In a Tel-Aviv writing workshop I became friendly with another aspiring writer who, it turned out, lived two streets away from mine. Proximity and vocation synergized to cement our friendship. We commented – politely—on each other’s work, as well as that of the others in the group. We both were practioners of the soft criticism school, as opposed to some in the group who favored a hard-line approach to stimulate writing improvement.
One person in our parliament of belles-lettres, as my new friend and I dubbed the workshop critics, seemed bent on turning the group into a clinic for literary psychoanalysis – of the writings and, not content with that — of the participants. Behind her back, my friend and I referred to her as “Sigmunda Freud.” For all these reasons, our friendship grew. We bestowed on one another literary nicknames, half in self mockery, half in inspiration: he was “A.B.” (from Yehoshua); I was “S.Y”. (from Agnon).
One day my friend knocked on the unprepossessing door of my unprepossessing pad (things had reached this stage of informal comradeship) and, when I opened the door, entered breathlessly waving a magazine.
“They published my story!” he exclaimed in jubilation between gasps for air – he had apparently run all the way to tell me the good news. I congratulated him, though inside I felt the envy only an unpublished writer can feel toward a published one. I read the story. To my surprise, it wasn’t good at all, actually quite bad. I thought the group would tear it to pieces. In the name of friendship, I refrained from conveying my critical judgment to my friend. Instead, I brought two beers from the refrigerator and we toasted his success.
When he read his published story in triumph before the group, they did tear it to pieces. He remained unruffled. “You are all motivated by envy,” he upbraided them in a quiet voice, magnanimous from his lofty perch of published writer, if in truth more a published cat among the unpublished pigeons. He had taken on the airs of being our mentor, or less complimentary titles in the mouths of some of our more envious scribes. When, in contrast to the pervading group spirit, I congratulated him in front of the group on his new status, he pooh-poohed it. “Merely first among equals,” he observed, unable to conceal his satisfaction with regard to his new status. I, one of the equals, let this pass. With regard to his story, I opted for a strategy of mildly defending it, out of motives of friendship. In other words, I praised the story’s concept, not its execution, but in such a way that the implicit criticism was not explicit. Maybe some day I will become a literary critic, though I would rather be a writer. Being a critic could, if need be, constitute a fallback position.
A couple of weeks later my friend-the-published-writer came to visit me again, entering with a wide grin when I opened the door.
“Mazel tov!” he exclaimed. “Your story was published!” “What story?” I said. “What published? I didn’t send any story to any publisher.”
“You didn’t. I did.” He began to go into details, but I heard nothing because I had grabbed the magazine and was engrossed in reading my story. My published story. It was the very one that had been criticized in the workshop (“verbose”, “affected”, “self-centered” were some of the evaluations thrown at me), but I didn’t care now. My first published story! We toasted my success with beers, agreed we no longer needed the workshop.
About a month later I was walking past a restaurant bar (a hybrid that has sprung up lately, though the present example was closer to a falafel stand bar) outside of which were chairs for customers preferring to see and be seen, or who wanted to inhale the fumes of the passing traffic, or to smoke unhindered by the law prohibiting smoking inside, and maybe outside; types, especially the men (who made up most of the clientele), who looked like they wouldn’t let such rules bother them, guys who blew smoke in your face if you got on their nerves. Suddenly I saw my friend sitting there with an older man. The man wore a black t-shirt which set off the golden chain around his neck. The effect was offset somewhat by the stubble on his unshaven chin. He was drumming with his fingers on the table and humming a tune which sounded like the old Greek favorite Dam,dam. At the same instant I spotted my friend, he had spotted me. “Hey, S.Y.,” he shouted, “come sit with us, have a drink, I want you to meet somebody.” Though embarrassed somewhat at his using in public my Agnonic cognomen, I reasoned the other frequenters wouldn’t make the literary connection. It was not a situs of the sort favored by the literati, readers of Burroughs or Bukowski, maybe. In any event, I resolved not to call him “A.B.”: two literary nicknames might cause the penny to drop even there. The literary jibes forthcoming from the groundlings would put in the shade any literary pretensions punctured by the workshop tribunal. The man sitting with my friend had a face familiar to me. From where? Mug shots on wanted lists? No, I hadn’t perused any, if they still posted them. Ah, it was that of a criminal type iconized in the recent spate of TV crime series.
Before I sat down, I noticed positioned behind my friend’s acquaintance a chap with arms folded on his chest like a maitre d’, but the neighborhood level of the place ruled out his being such a functionary. His visage, too, did not reflect the hauteur of the profession. A crooked mouth, a nose that looked like it had been broken once and a wide beefy build that synergized (I like the word despite the workshop’s having warned me that I overuse it) caused me to think of Wolf Larsen in Jack London’s novel The Sea-Wolf. The bar’s location close to the sea may have influenced my choice of this formidable model. Then I borrowed another, no less formidable, from the American Western: He looked like an hombre who shot first and only afterwards asked “Who died?” I like to try my mental hand at descriptions of people, descriptions I can use in my stories. For this purpose, I carry a pad and pen to jot them down. Anyhow, he was most probably a waiter. He scrutinized me closely from top to bottom, possibly trying to gauge my potential as a tipper.
“I want you to meet the man who arranged for your story to be published,” my friend announced somewhat expansively after I sat down. “My uncle.”
There was a family resemblance. Same long bony face. Even the same nervous twitch at one corner of the mouth; if with my friend it seemed harmless, even winning – on the man, decidedly less so. But the important thing was not their similarities in appearance, but the first part of my friend’s utterance – the part about arranging for my story to be published. Which explained why his story had been published – his uncle was a literary agent! The sneak never told me. On the other hand, the uncle cum literary agent had arranged for my story to be published. I immediately thanked him. He dismissed my thanks with a laconic wave of his hand, temporarily taken from its duty, along with his second hand, from behind his head where they served as pillow for his razor-shaved, bulletlike head. Otherwise, he hadn’t moved from leaning back in his chair, apparently a literary agent of the laid back rather than hard-sell breed, despite looking like one who specialized in marketing hard-nosed detective novels of the Raymond Chandler school. Maybe because of his off-putting visage, or a reluctance on my part to cause him a second time to abandon his head-behind-hands rest, I didn’t extend my hand to shake his, contenting myself with the verbal thanks already vouchsafed. Moreover, those same hands, large, anthropoidal, seemed capable of an iron grip, and I feared injuring my hand that wielded the plume.
“It’s nothin, pal,” the above described said in a gravelly voice, and became absorbed in watching the legs of the passing girls, a literary agent refreshingly without airs. I joined him in his pastime. The accomodating, metronomic view was interrupted when a pair of man’s legs in those reprehensible three-quarter length pants now unfortunately the rage entered my visual frame and stopped. Their owner was looking in our direction. The literary agent nodded to him. The man returned his nod, then gave me and my friend a brief, if searching, glance, nodded to Wolf Larsen who stood nearby, still with his eternal-seeming visage of combined bordom and menace, the latter in the form of a fixed stare like that of a bull about to charge. I was so taken with this last image that I made a mental note to jot it down, though not on the spot lest it appear pretentious or juvenile in the eyes of the literary agent, the act more of a journalist than a writer. In any event, if the Colosus of Jaffa was a waiter, it would be wise to leave him a generous tip. I refrained from laying this bon mot on my fellow tablers – maybe the literary agent went in for the more refined humor of, say, Henry James.
The new arrival visually radar-swept the area of the restaurant bar, including the patrons thereof, then, apparently satisfied that all was in order environmentally, sat down. He and the literary agent began an animated, if low-voiced, almost whispered, conversation. I cocked an ear in hopes of gleaning some in-trade information, but when I caught only the words “Little Red Riding Hood,” (here the agent had squeezed tight his necklace, presumably an unconscious wish of what he would like to do to the wolf) and figured the new arrival was a children’s book writer trying to get the literary agent to find a publisher for his book, perhaps a post-modernist version of the classical children’s tale (read: a misunderstood wolf, maybe even a vegetarian one), I lost interest in their conversation.
I thought it best to leave them alone to their children’s book discussions. Writing children’s stories did not interest me. When I voiced this opinion at the workshop, a woman whose interest did lie in that direction, became huffy and avoided
speaking to me ever since. After she read one of her stories to the group, I
whispered, or thought I whispered, to A.B. that Galila Ron Feder (a known children’s stories writer) had nothing to worry about. Perhaps the woman overheard me or maybe it was my suggestion (entirely humorous but apparently lost on her) that she write a children’s version of Joyce’s Finegans Wake. Maybe my humor is more sophisticated than I give myself credit for. Maybe I will try my plume at literary humor sometime. I drained the last of my beer, nodded to the literary agent, who ignored me, still in intimate tete-a-tete with his client, had more success with my friend who nodded back vigorously (perhaps mocking my “tendency” in his words to prefer the nod to the verbal greeting, which he claimed I had affected from reading too much Gogol) , and went to pay the tab.
“It’s taken care of,” the restaurant bar owner said. “By whom?” I asked. With an expression I can only describe as frightened, he nodded in the direction of the literary agent. (Had he placed in the hands of the latter a manuscript and fearfully awaited his assessment?) I went and thanked the literary agent for his generosity, behavior which incidentally contradicted his ungenerous features, proving the admonition not to judge a book by its cover. “If I finish the book I’m working on, I won’t give it to anyone else,” I gushed, carried away by my new friendship with the obviously influental agent.
His grin/grimace reformed itself in puzzlement. Then he apparently remembered something. “Yeah, do that, I’ll get somebody to publish it like I did your story.”
“I’m glad you liked it.”
“I didn’t read it,” he said, and turned to resume his conversation with his more lucrative client.
My friend must have recommended my story to the agent and he had sent it off without even reading it. And they published it. Such apparently was the agent’s clout that his imprimatur had been sufficient. Such were the arcane workings of the the world of literary agents and publishers. And who was I to complain?
A few days later a neighbor remarked, as we passed each other on the street, that he saw me sitting at a table the other day with the head of an organized crime
”Right,” I chuckled over my shoulder, appreciative of his little joke. The concept of literary agent as crime boss tickled my fancy. It gave me an idea for a story, but I won’t burden you with it. If I write the story, you’ll be the second to see it – the first will be my literary agent.