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So What Do You Do, John Hodgman?

The former literary agent on his writing, his lectures, and the art of blowhard-ism.

- July 1, 2003

We generally think of a literary agent as kind of behind-the-scenes power broker, someone aggressively guarding his unlisted phone number while toiling to bring unrecognized talent to the shelves of the local Barnes & Noble. But John Hodgman, a former literary agent at Writers House and author of the popular McSweeney's column "Ask a Former Professional Literary Agent," has devised a way to "revive the corpse that is the literary reading" and, along the way, bring him to the agent's rightful place behind the podium. In New York's "Little Gray Book Lectures," Hodgman—whose own fiction has been published in The Paris Review, One Story magazine, and the website Open Letters—invites authors to sing, use PowerPoint, and occasionally smash items in a shamelessly successful bid for the audience's rapt, drunken attention. A frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine, This American Life, and Men's Journal (for which, as a contributing editor, he writes a column about "food, drink, and cheese, which is a kind of food"), Hodgman spoke recently to about Dave Eggers, karmic career advancement, and being a professional blowhard.

How did the idea for the "Little Gray Book Lectures" come to you?
Much like one becomes a food writer, one begins a lecture series by accident. At one of McSweeney's readings at Galapagos, I saw Arthur Bradford [author of The Dogwalker] smash an acoustic guitar that he had been playing while reading his story. To me, that moved the goalposts forever. It was an explosive moment of understanding that something had changed forever, that this was exactly what literary readings required: more things being smashed and/or set on fire.

And the name "Little Gray Books" comes from…?
In the 1920s, a man named Emmanual Haldeman-Julius had the idea to publish a little library of inexpensive, shirt-pocket-sized, pamphlet editions of great works of literature, particularly those that were in the public domain. He started releasing this series of Little Blue Books in numbered sequential order, beginning with reprints, but rather swiftly, as they gained in popularity, moving on to original commissioned works with a kind of improving, instructive bent, like How to Tie All Kinds of Knots or How to Make All Kinds of Candy. There were more than 1,900 published, one of which was How to Prepare a Manuscript, a very interesting, timeless, and archaic book of instructions on how to submit you novel to literary agents, which my mother had given to me when I became an agent. And I realized two things: one, that this would be a great rubric under which we could introduce a theme for every lecture, and two, that someday we might even present Little Gray Books, either reprinting the lectures or as stand-alone items.

And were the lectures immediately successful?
They were immediately successful. But that's not terribly difficult if you have, as we did in the first one, perhaps 10 readers who each has some friends who like to drink in bars; you fill a room rather quickly. Galapagos is a wonderful space; it can accommodate a couple of hundred people; and we usually have about 120 in there now. But I would say only within the past year has a substantial portion of that been complete strangers, to whom I am very grateful—as opposed to my friends, whom I hate.

And are they profitable?
Well, in December we made the suggested donation $5 at the door, and this allows us to mount increasingly elaborate displays of literary brio. PowerPoint presentations have become extremely important. And this allows us to pay Jon Langford of the Mekons to come sing songs about Chicago, or for the great freelance writer Brett Martin to ring up a pulley system so that he could have a miniature blimp descend while on fire.

He's on fire, or the blimp is on fire?
The blimp is on fire. Well, it had some sparklers attached.

Now, you've become involved with arguably the two most powerful men of our literary generation—Dave Eggers and Ira Glass. Would you tell our readers how that came about, and how they too could meet powerful men?
Well, in terms of my professional writing career, I will be the first person to say that McSweeney's was the best thing that had ever happened to me, and it happened by accident. In 1997, I was in San Francisco, and I read a cartoon of Dave's in a local paper and thought, "Boy, this guy is really smart, and cool, and I wonder if he has a literary agent. When I get back to New York, I'll have to look him up." Of course, I never did. Maybe a year later, an email that he had sent out saying that he was starting this journal called McSweeney's was forwarded to me by someone, and I thought, this is fate at work. I emailed him and he emailed me back, like, "How did you get this email?"

The work I did at McSweeney's led to me getting to know certain editors like Paul Tough, who was doing a web site called Open Letters, and I wrote something for Open Letters, and that reminded Alex Bloomberg at This American Life that we had met at his friend's wedding in 1998, and he called me up and said, "Would you like to read this letter on the air some time?" So, for my entire writing career I am grateful for gifts of circumstance.

Was it strange to watch someone around you become stratospherically famous?
No. No. No. I said no three different times for three different reasons. One, because Dave wasn't really around me; we weren't particularly close friends, so it wasn't like watching your best friend from high school become a huge movie star. And the second reason is, it was not strange because I absolutely felt that he deserved it. Maybe because the McSweeney's sensibility had touched such a nerve with me, I was pleased and not surprised when a lot of other people felt the same way. And third, because, no offense to Dave, but he's not stratospherically famous. He's, you know, a major, bestselling book author, but in the global scheme of things, I think Dame Edna gets more press than he does. And that transvestite is old! You know, he ain't J.Lo.

Which leads me to a different question—where does one get stories?
My feeling is that storytelling, historically, has served three purposes, and this goes for fiction and nonfiction. One is to record history; two is to entertain or divert the listener or reader from everyday woes of starvation or warfare or beasts in the wilderness or whatever; and the third is to instruct. Typically, morally instruct, although now, this is an amoral age, so that instruction component is now sort of expressed in the service aspect.

Unfortunately, I think in most general, everyday storytelling, people aren't going to tell you how to tie all kinds of knots as much as they used to. We had Jamie Kitman, who's a rock band manager and attorney and, of course, an automotive correspondent for many magazines, talk about how to buy a car in "How to Negotiate All Kinds of Deals and Contracts." At the same time, we had Bobby Hager, who used to sell musical organs at a mall, explain the principles for hooking in poor rural farmers to buying $20,000 organs, which could come in handy. Maybe not tomorrow, but someday.

In magazine work, the key is finding the story that you want to tell. Which is to say, in the week following and preceding the release of the motion picture The Hulk, saying that Jennifer Connelly or Eric Bana is alive is a story. Believe me, your reader will be much happier if you figure out the story you want to tell about Eric Bana or Jennifer Connelly.

Did you tell one of those stories?
No. I don't have an Eric Bana story to tell. But Jennifer Connelly went to Yale [as did Hodgman—and, full disclosure, this reporter]. She's very pretty, also. That's the beginning of a story. If you're pitching a story to a magazine or if you're pitching a book or if you're just figuring out what you want to write that day, presuming you're independently wealthy and can just write short stories all day long, attune yourself to figuring out the stories that you have to tell about anything—whether it's the guy you see on the street or a relationship that went wrong in your life or this year's summer blockbuster or how to make the perfect hamburger.

What about fried chicken? Because that's actually an important topic people don't address enough.
No, I haven't written anything about fried chicken. I think the definitive work on fried chicken has been done by Alton Brown on his show Good Eats on the Food Network. I don't think there can be any improvement on that work at all. But food writing is a good example, because everything has already been written about. There are three basic macro-nutrients: proteins, carbs, and fats. And they're going to combine in certain ways to make certain foods. Food writing is really a test to find the new story, and the way to find it is to make it your own.

That is good advice, John.
There'll be more on my seminar tour.

I've always known you've had a talent for general pronouncements and ordering people around.
Some people are talented at doing things, writing things. Others are talented at being blowhards—bossy blowhards. I also like the term aphorist.

But why did you give up fiction writing?
Well, I still do a lot of fiction writing in that much of what I write is not reported and is largely made-up. Rather than telling the story in a traditional short-story form, it finds its way into phony advice columns, phony lectures, phony introductions to real lectures, and other various formats that have effectively become a certain professional blowhard-ism. And that fulfills that creative need for me very well. Writing short stories is very hard, and I don't like to do things that are very hard. I would hope that some of the introductions and lectures that I've given achieve that sort of three-part purpose of a good story.

And why did you cease to be a literary agent?
By the early summer of 2000, when I left the agency I was working for, Writers House, I felt that by that time I had been enjoying writing for McSweeney's, and even some venues that paid money on the side, and I wanted to pursue that. In a lot of ways, the lectures allow me to continue to be the kind of literary agent without having to be responsible for people's careers—you know, having to work.

What would you like to happen next?
To become independently wealthy. Maybe by someone giving me money—it doesn't really matter. I would prefer to not have to kill someone. I would like the "Little Gray Book Lectures" to become a radio show—ideally, a public radio show, because, as you know, that's where the money is.

Lizzie Skurnick is a writer living in Baltimore and a frequent contributor to Illustration by Elizabeth Connor.

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