trivializes children by giving their abusers trivial sentences. Witness John Galienne, choirmaster of Kingston Cathedral who sodomized and abused 79 young boys between the ages of 7 and 11. Five of them committed suicide and all have problems with relationships, jobs and addictions. Galienne got less than four years. I just discussed this very issue this evening with my neighbour, a law professor. We note that armed robbers who do not harm bank tellers get fifteen years.
    Why does this happen ? Because society allows it to happen, that's why. >
    How do these scenes enhance life ? How are they edifying ? How do they make a really good writer shine ?
    The Pope is the spiritual leader of one billion people. I hardly approve of many of the issues put forth by Rome but how does vilifying and denegrating an old man enhance your writing ?
    I will not represent the scenes that you included. I believe in cause and effect, notwithstanding the fact that I am not a religious person.
    Finally, you asked about marketing. The publishers receive grants for this while writers and agents do not. It is their job to do marketing. Most are brutal at it but it is their job.
    Good luck.



    I agree with you 100 per cent. I currently work as a news reporter and have had the unfortuante experience of having to tell our community that a pedophile was living among them. While at the time we couldn't release the offenders name I could write about the issue. So,I spent about a month interviewing child advocates and various agencies who fight to eradicate child pornography.

    And agreed, the image the character in my book etches is absolutely disgusting. As was what the Catholic church did when it decided not to deal with the pedophiles within its ranks. The Pope represents the church, hence his likeness.

    But to answer your question about how these scenes enhance life etc., etc., etc. that's the beautiful thing about literature it helps expose people to ideas and issues that they might not have spent a whole lot of time thinking about before. And sometimes it takes a nasty picture of the Pope (the representative of the Catholic Church) to get people to think about the value our culture places on children. Why is the Catholic Church sacred and the physical/emotional well-being of children isn't? Why did they get away with this?

    It's about questioning what society views as sacred.
    But, like I said before, its not a typical Canadian novel. And I respect your decision.

    Thank you,

    lit agent


    Dear Shanan:

    I totally agree with you about the fact that the Pope is the de facto CEO of the church and as such, he is responsible. I just don't think vilifying him in sexual terms is the answer. But then, I am also against capital punishment and when I was teaching at the graduate and post-graduate level at the university, 80% of my students believed in it passionately. That high number never changed.

    My old grandmother, who was a strict Calvinist who got pregnant at 18 by my Catholic grandfather (and was ostracized totally by all of her strict Protestant family) used to say this:

    "you don't have to sit in a pig sty to know that you'll come out stinking" and while I don't believe in censorship, I believe in judgment. My judgment is to not let certain things into my mind because I want to be alive to the beauty of the earth...and at fifty-five, I am alive to it, notwithstanding severe tragedies which have imploded dearly held perceptions but not values.

    I appreciate your answer.

    Okay so she's not the one . . .

    What have your experiences been?

    Any of you writing "dark" novels?

  2. #2
    Rita Fiorentino

    Re: Obscenity and literary agents

    Well, Shannon, there is one word that popped into my head when reading the excerpt from your book--gratuitous.

    I think that if violent, gruesome art is part of this character's personality, then you can include it without being so graphic.


  3. #3
    Rita Fiorentino

    Re: Obscenity and literary agents

    And, your target age is way off. I would consider that inappropriate for anyone under 18.


  4. #4
    Shanan Smith

    Re: Obscenity and literary agents

    Keep in mind those are pieces are taken out of context. There is a method to my madness.

    One of my main characters is an obsessed Marilyn Manson fan who twists what he believes is the "message in the music" to suit his own ends. So he does very over-the-top shock and awe art pieces.

    The pope, the dead baby pictures are extreme but that's the point. Society holds children up as something that is sacred . . . in thought more than action.

    It also contrasts with another character in the book, a pro-life activist who has never actually read the Bible, only other people's interpretations of it. And one of the ways he tries to save more babies is by having himself and his fellow protesters chain themselves to the doors of the local hospital.

    However, this action prevents a woman who has been critically injured in a car accident from getting treatment.

    So while his heart may have been in the right place his actions caused more harm than good.

  5. #5

    Re: Obscenity and literary agents

    That's an interesting exchange between you and the agent. Obviously, not the right agent for you.

    I make no judgments about your work in terms of content. But, it will take an agent with an open mind to represent you. I suggest you do some serious research before you submit your work to other agents, so you aren't wasting your time and postage sending to agents who don't want to represent your type of writing.

  6. #6
    Shanan Smith

    Re: Obscenity and literary agents

    There is part of my problem.

    Not many agents list themselves as looking for "dark and or quirky" novels.

    "Literary" can mean virtually anything and if the agent in question doesn't have a website . . .

    It's tough.

    Sure there are authors that write material that is in the same vein but I'm guessing thier agents are pretty darn busy looking after them.

  7. #7
    Robert Raven

    Re: Obscenity and literary agents

    In some cases "Obscenity" and "literary agents" are synonyms.


  8. #8
    Flossy The Flute

    Re: Obscenity and literary agents

    I would suggest finding other novels that are similar to yours and reading the acknowledgements...authors often thank their agents.

    Also look at the companies publishing this type of work...then check out their website...I have come across a few publishers who list agents they commonly work with (at least in my genre).


  9. #9
    Ralph Daugherty

    Re: Obscenity and literary agents

    "When we go to acquisition editors, we always insist on knowing exactly what is between the covers of your entire book."

    It is difficult for me to believe a legitimate agent wrote this.


  10. #10

    Re: Obscenity and literary agents

    Two things: first of all, what you said about the Pope is slanderous. End of story. No one will publish this.

    Second, as Ralph stated above: "When we go to acquisition editors, we always insist on knowing exactly what is between the covers of your entire book."

    This statement is absurd. Any legitimate agent will read your MS before submitting it! This sounds like something of the website of a POD. At most, this could be a shotgunning agent.

    If you want to see your work published, find a legit agent. And take out the pope thing unless you enjoy getting sued.

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