Joshua Cohen


Dear Aaron Priestly,

Thank you for letting us take a read on your manuscript. STORY OF MY LIFE was bold, and compelling, but ultimately I was not convinced that I was the right person to represent it. I just did not find this a must read. It did not click, I regret to inform. Nor did it hold ME. I find your premise lacking, quite. Good luck elsewhere (*I can no longer accept queries from writers who have not been previously published or who have not been referred to me by a colleague*).


Please accept my very best wishes for the success of STORY OF YOUR LIFE. Though I did not fall in love with your story enough to continue reading it, I pass. We must pass. Obviously not for me, obviously. He, she, it, passes.

For this very reason we would stress, however, that this is just our opinion (careful, considered), and that another agent, and/or publisher, might think differently.


Aaron! You’ve got a great idea in LIFESTORY, a wonderful blend of boy coming of age mixed with spiritual quest as well. For all its attractions, though, we can’t persuade ourselves that we’re the right advocates for this novel. Your memoir. The writing we represent is generally “literate” (for want of a better description, which we lack), rather than action-driven. We’re concerned we don’t know the appropriate editors at the appropriate presses, whether large, small, or medium-sized. We do wish you well, however.

Again, thanks so much for letting us consider you and your material from (A Novel). As (your friend, our client) explained to you, we represent VERY little fiction. A tiny tiny fraction. And unfortunately we didn’t feel the execution of this material was strong enough for us to offer representation without a deep conviction about entertaining merits. Unfortunately. We don’t feel that we can’t represent you effectively, or quite differently. Of course, as we are sure you might know, this is an extremely subjective business and others may not even respond. We thank you, then, for giving us your patience in pursuit of efforts to find suitable representation toward publication of. We appreciate being allowed to fully read through this partial. Honored to give this sample the ample attention such a project deserves.

Although you write very well, we were impressed by your work and creativity, but after careful consideration we feel that this feeling is just not right for us. As you know, however, though. While your life sounds intriguing we’re afraid we won’t be able to pursue it further with you. We wish you every success.

In sum, Mr. Priestly, we’re sorry that we’re forced to be so painfully discriminating but we’re taking on very small fiction right now to be honest very very small and only seem to bend when something unlike anything else on our list comes along while finding that we may be “totally tapped out” on this kind of lit altogether though certainly another agent more interested/less with so much slush in her pile will undoubtedly be more intelligent imaginative more enthusiastic or prove hopefully responsive however to that end we wish you all the best in securing otherwise alternate, et cetera.

Enc. 1 mss. PC/dd


What appears to be the problem with STORIES OF MY PAST AND FUTURE LIVES? For one, the character of Dina is just not believable, and, for that matter, neither is Priestly himself, who is not allowed to develop fully, and whose motives we don’t understand from the very beginning, where nothing’s at stake.

We suggest you turn Priestly into either an eighteen-year-old male, from the beginning (and so, the section about leaving his uncle’s house and that whole entire scene with the dogs ((are they fighting, or are they playing??)) could open the book, as a prologue), or a sixteen-year-old female (and so the loss of virginity instead would be not only illegal but incestuously with “her” legal guardian, her uncle, and not with that forgettable nextdoor neighbor who knew, or said she knew, “her” mother — you with me?).

Another suggestion is that the Dina character should be developed more, and introduced earlier, or later, or not at all, and should be more developed (her meeting of Priestly should be “before the book,” for example; we should “take them for granted” as a couple already, or if not as a couple then at least predestined to be one).

We think you should leave the office you currently temp at in Midtown and get a job in the outer boroughs, Brooklyn, Queens. Why do you need so much exposition up front (Priestly’s father’s dead, mother’s dead, shuttled among relatives, and all this before he’s finally rejected for marriage by “his dreamgirl,” your words, and what about that Broadway fantasy of hers — is that why he follows her to New York, or do you think he has aspirations of his own?)? Why do you need to have a job in the arts industry, Aaron? Do you really think answering phones for some television PR firm will help your prospects at selling your roman-à-mémoire? We think you should stop doing officework altogether and get into the service industry, or worse. Whitewashing the cycs at a photo studio. Taking out the trash at a fried chicken franchise in a neighborhood nowhere near its transition.

Things should be made much harder on you, or much easier (you should be happier), before you give up. Conditions, bills due. Before you realize for yourself, what I’m saying.

Also, we suggest switching Chapter One with Chapter Two.

“I’m of the opinion,” he said, “that the more dialogue the better off we are the less there is.”

We think that girl you met in that bar in Williamsburg last weekend has herpes. And no she does not look like starry Dina. We’re not sure if you have it yet, the herp. Priestly’s uncle should not receive his own diagnosis until at least Chapter Five. Or Six (and is it colon cancer, or liver, make up your mind!). After Dina’s rejection of his proposal. After her move “to parts east,” again your words. What cliché! Auditions. Then, rejections of her own. What clichés! You should quit smoking, Aaron. You drink too much, too.

Must Priestly always be “eveready for sex” (I count this phrase at least three times)?

Must you never eat breakfast?

Fix your ellipses.

“Your dialogue needs quotation marks,” he said.

Don’t be so indulgent. Experiment on your own time. Call your grandmother (who’s still living in Florida? why’d you save that for so long? Too late. Better to forget her, write her out of the book).

Chapter Seven’s the most moving. My assistant didn’t get that far, though. Deborah didn’t get past your second eviction — but she’s younger than you even, still making your mistakes for herself.

We’re sorry your mother’s dead, especially, yes yes. But that is no excuse. And your father and, with Chapter Eight, your uncle. But you should get back on that medication. Take risks. Allow us to suggest that you up your previous dosage.

We suggest that you move out of that terrible new apartment in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant. You’re paying too much money. That’s a bad neighborhood: “slummy, darkly empty.” Your descriptions are either too long, or too short, and your syntax is often structurally unsound. Study grammar.

One word, “vegetables.” One with every meal.

Respect the reader. But first, respect yourself. We suggest you move back home to Maine. Move back to your Grandma’s other daughter’s, your aunt’s. Or Maryland, was it? Something in the M’s. Massachusetts. Michigan. Minnesota. Mississippi. Missouri. Montana? Minnesota. Minnesota.

Change the beginning. Change the end.

Ultimately, I wasn’t grabbed. Wasn’t overwhelmed.

Go back to the gas station from freshman and sophomore years. Go back to that movie theater from the summer later: “trashed, stained carpets, obnoxiously high-ceilinged.”

Go back to hanging out with your high school friends again (funny stuff, good). Go back to school, even to community college. Work nights in a factory, or early morning farming. Revise revise revise. Give up being a novelist, an aspiring novelist. You will never be a writer. You will never be published, Sincerely.

Dina is flat. Dina is unconvincing. She works at a salon. She does nails. She does hair. She stays on the page. Dead on the page. She does not come alive. Call her up, too. She came home a year ago, having failed just like you. Something in common. Finally, a subject. Manage a conversation again. I talked to her this afternoon. Had my assistant Deborah look her up in the phonebook, wasn’t difficult, settled the fiction vs. nonfiction question once and for all.

She’s living in the basement where her brother used to live before the Marines went into Iraq, same telephone number. Get to know her again. Pacing. Broadway said no. Pacing, again. Never a singer, never a song. Take a bow. Take hers.

Take hers to her.

Visit your many graves, leave flowers. Mother, father.

Cut up, your sentences. Make every comma, count.

You know how to diagram? You know what they say about a period, placed well? Correctly.

We suggest you stop trying to be someone you’re not. We suggest you make real true friends, not liars and wannabes. Your talent is for living. And don’t you call Deborah again (especially not at work, not during office hours)!

Repeat, repeat after me. Dina, Dina.

Your Priestly is a bore. You’re a bore because you’re not the person you should be. The person you should have been should be married by now and have a real job. A career, even. Family. A car, cars, multiple insurances. Down with precarity. Enough with the scrimp. You should make money, you should spend it. Should be saving up at your age. Your book should begin on page 110. Second paragraph. One sentence in. Write a new conclusion. Take a new sheet of paper. Tear it out from the back of a notebook. Get off the computer, use a notebook, a pencil, a pen, hammer, axe.

Write a new beginning.

The middle suffers. The middle drags.

Back home the snow should be melting by now. Melted.

Put on your boots, your uncle’s, your father’s. Jump around in the slush. Spring. When the crystals lose their edges, their knives and pens’ tips and tongues, their elbows and shoulders. When mounds of snow become dull bubbles, wet. And when you step down and the ice doesn’t shatter but bursts and all around you your footprints fill up, overflow. A sheet of ice softened by boot into dew, a cold bed. Step and sleep better. “Dream piles of dreams.”

Change Priestly’s name to something believable. More. Change something. More. New socks. Buy a plane ticket. Splurge. Minneapolis/St. Paul. Why am I being so kind to you? At such length? I grew up there myself. Tomorrow.