Ira Silverberg: Opinions from a Literary Life
Author: Frederick McKindra
September 21, 2011
“I don’t have a problem with a place at the table, and I don’t have a problem with a place at the table for my clients, but I think it’s all about the work. Are you good, or are you not good?”
Ira Silverberg’s life in publishing owes much to the allure of a tall blond guy from Kansas, a “Junky” mother-in-law, and his taste for formally experimental fiction. His mother still laments the Bachelor’s degree he abandoned in the 80s. And yet, there began three decades worth of selling, buying, and marketing fiction. He has served as an influential literary agent to a cadre of pioneering titans in the “outsider” writing community (Kathy Acker, Dennis Cooper), and he has held editorial positions within some of New York City’s most innovative publishing houses. Currently an agent at Sterling Lord Literistic, Silverberg has worked as a literary agent at Donadio & Ashworth, as Editor-in-Chief at Grove/Atlantic Press, and was the founder and publishing director of Serpent’s Tail’s U.S. imprint, High Risk Books. He also founded the marketing and public relations firm, Ira Silverberg Communications. Silverberg’s numerous clients include the estate of David Wojnarowicz, Wayne Koestenbaum, Neil Strauss, and Erica Kennedy.
Recently Lambda Literary sat down with the gregarious Silverberg to have a candid discussion about the end of “gay” literature, the marginalization of LGBTQ writers, and the best way to break into publishing.
How did you get your start in publishing?
I was still in college, I was probably 21 and I was at Hunter, part time, I think. I grew up in NY, and I went straight from high school into a six year BA, JD program. I was meant to be a lawyer. It was a program that CCNY/NY Law School had to train lawyers to serve underserved urban communities, so I was going to be the gay civil rights lawyer. And I fell in love, and by the end of the first semester of my sophomore year I left NY and moved to Kansas. I came back and enrolled in Hunter, but I needed work. And I had met people in publishing, so I got a job at Overlook for like $5 an hour which eventually turned into a full time job for $10,000 a year, and eventually college faded away and publishing faded in.
Did you finish?
No. I am 18 credits shy of my degree.
You could do it at the New School [where he sits on the board for the graduate MFA program].
I know. [Laughter] I have looked into it. If only because my mother is 89 and still like, “how did this happen?” But yeah, I started at Overlook. Peter Mayer [Overlook’s editor] was not there then. He was the CEO of Penguin in the UK. And it was a really great experience because it was a really small house, there were three of us in the office. It was the days of carbon copies, pre-e-mail. It was typewriters, and we would make carbon copies of all of our correspondence, four copies, and a stack of it went to Peter in England, and a stack of it went to Peter’s country house in Woodstock. And he would mark up your correspondence. And to this day, I still say that the notes I got in the margins, when I was like 21, 22, from Peter, probably taught me more because he would like coach you, and say, “OK, this was a really great letter, but maybe next time, you should think about doing this or that.” And I started as a file clerk, so I learned a lot about how things went. I was 22 when I started at Grove.
So you got into agenting without designs to be a writer yourself?
Oh no, that wasn’t a part of my thing. It’s just that I wound up with Burroughs as my mother in law. It was his amanuensis, James Grauerholz, who I fell in love with when I was nineteen. So suddenly I wound up in this world where everything had a new filter. And I was looking at books and writing in a very different way than before. I met James at a bar when I was living in the East Village and a freshmen in college. I’d read Naked Lunch in high school, so everything changed. I came from a very traditional middle class, Jewish, Bronx family. So working in the arts wasn’t an option. We didn’t have friends who worked in the arts. No one could afford to work in the arts. So the notion of publishing wasn’t in the portfolio of careers one would explore. So it was very alien to, certainly my family, but to me, this whole notion that wow, you could have a job in the arts. It was something that was introduced to me when I was eighteen, when I came back to NY. It was like “Wow. OK, I can see this very differently. And I can appreciate writers and their work very differently because I have been amongst them.” I’d gone out to the Naropa Institute a couple of summers, was at the big Kerouac conference for the 25th anniversary of On the Road. Got to know Allen Ginsberg. So everything kind of changed, and I saw things. I probably read Dennis Cooper for the first time, not even realizing I was going to wind up as his agent. I think Tenderness of the Wolves was given to me by one of my roommates when I was like nineteen, and in school here in NY before I’d ever even left. So, somehow my own aesthetic was developing just because it was the East Village, it was the 80s. But then being around William and James and their friends, a lot of other doors opened so publishing seemed a natural.
And James was the boyfriend?
James was my boyfriend, and he was William’s manager, and still manages the estate.
How did he happen upon that job?
He came to New York, as a young man. He’d met Allen Ginsberg as an undergraduate, at some reading at the University of Kansas. And Allen remembered this tall, blond guy [laughter], and said, “Oh yeah, you should go see Burroughs.” You know. So Burroughs had just come back to NY, it was probably ’76, and was like, “Oh, this tall blond guy came, yeah, I need an assistant.” It was a very different time, you know. So they probably slept together once, and James really got like, “Wow this is a genius and he needs help with managing his business.” Because William did have a business.
And he was a brand.
Well it was before. It was, the agents weren’t as busy, publishing was a little sleepier. And William was emerging as this demigod in the punk world, and James understood that he had a place in popular culture. So, I was very lucky to be around a lot of stuff that trained me. It was all kind of gay extended family.
Where did you guys live, in Kansas?
With his folks?
James was ten years older than I was.
So he was grown.
He was a grown man. And William, I moved into William’s place here, helped William get out of NY, followed a couple of months later. William had his place, James had our place. We were just very near the University. I enrolled at KU, took classes there for a couple of years. So I do not have any of the [laughter] proper educational routes in, I was not an English major at an Ivy League. It was, kind of, University of the Streets.
Wait, let’s run it back… because then the question becomes, for all of the young Ira Silverbergs, how do…
…you get a job in publishing?
How would you have them do it?
Well it’s a completely different business. It’s 30 years later. I think everyone needs to start entry level in this business, to learn as much as they can. I think what worked for me, I didn’t become an agent until years later. I worked in editorial, publicity, was a small press publisher. I did many different things before I became an agent, and I think the best agents are the people who surf around the industry, understanding everything first. But I do think it’s an entirely different industry right now, and it’s in such big transition that I think the only thing people can do is try to learn as much as they can while the transition with e-books and fewer book stores, and a very different marketplace…when I started in publishing, Barnes & Noble was a college bookstore on 18th & 5th. Walden Books was in malls, and they were sucked up by Borders. Borders was an independent company in Ann Arbor. So it was a very different landscape.
But if you look at any, particularly any business in entertainment where technology has been involved, the landscape has changed whether it’s music, or film. There used to be a lot more small screens in the city of New York to see independent movies on, there used to be record stores, with independent record labels being sold there…it’s just evolution of these various businesses, and technology has changed those businesses, and there’s less money to be made in each and every one of them, so I’ve seen things change, and I would say whoever is starting today is going to see things change in a completely different way, which is why you want to just learn as much from the bottom up. I don’t think just going in and saying “I’ve got a lot of friends who are really talented and I’m going to open an agency” is the way to do it. I think you have to actually understand how the business works before you do. I mean, I think there may be people who can go ahead and do that, and God bless them, but I think the thing that makes you more valuable to a writer is being able to say, “This is how it works: this is how they get the books into the stores, this is what the e-book royalty is like, this is what the chances of getting published abroad are like, this is how the industry works or changes, this is what the business side of the field you’re in looks like.” And if you don’t know that, I don’t know how much service you’re doing to a writer.
Do you think the phenomenon of writers splitting their lists – with backlist titles going to smaller indie houses while frontlist work goes to bigger houses – answers what a St. Martin’s Press or High Risk Books meant to gay writers looking to place more experimental or subversive work in the marketplace, while also reaching out to a broader audience?
I think the advantage of being with a large house is usually money and distribution. And money is important to writers, and distribution is important. But as the retail landscape changes, the question is whether distribution is going to be the same in five years. If Barnes & Noble starts shutting stores, if there are fewer bookstores around, if the independent bookstore reemerges, that equation changes a little bit because the independent bookstore is probably the place who’s going to be more open to a riskier voice, an edgier voice, a more experimental voice because the person who goes to the independent bookstore tends to be someone who’s looking for a curated collection. The person who goes to the chain store, is usually someone who is responding to a review or something they’ve seen on TV. By the nature of it being a big chain, it tends to stock more commercially, or at least that’s the way I choose to see it. Of course it changes from city to city. I think gay is entirely different today that it was when I started because gay books were marginal, and now gay people are getting married. The reason there aren’t so many gay imprints left is because so much morphed into the mainstream that it didn’t feel as vital, and because the whole thing that a lot of gay books, particularly gay novels, did was provide a voice during the painful experience of coming out. Now the airwaves are filled with fully out homosexuals who are decorating, dressing celebrities…so I think it’s a lot easier to turnaround…look, I think it’s… coming out is something that of course changes, and is different as the society changes, but those books that made a difference to me when I was growing up, like Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story or Nocturnes for the King of Naples or even the John Rechy books that kind of painted a portrait of a gay underworld, or Genet or Burroughs. It’s a different world. Those books are historical now.
Now those books are for the gay book nerds.
Yeah. They’re classics. The notion of the gay section doesn’t really need to exist in quite the same way it did, because if it were all about claiming a certain type of cultural identity, and understanding who you were as being marginalized, the marginality, certainly in big cities, isn’t what it used to be. It’s kind of like if you look at all of the margins, whether it’s African American, or Latino/Latina, the mainstream started morphing people in, so suddenly that which was marginal didn’t feel as peripheral, but if you’re in the margins, and an experimental writer, well then you’re doubly-fucked [laughter]. So that’s where small presses like Don Weise’s operation, or a lot of things that are beginning to happen like what Dale [Peck] is doing with Mischief & Mayhem, at OR Books, or a lot of other small press operations that are beginning to pop up electronically, will make a difference, because I think for the voice of the person who is at least if not singly, but doubly marginalized by both content and form, you will find your people probably by being kind of community specific and then it starts breaking out. And I think if you look at like Dennis Cooper, Dennis started on small press, and then went to Grove, and now is at Harper. But I think it was Fanzine Press, did some of the poetry. So it’s about this kind of give and take, between small and large press.
So those opportunities still exist, in a way?
To a certain extent. They’re just changing now. They’re changing and morphing, and I think in the next few years there are going to be a lot of electronic publishers who also have a print-on-demand option who are going to know how to reach their audience better. I think people like Richard Nash at Red Lemonade who’s doing Lynne Tillman is probably the example of how people will publish those books which are not going to be right for the Knopf’s, or Simon & Schuster’s, who are looking to simply get numbers out at this point. And I think, look, I think everyone is really comfortable taking a risk on brand new things in book publishing because there’s no history. But if you’re a writer who’s had at least a few books behind you, and your numbers aren’t good, those large houses don’t serve you well because if they publish you at all, you will be marginalized within a very big system, which is far worse than being with a young upstart who really wants to push you. I think people can do better these days on Graywolf than they can on sometimes much larger houses because Graywolf will work harder. It’s going to vary obviously from place to place, but I think big houses are really good for debuts, and if your numbers don’t work, you’ve got to start looking around after book two or three.
You mentioned independent bookstores. Have you seen a resurgence in independent bookstores, as some of the larger stores, namely Borders, have scaled back their operations?
Greenlight in Brooklyn is a great example of a young…
Yeah, but that’s Brooklyn. In Brooklyn you have Bookcourt, you have Greenlight, you have Spoonbill & Sugartown, you have Bookthugnation…
I’m not on the road in America enough to be able to turn around and say I’m seeing it. My travel is going in a different direction because of all the foreign rights stuff I do. I really want to believe that changes in the economy will lower the prices of retail rents in commercial centers around America. And young, smart people will open bookstores, which may not look like the bookstores of my youth. There may be more coffee in them, and t-shirts, and maybe pieces of art, and things like that to help to pay the rent. But I think the bookstore is always a place that people go to express either a desire for some type of cultural experience, or if you’re an owner, to express what you believe is important culturally. And I think language is more important than anything else here, and I really have faith that it’s going to happen. And I think bad economies lead to funky small business because there’s nothing else to do. I think what we don’t know is where the internet component of it will go. But I do know that Ruth Curry and Emily Gould are looking into building an independent internet bookstore. You know, a boutique, e-book bookstore. And it got some ink in Gawker, and the Observer. So I think there are a lot of new models. But physical space, place, has always been very important to community building and to writers, who get to meet their readers, who get to read from their work, and that tends to be the bookstore first, unless there’s enough money in a community to support an arts center that can do performance, as well as readings and all kinds of other stuff.
Where in the literary soup are the explicitly gay stories, outside of the work produced by established gay writers like a Hollinghurst? Do gay nonfiction books crowd the marketplace in a way that gay fiction may not be able to operate?
Gay fiction is a term I don’t really think exists anymore, unless you’re looking at the very commercial books that a place like Kensington does, which I would say are more lifestyle books and “entertainments.” There are obviously exceptions there, but they do very commercial gay books. And that’s very different than a writer who happens to be gay, or not, but incorporates gay content into their work and writes a novel. I think that homosexuality, per se, is not a problem when it is part of the story that is unusually well-told. I think that in this day in age it’s all about the writing. But yeah, you’re not going to see a lot of unusually gay books on the bestseller list because it’s crowded with mysteries by uber-bestsellers who are brand names like James Patterson and Nora Roberts. So, there are so many gradations of how things fit in to the publishing world. I firmly believe that good writing gets out there, as it should. I think right now it’s hard to predict what the next few years will be like just because of changes in the industry and smaller lists, but I think all of us who work in this field –on the literary side– are looking for good writing, and I don’t think it matters if it comes from a Filipina, or an African-American, or a gay, or a whatever. I think what we’re looking for is good writing, and sometimes story, or work that is formally inventive and meaningful.
Who would you class right now with, say a… Justin Torres?
That’s a good question.
Is he in the field by himself? In that particular lane, by himself?
No, I think, Justin Torres is a literary writer who got picked up by the New Yorker for all the right reasons, and…he’s good. Period. And I think, he sits next to a lot of other people who’ve been published by the New Yorker, whether it’s my client David Bezmozgis, or it’s Junot Diaz, who they supported how many years ago. Whether it’s Alexander Hammond, or Amy Bender.
But you recognize the way that we, in a minority community, establish these quotas?
I think Justin Torres opens more doors than closes. I think, any gay writer, if you choose to use that term, who gets out there into the mainstream, opens more doors for other people than not. I think that unfortunately, many writers, feel that someone is taking something away from them, by getting a piece of the publishing action, or the audience. I don’t subscribe to the “pie theory.” Some people think they want all the pie. I don’t believe that, I believe there’s enough for everyone, because I think if I didn’t think that, I couldn’t stay in this business. I think if I believed that, I wouldn’t represent a lot of the people I represent, because I would venture to guess that many of the people I work with aren’t getting as much as they deserve. But if I got angry, every day, about it, it wouldn’t make me a good agent. You have to fight the good fight, not the angry fight, I think. You have to help people to gain audience. You have to work with publishers, and writers, and collaborate, and really try to get them out there, rather than just say, “You know that one, if he didn’t get that deal, there’d be more money.” That bullshit.
Can I get you to respond to the Edward Albee quote, from the Lammies. “I’m not a gay writer. I’m a writer who happens to be gay,” which sort of ruffled some feathers.
I think, it’s fine to say that. I think, gay is part of, for me, it’s part of my cultural identity, as much as Jewish, and American — of Eastern European ancestry, I suppose, is — it’s part of my cultural make up, and my cultural heritage. As a gay person, I do not read only gay writers, as I don’t think you as a black gay person only reads black gay writers. I think for Albee, Albee is a person who writes about class and family, he always has. As the years have gone on, certain aspects of family have become more important, but I think Albee is a great writer, particularly with issues of class in America. He’s a great playwright. I don’t give a shit if he’s gay or not. And I think his homosexuality, in many ways, may have informed aspects of writings. But it’s not fair for someone to put him down for that, because he is a writer. Yes, he is a gay. Yes, what order you put those words in…I don’t know. I feel like it’s a little late in the day for all that, because I think times have changed, and I think, we have to support our cultural identity, but I think being angry about marginalization is a little disingenuous at this point, and quite honestly, usually the people who I find complaining about some notion of forced marginalization or other people taking all the pie, are the people with the least amount of talent. If they were doing so well as writer, perhaps they would have less to complain about. Or rather, if they were talented as writers, and believed in themselves, and a couple more people than just themselves believed in it, they might be able to go somewhere.
Is there anybody else in the industry, you think, that is as visible as you? That I could Google, find out about their sexual identity, find out that they also carry as much clout in the literary world?
There are a lot of us who are gay. There are a lot of very talented gay people in this business. Whether it’s Carole DeSanti at Viking or Bob Weil at Norton, to name a couple. Ann Goddof, who runs the Penguin Press, Vicky Wilson at Knopf.
I only ask because I wonder if you could sort of see yourself as a gay godfather in the literary world.
No, because if you look at list of books I represent, it’s not as gay as you think. I mean certainly my interest in formally experimental people is as well represented as my interest in good writing. And yes, some of the people I work with happen to be gay. Because of High Risk, a lot of people think oh gay gay gay gay gay. Dennis Cooper, William Burroughs, all of that. That’s part of who I am as someone who’s a reader. It’s part of who I am as someone who works in the field. Yeah, it definitely shapes aspects of what turns me on as a reader, but it’s not everything.
There are literary kids out there who feel like you are the first stop in terms of, I need to make sure Ira sees my work first.
I think there are other agents who are gay like Mitchell Waters at Curtis Brown, my colleague down the hall here, Douglas Stewart. You could look through the membership of the ranks of the Publishing Triangle and come up with dozens and dozens of gay publishing professionals who I think have been around as long, some longer than I, who’ve taken as many risks. I mean there are a few dead people. We lost some really good people to AIDS ten, fifteen years ago who were maybe thought of as “gay” in quotes because we had to fight a little harder then for a place at the table. I don’t have a problem with a place at the table, and I don’t have a problem with a place at the table for my clients, but I think it’s all about the work. Are you good, or are you not good? That’s it. In my opinion. It’s only my opinion. Someone else may think you’re great. There are many writers who I have chosen not to represent who’ve had fine careers. All we can bring to this is passion. And what I may not have passion for, somebody does.
Do you recommend gay writers find a gay agent?
I think good writers should find good agents. I don’t think the sexuality of your representative matters. I think their experience and professionalism matter.
How much material are you getting right now from gay writers? Like what percentage of the stuff that makes it to you would you say comes from gay writers?
It’s funny cause the joke in the office this summer is, Wow, they’re coming out of the woodwork. [Laughter] And after this piece runs, it’ll probably be worse yet. I think because of my affiliation, again, with Burroughs, and Dennis Cooper, and Wayne Koestenbaum, and Derek Jarman’s estate, and David Wojnarowicz’s estate, I get a lot of gay work, and I get a lot of dark, experimental gay work. And I feel very comfortable saying most of it isn’t up to par. But I think it’s harder to be a really good experimental writer than it is to be any other kind of writer. And the sexuality has nothing to do with it. And I think “dark” these days has become harder to effect because it’s much harder to shock in this world than it was twenty years ago where expressions of deviant sexuality are on the front page of the newspaper. I don’t think it’s particularly shocking in novels anymore. For some people, I’m absolutely the go-to-guy, but it’s not just the gays, it’s kind of the freaks and the weirdos.
Could you give me five gay writers for people to read? They have to be living.
See, what’s tricky here is, I’m going to leave out one of my clients who’s going to be offended.
Sapphire, though I’m not sure what she considers herself these days.
We ran into each other at a literary party and I was like, “Ira, there’s a lot of dudes around. I gotta get out there, start mingling…” And you were like, “Fred, It’s not gonna happen here.” [laughter] And your joke was that those events are peopled by …
…pasty white straight boys and the hot women who love them. That’s publishing.
Exactly. How do you exist in that world? Or how did you exist? How do you exist now?
I have a life. [laughter] I have a life. I can walk into a cocktail party with anyone and you meet the people you want to meet. I also don’t think this is an unusually straight business, but I do think there is probably a higher factor of geeky, anemic white boys in publishing than there would be in some other industry because it’s a geeky business. I think the women do tend to be hotter than the men, but that’s okay. It doesn’t bother me. I’m socially very pliable and open. [laughter]But I don’t know that if you’re a gay guy, publishing is the natural environment in which to look for sexual companionship.
Is there a part of you that hopes to see the parameters of the [publishing] world broaden a bit?
I hope to see the publishing world survive the next five years. And burgeon. And change. Because I think in the next five years we have to change as a field. I think we are wide open, I think there is more going on in the non-profit, and e-book, and small press community than people might be aware of. I think the problem that a lot of writers face is that they only look at the large press environment, forgetting that there’s a lot more out there, and that it doesn’t all happen at the beginning of your career, and that it is a big, broad world, and you can see that by going to book fairs, and by going to BEA, where the presence of independent presses becomes greater as the presence of large presses becomes smaller because those fairs have gotten thrown back to the people for whom they were started.
Would you say that the agenting world is sensitive to the fact that writers, if they do open themselves up to new modes of publishing, still have to eat?
No writer should quit their day job. But yes, we’re here to fight for an appropriate share of what comes back, after a book is sold. But I don’t think anyone should go into this business, whether as an agent, editor, or writer, expecting gross financial remuneration. Should that happen, it’s a gift. But I think writers should get their work out there. We who work in the field should work to get our clients’ work out there. And if we can all make a living, that’s great.