“Please come in, Mr … ah …, I’m sorry, I didn’t catch the name.” The Literary Agent’s personal assistant closed the door of the office behind her. She left a rather scrawny, but heavily be-whiskered individual nervously shuffling his feet on the luxurious carpet. He wore a long black morning coat, high-breasted but just showing his ill-fitting, starched, white collar and clumsily tied neckerchief. He had removed his hat, revealing a mop of lank and greasy dark hair that was thinning perceptibly on the crown. The man stood, nervously turning an old-fashioned and battered black hat in his ink-stained, long-fingered hands.
“Dickens,” the man said. “Charles Dickens.”
“Well, Mr Dickens, please take a seat.” The Agent spoke in an offhanded drawl and leant back in his comfortable leather chair. He swivelled slightly away from his visitor and shuffled through some papers on his desk. He realised that he was being rather rude but he was annoyed at himself for being persuaded to see this man. ‘I don’t really have time for this,’ he thought. ‘Aspiring authors are always a pain in the neck, usually have a ridiculously exaggerated opinion of their own scribblings and are rarely inclined to take no for an answer.’
“I trust that you have perused my submission,” Mr Dickens began and smiled shyly. “I had occasion to be present in town on other business and determined to afford myself the opportunity to call upon you forthwith, to discuss the matter personally. I have great expectations for this, my first novel.”
The agent shifted guiltily in his chair and grimaced. ‘Of course I haven’t read the bloody thing,’ he thought to himself grumpily. ‘I’m a Literary Agent, not a bleedin’ proof reader.’ But aloud, he said, “Perhaps you’d just remind me. I find it instructive to hear an author précis-ising his own work.”
The man Dickens looked shocked at the ugly usage and wrinkled his nose distastefully but he answered eagerly enough, “Ah, my dear sir. I am very much obliged that you agreed to grant me an audience and I shall strive to the utmost extent to accommodate your requirements.”
He looked around vaguely for somewhere to lay his hat but finding his chair strategically placed out of reach of the Agent’s desk, rested it primly on his lap. As he spoke, he began to pull abstractedly at some threads trailing from the threadbare ribbon surrounding the hat rim.
“The book chronicles the activities of a gentlemen’s club founded by a kindly old personage, named Samuel Pickwick. The main characters are the eponymous benefactor himself and his intimate acquaintances, Mr Nathaniel Winkle, Mr Augustus Snodgrass and Mr Tracy Tupman. I am, of course, sensible of the modern propensity to incorporate all echelons of society into a work, whether or not they merit such consideration – I believe the modern idiom is ‘being P.C.’” Here Mr Dickens shuddered visibly before continuing, “… And consequently I found suitable rôles for Mr Pickwick’s factotem, his ever resourceful valet, Sam Weller and that character’s equally irrepressible father.”
Perhaps Mr Dickens noticed the Literary Agent’s half stiffled yawn but, if so, he studiously ignored it and ploughed on regardless. “The protagonists vacation variously in Bury St Edmunds, Rochester, Eatenswill and Dingley Dell. The story is a faithful record of the perambulations, perils, travels, adventures and sporting transactions of the corresponding members of the club. It is entitled ‘The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club’.”
‘Jesus Christ! The mind boggles,’ thought the Agent, unimpressed with the synopsis and now, more than ever anxious to terminate the interview as soon as possible. However, he was an unusual beast within the publishing world in that he truly believed himself to be passionate about the written word and felt it incumbent upon himself to offer advice and encouragement whenever he could; even to the manifestly untalented and undeserving.
He sighed deeply. “You must understand, Mr Dickens,” he said, as kindly as he felt able, given the clearly unpublishable nature of the story, “That Literary Agents operate in a very competitive and over-crowded market place. We have to be confident of substantial sales quantities before taking on a project and we need to be highly selective in choosing new authors. Although yours is an interesting concept, I’m afraid it’s not one for us.”
Mr Dickens’s face fell. His hands were shaking, with what some might suppose was ‘scrivener’s palsy’, and he was anxiously twisting the stray threads of ribbon tightly around his fingers. He looked so woebegone that the Agent could not help but feel sorry for him.
“You see,” the Agent continued, “For a published book to be successful, there has to be a hook on which to hang it. Unfortunately, your story seems rather limp; a bit like your hat.”
He gave his visitor a brief smile. Although he’d been aiming at an impression of benevolence and gentle sympathy, the effect on his disappointed client was merely to cause him to feel patronised. Mr Dickens looked suitably chastened.
A moment passed while Dickens looked glumly down at his increasingly shredded headgear. With an almost visible effort, he pulled himself together and found the strength to reply, “A hook you say, sir? Peradventure you think me like a simple Thames stevedore to be dismissed with a curt wave and an unseemly admonition to ‘sling his hook’.”
Now it was the Agent’s turn to feel chastened. He had intended no offence but perhaps he had come over as unduly mean-spirited. In an effort at contrition, he expanded on his meaning.
“These days, you have to be a celebrity to get published; or married to a celebrity or the son or daughter of one. Whether legitimate or not doesn’t really signify as a modicum of scandal adds to its bankability. Publishers won’t even look at a new author unless they’re ‘a name’ of some sort or another.”
Seemingly unappeased, Dickens asked in frustration, “But that does not allow that a prospective writer be proficient in grammar or possess a pleasing literary style. What if such a personage cannot write well?”
“Oh, that doesn’t matter in the least. Most celebrities speak in clichés and seem unable to string five words together to form a meaningful sentence. As for their pitiable knowledge of grammar – well, I blame the modern system of education. Being poorly educated in that regard, I suspect that most people that are published these days think a hanging participle refers to someone who takes part in a lynch mob. But no, it’s not a problem. We can always find a hack to ghost write for them.”
“A hack? Pray, sir, enlighten me; what the Shakespeare is a hack?”
“A work-a-day scribe. A jobbing writer. A journalist or something like that.”
“But, sir, I am indeed a journalist though I have never before been referred to by such a demeaning epithet as ‘hack’.”
“You must have lived a bloody sheltered life then,” the Agent muttered, sotto voce.
“However, wait a minute,” the Agent added as he mused on what he’d been told. “You’re a journalist you say?”
“Yes indeed, Sir. I am a correspondent for the Morning Chronicle,” Dickens said proudly.
“Have you done any TV work?” the Agent asked with mild curiosity. “Car programmes or riding a motorcycle around the world or something like that. Perhaps you write about food or cookery?”
“Cars? Motor-cycles? Cookery?” Dickens looked bemused. “Why on earth should involvement in any of those trivial endeavours enhance the public interest in my novel?”
“Christ only knows but it seems to work.”
The Agent shrugged his shoulders and resumed with a cynical air, “The punters apparently have an insatiable appetite for such things.”
Dickens seemed affronted. “I had formed the impression, perhaps erroneously or even naively, that the estimable Mrs Isabella Beeton had already penned the seminal work on the subject of cookery and household management.”
“You’d think so wouldn’t you? However, it seems that there are any number of hooks to hang your oven-mitts on. Gratuitous swearing and general belligerence, treating cookery as a kind of first-form science project, projecting yourself as a ‘cheeky cockney chappie’ despite that you’re an Essex boy from a comfortable background – they all seem to work somehow. Even, God forbid, sensuous slavering over a soufflé.”
The Agent seemed to go into a silent reverie for a moment. “I can see how that last one works,” he said dreamily. He coughed self-consciously and regarded the emaciated, hirsute man before him with a doubtful eye. “Mind you, I think that latter approach might be somewhat out of your reach.”
Dickens was growing more agitated by the moment and pleaded, “But I lack competence in any of those enterprises to which you alluded; indeed, I fear I am largely untested in such frivolous ventures. Do you tell me that I must abandon my quill and take up the skillet in its stead?”
“Not necessarily. There are other causes of celebrity or notoriety that are also considered to be excellent criteria for gaining a publishing contract. Sporting prowess or having a previous modelling career, for instance; either of those can help to make a good pitch if laid out attractively enough.”
Again the Agent looked dubiously at his unprepossessing and frankly, physically unappealing visitor and shook his head. “No, this poor bugger must have been at the end of the queue when they were handing out looks,” he thought. “Not so much a Greek God; more like a Greek tragedy.”
“I would like to help you, Mr Dickens,” he said. “But I have to tell you that getting published in this day and age is more a matter of presentation than merit. It’s 99% publicity and only 1% literacy. Actors, for instance …”
He was interrupted as, for the first time, Mr Dickens’s countenance brightened as though he thought that something had turned up. “Acting!” he exclaimed eagerly. “Ah, there sir, I have some experience and, I trust, not a little expertise. When I was a small boy, it was ever my fondest wish to follow the example of The Bard. I fervently wished to pursue a career in the thespian arts. It was with deep regret that I had to relinquish such ambitions due to my dear father’s pecuniary misfortunes. As an adolescent, I regularly received fulsome praise from no less an authority than the Gadshill Gazette. My portrayal of Viola in Twelfth Night was much admired, though I say it myself.”
The Agent’s sigh was deeper now, redolent of a long-suffering tolerance and almost saintly endurance. “No, Mr Dickens, with all due respect, I do not mean village hall dramatics or even provincial repertory companies. I’m talking about actors from ‘Soap Operas’ on national TV or, better still, Hollywood film stars.”
“Oh dear!” Mr Dickens was crestfallen and his lugubrious features deflated even further. He looked rather like a child’s balloon, still abjectly hanging in a dark corner, almost exhausted after some long-forgotten celebration – dusty, wrinkled and unloved. His voice too sunk into a lower register of melancholic despondency. “You must think me a complete and irredeemable nincompoop.”
“No, not at all. There’s no need for you to take the pip or get overly twisted about it. The publishing world is no longer really about literature but rest assured that I still regard myself as a man of letters as I assume do you. Yes, good fiction will always be our mutual friend.”
The agent thought for a moment and said, “I do have one further idea for you to consider. Please don’t be shocked and forgive the impertinence but have you ever been in trouble with the law? Ever been to prison perhaps? There is a sure market for the confessions of the supposedly repentant or rehabilitated criminal. The more heinous the crime, the more likely that someone will write a book about it. Possibly it’s the one remaining sign that this was once a tolerant, forgiving and charitable nation.” He looked into the middle distance for a moment and continued, “Or more likely it’s just schadenfreude; the chance to revel in sensational bits of violence, preferably at one step or more removed.”
Mr Dickens scrutinised his questioner closely before answering. He appeared to find the question unsettling but after scratching at his beard in a distracted manner, he nodded almost imperceptibly and replied, “Mr Pickwick, the hero of my story, does spend a period in the Fleet prison for refusal to pay compensation in a ‘breach of promise case’.”
“Oh well, that’s good,” the agent said, somewhat sarcastically. “But I was thinking about something closer to home than that.”
Dickens again considered carefully whether or not he could trust this man who, though outwardly helpful, seemed to possess a rather sardonic sense of humour. It had become a maxim with Dickens always to suspect everybody. However, he had become disenchanted with his professional life and to be a published author had become something of an obsession; a way of escaping from the hard times he endured in that bleak house where he lived. Charles realised that to achieve his dream he would have to share his innermost secrets and risk ridicule from those for whom he might himself have hitherto had only disdain.
“I trust that you will keep what I am about to relate in the strictest confidence,” he said, calling on the last reserves of his rapidly dwindling self-assurance. “The sad truth, dear sir, is that my father was indeed a malefactor in that he was incarcerated in the Marshalsea Prison for debt when I was but twelve years old. My whole family, excepting only myself, shared in his confinement at the aforementioned institution but we all partook fully of the ignominy thus visited upon us. I, myself, worked in a blacking factory in Hungerford Market. ‘Twas a drear and sordid existence, to be sure, though of scant interest to the reading public, I fancy. It is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home.” Dickens lowered his gaze in mortification and began to sob softly.
“Of scant interest you say? Of no bloody interest, you mean! No-one could give a stuff about the poor these days and certainly don’t want to read about them. They want glamour, gaiety, glitz and gore.” The Agent’s voice had risen in anger. His tone dripped with derision and thinly disguised contempt. “Your father was in prison for debt? Big deal! If he’d been a mass murderer or a sex fiend; or even a de-frocked Parliamentarian or a Millionaire fraudster it might have generated some sympathetic publicity and proved to be lucrative. But, imprisonment for debt? Bah! Humbug! I’m sorry Mr Dickens but you have wasted my time.”
The Literary Agent counted to ten under his breath and, with some difficulty, calmed himself. He affected again the avuncular, sympathetic air he liked to employ in these situations, especially as he was now about to administer ‘the kiss off’.
“You must appreciate, Mr Dickens, that decisions about representation are necessarily subjective and you might like to try other agencies for a different response from ours. I hope you find suitable representation elsewhere soon and I wish you good luck with your writing in the future. Kindly close the door on your way out.”
The office door closed on the forlorn figure of Mr Dickens as he trudged out, never to be seen or heard of in the Literary World again.
“Can you credit the cheek of the man?” the Agent said wonderingly to the portrait of the firm’s founder (his own father as good fortune and nepotism had it) on the wall opposite. Just then the door re-opened and his pretty assistant glided into the room. “What now?” he snapped at her irritably.
“I’m, like, very sorry, sir,” she replied, ever so humbly. “But I thought I should, you know, send away all the other punters like, what was waiting. I know you’re due to go to the launch of that latest thingy, you know, the sorta instalment like of Ronnie Wagon’s autobiography. Some guy, like on the second floor, told me that his aunt’s lodger will be there and you may want to represent him, or somethink. He’s got some stories about when Ronnie was a kid; something about hopscotch, you know, and what he used to do with sherbet fountains.”
“Oh, that’s OK, Chantelle. Thanks. Sorry I barked at you but that man’s turgid style annoyed me. Was there anyone interesting waiting to speak to me?”
“No way, Sir! No one the least bit cool or famous like. They all left quiet as mice when I told ‘em that their submissions would, like, be considered carefully. I’ve done as you said I should and, you know, like shredded the manuscripts already. It’ll make a lovely soft bed for your daughter’s hamster.”
Chantelle smiled winningly and bent over to tidy the things on her boss’s desk so that he could look down her cleavage. She knew that he employed her mostly for that purpose rather than in appreciation of her dubious administrative skills.
“Wicked!” she thought to herself. “He doesn’t have a clue that I’m, like keeping a diary about him. L.O.L. His rival agency, Kisst & Tolditt are sure to offer me a publishing contract for all the juicy bits.”
As the agent pulled on his coat, Chantelle remembered something that she imagined her employer would find amusing and, as she followed him into the outer office, she said, “There was one old biddy waiting what was a bit awkward, like. It was a right struggle trying to get that one to leave.”
“Oh, yeah! What was her story?”
“She’s a vicar’s daughter or somethink equally random like, and was dead ordinary. She was wittering on about five sisters and their mum’s really chavvy attempts to get them all married off. It sounded really naff, so I, you know, just told the old cow to bugger off.”
The agent stared at his assistant dumbly as he suffered a sudden and unexpectedly disturbing epiphany. A jumble of words seemed to fall into his mind and, for some inexplicable reason, he felt constrained to remark, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a Literary Agent in possession of a good portfolio, must never be in want of a writer.”
He shivered as he shook off the transitory psychic feeling and said, “Good girl! Well done! There are far too many bloody authors out there as it is.”