Behind the Lines

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), February 7, 1999 | Go to article overview

Behind the Lines


Byline: JASON COWLEY

You can say many things about the literary agent Andrew Wylie. You can say, as do many publishers in London and New York, that he is a `jackal', the most ruthless negotiator of them all. You can agree with his former partner, Gillon Aitken, that he is the `kind of guy who says things that I would not or could not dare to say', or with another former colleague who calls him the kind of agent who cares about `bucks not books'. You can even call him, as one indignant agent did, `a repulsive reptile who demands and achieves ruinously high advances'.

But what you cannot do, not if you are interested in the book business, is ignore him - not when he asks publishers, as he did recently, to pay $7 million ([pounds sterling]4.4 million) for the rights to Salman Rushdie's `fatwa' diaries, his narrative of a decade of living under the shadow of what VS Naipaul famously called the most extreme judgment in the history of literary criticism.

No literary agent divides opinion quite like Wylie, a slight, balding, giggly New Englander who spent most of his early twenties hanging out with artists, beat poets and counter-culture rebels at Andy Warhol'd Factory in downtown Manhatten. Today the list of writers he represents reads like a Who's Who of Anglo-American letters: Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Martin Amis, Salmon Rushdie and Elmore Leonard, as well as Andy Warhol's estate. Through a mixture of charm, beligerence and alculated opportunism, Wylie has done more than any other agent to force publishers to pay inflationary million dollar advances for serious literary fiction, when serious literary fiction is seldom profitable. For this he is considered a hero by his writers.

Wylie, whose preference for black suits adds to his mystery, is a self-confessed elitist. He wants only writers whom he considers are the best - not just of their generation, but those who will endure in the canon. Jobbing authors do not interest him, nor do commercial hit factories such as Jeffrey Archer and Danielle Steele. `I think the bestseller lists are a daily insult posing as an appreciation of literature,' he says. `If you're a genre thriller writer, you're making a mistake if you come to me.'

As for stories of his opulent New York lifestyle and his fabled, tough negotiating tactics, they are nothing more than tabloid talk, he says. `All this jackal business - it's just nonsense. I think the size of my authors' advances contributes to all the talk. But I've always operated from the belief that a publisher will only be motivated to sell a book if he pays a lot of money for it. I wish it wasn't this way, but it is.'

Perhaps Wylie is being a little disingenuous. If you listen to his critics, the real reason for his unpopularity is to do with the way he has lured writers away from their existing agents with promises of improbable wealth and celebrity. In the book business, this is called `rustling', and no one is more adept. According to the Scottish agent, Giles Gordon, `Andrew's view is: why should he read unsolicited manuscripts when it is easier to ring up writers he admires and tell them what a good agent he is and how he can get them a better deal.'

Wylie's wooing of Salman Rushdie in the late Eighties revealed much about his tenacity and motivation. First, he rang Rushdie, whom he had never met, to say how much he admired his work, hinting that he could help make his books a success in the US. Startled, Rushdie explained that he already had a successful relationship with the English agent, Deborah Rogers, but he would meet Wylie for a drink if he was ever in London. The next morning, Rushdie was phoned by Wylie - from Heathrow. `That got Rushdie's attention,' Wylie recalls. `So we had that drink, we started talking, and the result was that I persuaded him of something I think was quite important: that his work was seen as interesting in England but not relevant in America. …

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