Wish In One Hand, Shit In The Other
The hashtag #mswl (sometimes written in all caps, sometimes not) looks like the name of a sports league, but it’s actually just an acronym: Manuscript Wish List. It’s a simple premise—agents & editors go on Twitter to tell aspiring writers what kind of stories they want to see in their inbox. It’s been floating around for a few years now, and like most things internet, it’s a great idea in theory (easier access, increased communication, a more level playing field, a lot cheaper than buying/stealing a $50 Writer’s Market book), but plays out a little differently in practice. Because it turns out you might be better off not knowing exactly what the publishing industry is looking for.
Please, please, please send me Golden Girls in space #MSWL
— Laura Zats (@LZats) September 13, 2016
Sept. 13, 2016 was ‘#mswl day’ (typically followed by an exclamation point), and beyond the issues, which we’ll get to in a bit, concerning class & commercialism #mswl-land turns out to be a fundamentally strange place. It’s a world with ‘friendly reminders’ instead of rules, and where aspiring writers are constantly reminded to ‘be respectful.’ In all, it feels a little like visiting the house of a wealthy anal-retentive aunt, only in #mswl-land you don’t get to pilfer all the good drugs from her medicine cabinet.
— Clelia Gore (@MadmoiselleClel) September 14, 2016
It’s where an agent can describe themselves, without irony (mainstream publishing is pretty much an irony-free zone), as being ‘forever convinced that my Hogwarts-letter-bearing owl will find me one day,’ and no one makes fun of them. Partly b/c no one wants to risk getting on someone’s shit list, but also because they’re possibly waiting for their own Hogwart’s owl.
Another agent, also without irony—or, um, any cultural sensitivity whatsoever—describes herself in her Twitter bio as a ‘slave to dachshunds.’ She’s not talking about some cool transgressive NYC sex thing, she’s just trying to be funny. It turns out that a lot of what passes for humor in #mswl-land is someone affecting a quasi-self-deprecating tone while they complain about something trivial. It’s the kind of humor you usually only see in certain parents and animal lovers (usually white, usually privileged). Apparently, no one’s ever told them that to non-privileged, childless, animal ambivalents, this kind of humor manages to be both excruciating and boring all at once.
#mswl speech is easily identified by its shiny panglossian optimism, a hyper-positivity signaled by an insane overabundance of exclamation points. Reading through it is exhausting the way a breakfast of Super Big Gulps and powdered donuts is exhausting—a brief stimulation followed by a swift descent into an angry stupor. Or as your typical TwitterLit person might put it:
All of which is exhausting! The way a breakfast of super big gulps & powdered donuts is exhausting!
(I should note that your typical TwitterLit person tends to post way more often about the food they eat than they do about books, and neither powdered donuts nor soda ever appear in these food posts.)
— Thao Le (@ThaoLe8) September 13, 2016
Sifting through #mswl leaves one feeling a little gross, overstimulated to the point of exhaustion, accompanied by psychic nausea and existential distress. It’s a demonstration of upper-middle-class manners and taste, the desire to be seen the way you imagine others wish to see you. A panopticon of sunshine and joy with the darkness and pain and guilt that we all carry within us kept aggressively (or passive-aggressively) off-screen. The experience feels like this super-awkward dinner party or academic potluck where everybody’s drinking but nobody’s drunk and everybody’s laughing but nobody seems to be having a good time and everybody smiles through gritted teeth and heads to the bathroom for long unexplained periods of time. It’s not that most of these agents are nice—it’s that if anything they’re nice to such a degree that nothing else about their personality even exists. Here’s the dachshund slave.
#MSWL A great new YA voice & a premise that does something different. Could be any genre! History, magic mixed with reality?
— Sarah Davies (@SarahGreenhouse) September 13, 2016
So yeah, basically this internet thing functions like most internet things—no big surprise there, I guess. But then there’s the actual manuscripts the agents want—excuse me, wish—to see.
If you've got a Practical Magic-style witchy YA, gimme. #MSWL
— Hannah Fergesen (@HannahFergesen) September 6, 2016
There are two websites dedicated to organizing #mswl universe to make it more convenient for the aspiring author. www.manuscriptwishlist.com bills itself as ‘The Official Manuscript Wish List Website,’ but then there’s www.mswishlist.com, which I’m assuming is not official. Both sites have a search function that allows you to specifically look for what agents and editors are specifically looking for.
It turns out almost every agent is looking for MG & YA books (that’s Middle Grade & Young Adult for you industry outsiders). Which is weird in the sense that there’s like a new story every week complaining how millennials don’t/can’t/won’t read books. Yet books tailored towards them seem to sell the most. Maybe well-meaning relatives are buying all these YA books as gifts and they sit unread on a shelf somewhere. Or maybe the YA’s just take selfies with the books and post them on their Instagram. Maybe they take erotic selfies for their Tinder profile. In this day and age, who can be sure of anything? Regardless, your typical agent wishes harder than anything for MG and YA novels. One agent is looking for a YA version of The Hangover, the idea of which, frankly, is a little terrifying. Another wants a YA version of Broad City—which, while it would be fun to write, I’m pretty sure that writing a book about teenagers pegging their boyfriend, smoking weed, and FaceTiming during sex while living in Bushwick with little to no parent supervision is more likely to get me thrown in prison than get me a publisher. Is it possible that this whole #mswl thing is just a trap to catch child predators?
Anyway, lots of wishes out there for books that are funny, or geeky, or suspenseful. Lots of wishes for books that are like TV shows. There’s an editor at Penguin, Brian Geffen, requesting YA books ‘similar to The Get Down, Mr. Robot, The Wire sea. 4. and Wes Anderson.’ He is also the only person wishing for a book that is angry.
Here’s some more #mswl research I did:
TV shows agents/editors would like to see as books:
You’re The Worst, Mozart In The Jungle, Orphan Black, The Killing, Stranger Things, Dawson’s Creek, Fringe, Glee, Gossip Girl, The Affair, White Collar, Pushing Daisies, The Wire, My So-Called Life, Blacklist, Sabrina The Teenage Witch, Alias, Fargo, Broadchurch, Freaks and Geeks, Daria, That 70’s Show, Jane the Virgin, The Fall, Happy Valley, Luther, Prime Suspect, Golden Girls, Gilmore Girls, Breaking Bad, Walking Dead.
Movies agents/editors would like to see as books:
Brick, Donnie Darko, Halloween, Fatal Attraction, Rudderless, Frozen, Amelie, Memento, Snowpiercer, Election (that’s right, the movie Election, not the book—the agent also included Clueless, She’s All That, and Pleasantville because she’s ‘such a 90s girl’), Dope, The Fifth Element, Waitress, The Royal We, Coen Brothers, Hitchcock.
Author searches that produce zero results:
Heller, Burroughs, Vonnegut, Dostoevsky, Cortazar, Galeano, Stein, Acker, Gaddis, Beatty (or Sellout), DeWitt, Ballard (except this editor who, naturally, doesn’t accept unagented submissions), Coover, Harbach, Hunter Thompson, Wilde, Joyce (no James, but plenty of mentions for Carol Oates), Yu, O’Connor, Pynchon, DeLillo, Gaitskill, Hannaham. You get the idea. There are, mercifully, a couple of Alissa Nutting requests, though one of them is from someone looking for a YA version of her work, which makes me wonder if maybe they might have misunderstood the whole premise of Tampa.
It’s easy to conclude from all this that your typical agent/editor spent way more time in college watching TV than they did reading books. The results also suggest that mentioning any of these writers in your query/proposal isn’t going to get you very far, but saying your book is like ‘Lost In Translation meets The Simpsons !!! In Space!!!’ very well might.
There’s also a lot of calls for diversity, Because if there’s one thing any group that’s 98% white (not kidding—check this out) and 100% college-educated can agree on, it’s the need for diversity. Sometimes this call for diversity gets uncomfortably hyper-specific, to the point where it borders on being offensive.
I want more African-inspired SFF. I want Muslim characters in YA. I want native characters EVERYWHERE #MSWL
— Laura Zats (@LZats) September 13, 2016
Or this one:
Native/indigenous authors w/stories that mix contemporary life w/the fantasy, mythic, ancestral or spiritual aspects of their culture. #MSWL
— Lisa Abellera (@LisaAbellera) July 1, 2016
You can imagine an, ahem, indigenous author reading this and thinking, Yeah here’s a culturally specific fantasy: me getting a job in extreme Northeastern Arizona that pays above minimum wage. It turns out most agent/editors in #mswl-land assumes that their prospective authors, even the ‘diverse’ ones, live exactly like they do—moneyed, enthusiastic, and always connected to the internet. But less than 10% of federally-recognized tribes have access to the internet, and households with incomes below $35,000 are five times less likely to have broadband access than households that make over $80,000. That’s not even taking into account the fact that internet access costs money, and it’s a luxury most people living in poverty can’t afford, For some native-americans, even getting on the internet via a library or McDonald’s can mean a half-hour drive to the nearest town, assuming they have a car.
So while it’s fun to mock the lameness of #mswl agents and editors, and to score cheap laughs at their expense, this is where the idea turns a little ugly. Because while, yes, #mswl makes it easier to connect to a prospective agent/editor, it only makes it easier for a specific group of people—those who have the means to participate. Like seemingly everything else in this century, #mswl ends up giving an advantage to the already-advantaged while further marginalizing the already-marginalized.
In which case all these wishes for more diversity are more about the agent/editor’s social positioning than trying to ensure that a multiplicity of voices get access to the system. Furthermore, by insisting on ‘friendly reminders’ that everyone be polite and respectful and rule-abiding, you’re essentially asking every aspiring writer to act like upper-middle-class WASPs, demanding that they conform to the according social norms and politeness of that particular universe or risk being excluded. And I can’t think of anything less inclusive than that.
(Apparently, it’s never occurred to anyone that if your cultural gatekeepers are a bunch of boring hyper-self-conscious beige conformists you’re going to end up with a culture of boring hyper-self-conscious beige conformism.)
Real outreach would involve actual reaching out, something more proactive than a hashtag and a wish. An agent could contact people teaching writing programs in prisons, in poorer communities, at community colleges, asking them to give out their contact info to any promising writers they come across. As an agent or editor, you could make sure that at least 10% of your client base include a person of color, or someone without a college degree. You could make sure your assistants—most of whom are the people who initially read through submissions—be as diverse as the stories you’re hoping to represent.
The idea that we live in a meritocracy is a comforting one, and believing that the best and most talented among us will eventually get what they deserve is one of the things that keeps the American engine running smoothly. But that engine blew a gasket a long time ago and is currently shitting out fire. Right now there’s somebody typing away in the corner of a Burger King, or scribbling away in a jail, who’s written something that crushes the latest literary flavor of the month like a grape. And gimmicks like #mswl make these people less likely to find an agent, not more.
Look, I understand these agents have good intentions. I understand that they’re decent people who are just looking for great, sellable writing of inculcated wonder and luminous beauty.
Basically I'm in the mood for some books that inculcate wonder and show luminous beauty. That's what I love about SFF! #MSWL
— Hannah Bowman (@hannahnpbowman) September 16, 2016
But the road to a capitalist hell on earth is paved with good intentions, not to mention the bones of its failures. And maybe the saddest thing about #mswl is how it makes perfect sense, so much sense that you can’t really blame anyone for using it. Why wouldn’t you, as a cultural gatekeeper, ask writers to make you some culture exactly the way you want it? And do it the same way you’d order your drink from a barista, or paint your living room? The intersection of art and commerce is always going to be messy, but what happens when the ‘art’ part of the equation ceases to exist as anything other than a function of the marketplace. It’s one thing for the publishing industry to become one more pier rotting off into the neoliberal ocean, but it’s another thing altogether to act like you’re doing it a favor by turning it entirely into a commodity, where you ask for work of social merit solely because you think it’ll be an easier sell.
I'm looking for YA that tackles serious issues like bullying, eating disorders, teen pregnancy, racism, rape, domestic violence, etc. #MSWL
— Annie Bomke (@ABLiterary) September 13, 2016
In #mswl-land. art doesn’t exist at all; there is only the marketplace. As a friend of mine says of #mswl, it’s ‘a compost where nothing but money can grow.’
Although the person who wants to see pictures of turtles fucking each other may not be in it entirely for the money.
— Terrie Wolf (@AKA_Terrie) September 15, 2016
And I can empathize with the agents to a certain extent. At this point, most publishing companies are just subsidiaries of some corporate behemoth, where success is measured entirely in dollars, and that success is expected to be a line graph of profit that’s pointing ever upward. In a world like that, nobody’s job is safe, especially the agents, which must be terrifying if you live in an overpriced hellhole like NYC. In their position you’d be a fool to choose the next Mary Gaitskill over the next Gossip Girl. So if you want to blame somebody, don’t blame the people at the bottom of the ladder, blame the fucked-up system and the people at the top of the ladder who perpetuate it. The US publishing industry is just like the US itself. It favors privileged white people, is obsessed with profit to the point where it may eventually lead to an unnecessarily early death, and gives its shittiest jobs to women. The only solution, as seems to be the only solution to anything these days, is a total overhaul in the way we live.
But they could at least cut the positivity bullshit.
So on the bright side, it’s been a little over a week since the latest #mswl Day and the hashtag’s already getting hijacked by spam merchants (and not just aspiring authors, either). To give credit where credit’s due, one of these spammers is also in search of diversity:
— Vania Santos (@latineuro) September 19, 2016
The truth is though, I’d rather read a book by ‘Vania Santos’ than a book by every single one of the respondents I’ve seen on #mswl. I bet she has a story to tell that could make me weep, that reveals more about the way we live and what it means to be alive in this hellhole century than an infinite number of MFA-carrying Brooklynites sitting at an infinite number of laptops. That’s my manuscript wish list, and may god have mercy on our absence of souls.