Agent and Author: Eudora Welty and her "benevolent parasite"

While we're core-dumping a lot of hard info about the agent-author relationship this week, we're not saying much about the fairy tail romance that happens between an author and agent (or an author and editor) once in a blue moon, the marriage of true minds that breeds not only good money, but the more elusive goal: good art. One such exquisite click is chronicled in Author and Agent: Eudora Welty and Diarmuid Russell By Michael Kreyling.

In his first letter to Welty, Russell wrote, "An agent is rather a benevolent parasite because authors as a rule make more when they have an agent than they do without one." He pulled no punches with her. He challenged her. Never let her off the hook. I read this book about a thousand years ago (I think it came out in the early '90s) because I was in a delicious all-things-Eudora phase, devouring any and all words of hers, but I ended up getting a lot more than I expected from this exchange of letters between her and Russell, who encouraged and guided her career. Author and Agent is a warm bath of beautiful language, but it's also a gimlet-eye look at the world of publishing, much of which has not changed a bit in the fifty years since these letters were written.

This astute observation from a New York Times article:
One of the bases for the "absolute trust" between him and Ms. Welty was his determination to respect the integrity of her work yet somehow translate it into an income for her. And the times were right; though publishing was always commercial, it had not yet developed its capacity to make the megabuck deal.

Mr. Russell first offered to be Ms. Welty's "benevolent parasite" in 1940, shortly after he had founded his literary agency with Henry Volkening, an English teacher at New York University. Ms. Welty accepted though she doubted the agency would be able to help her, since all she had to offer was "a collection of short stories by an unknown writer who doesn't ever want to write a novel first," and all that publishers wanted from her was that first novel she didn't wish to write.

What we then follow in the correspondence is her curious evolution into the novelist she thought she would never become. Mr. Russell encouraged her to go on writing her stories and found a market for them, both in national magazines and in a collection that was brought out by Doubleday...

Publishers had a feeling Eudora Welty had the talent to spin straw into gold, and they were right, but she needed her Rumpelstiltskin. As do we all.


Great post, Joni! But I'm not sure if any agent would take kindly to any description, however well meant, that includes the word "parasite." :)

Ideally, the relationship is more of a symbiosis since it benefits everyone immeasurably. But clearly Welty's association with her agent was the kind to which all authors (and, I hope, agents) aspire.

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