My Most Brutal Agent Critique & What It Taught Me About Diverse Stories

It happened. I finally got the brutal agent response I will talk about twenty years from now at book signings. I’m a real writer now. Yay!

I wasn’t expecting an total take down of my novel considering I wasn’t querying. I took an online workshop on historical fiction that included a critique by the agent instructor of a log line, synopsis, and first 2 pages. I’d recently finished the first draft and was eager to get feedback on what needed to be improve. Here’s what I got back.

“Unusual can be good, but in this case, Portugal may feel too foreign to American readers…I don’t know how interested American readers are going to be in this particular era and place. There is no precedent for it. That doesn’t mean you can’t start a new trend, but first it would have to be so spectacular that readers wouldn’t be able to put it down. Unfortunately, that is not the case here.”

Once I recovered from not having my first pages recognized for their genius and obvious money-making potential, I reread the email more critically.

My first thought was “Portugal, a Christian country in Europe full of white people, may feel too foreign for Americans?” I’m still trying to figure out what about US demographics gives the agent this impression. If Portugal is too foreign what countries will Americans read about? Great Britain, obviously. France, yes. Germany? What about Russia? They’re white, but their culture is pretty dissimilar to the US.

I’m assuming the agent was thinking of white Americans. But maybe that’s unfair. The agent could have been thinking about Korean Americans. Portugal is different from Korea in so many ways from language to internet speed. Korean Americans probably have no interest in reading a story set there. I know I personally only read books set in places my DNA came from. Thank God Hogwarts is in England!

Going off that thought, maybe the large percentage of Americans who have DNA from Africa, the Middle East, Asia, North or South America would be interested in reading a story set in one of those places. This would actually be a great thing for my story.

Which leads to my second thought after rereading the email. See if you can spot the source of my confusion.

Log Line: 

Three young women form an improbable friendship in order to rescue the boy, find a murderer, and thwart a coup against the Portuguese monarchy. Madness & Diamonds is a girl-power Three Musketeers set in colonial Rio de Janeiro.

My book is not set in Portugal.

Here’s the first line of my synopsis.

Victoria, a servant of The Mad Queen Maria of Portugal, evacuates Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro with the royal family and 10,000 members of the court in advance of Napoleon’s invasion.

To clarify, Brazil is the big green one. Portugal is the orange dot.

The synopsis goes on to mention Rio another nine times. The most generous interpretation of events is that the agent was pressed for time or exhausted or probably both, skimmed my material in a rush and latched on to the first nationality mentioned, Portuguese. Or the agent typed Portugal but was thinking Brazil? I also considered the agent may not know where Rio de Janeiro is. (At Christmas I had to tell a homeschooling mom what continent Brazil is on, so thinking Rio is in Portugal is totally possible.)

Whatever the reason for the confusion, it’s just as well for me because if Portugal is too foreign, I can’t imagine what feedback I’d have gotten on a story set in Brazil.

In fairness, the agent cited one problem with my pages and synopsis: clarity. I absolutely agree based on her feedback that certain aspects of the story need to be made more obvious. I also know that complaining about a bad critique can make me seem petty to unprofessional. All writers get bad critiques. Get over it. And I would have except for one fact.

This agent is a Gatekeeper with a capitol G, and it was abundantly clear from the critique, this agent would never take a risk on a manuscript that was “too foreign.”

Foreign too whom? White, Christian Americans.

I joked about who the agent was envisioning when saying Portugal is too foreign for Americans, but it’s obvious what specific demographic she defines as American. What infuriates me is that the “Americans” this agent is considering will not even represent the vast majority of the population in a few years.

The Census Bureas predicts that by 2020, the majority of kids in the United States will be members of a minority race or ethnic group. Every single person working in children’s publishing in any capacity should know this fact because while the demographics of American children have changed, children’s publishing is still overwhelmingly white. Last year only 28% of children’s books were by and/or about people of color. That percentage is actually big jump from only two years earlier. However there’s still going to have to be a massive increase in stories about POC in the next few years, if children’s fiction in the U.S. is going to reflect the diverse reality of the country’s kids.

But how is children’s publishing going to change if the Gatekeepers think Portugal is too foreign for Americans?

Literature is also a proven way to develop empathy for people different from ourselves. Only 11% of children’s books published in the last 23 years had multicultural content. In today’s globalized world, it is essential children grow up aware of the variety of people that exist in the world. Not to mention the foreign-born population in the U.S. is predicted to reach a record high in 2025, roughly 15% of all people living in the U.S. will have been born in another country. (That statistic doesn’t even include people like my daughter, who is an American born abroad.) Empathy and a global perspective are critical tools for success in today’s world.

I’m going to end with a thank you to the agent who sent this critique. I had read the data and accounts from authors of color and those trying to publish books with diverse characters and settings. I was aware of the challenges these writers and books face but I wasn’t clear on the exact form they take. Now I know, and I’m more determined than ever to finish revising my story set in Brazil. I’m going to get it published. Then I’m going to sell it to Americans. Finally, I’ll send a copy along with the book’s sales numbers to that agent.

Although even then, I won’t have any idea how Americans feel about Portugal.

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2 Comments

  1. That is a great post! Congratulations .
    I was thinking, though, that maybe the editor meant “not known” when she said “foreign”. In that case, Brazil (and Rio) would probably be less foreign to Americans than Portugal.

    • I’d agree that’s probably what the agent meant by “foreign”. The agent used “foreign” as a gauge of interest in and knowledge of as opposed to commenting on cultural similarities/differences.

      But which country is better known in the U.S.? Hmmm… Well with no information other than my own personal experience, I’d agree contemporary Rio de Janeiro is probably better known in the U.S. than Lisbon, but I’d say the history of Portugal is better known than that of Brazil. At least in Georgia public schools, Portugal gets a lot of time while learning about the Age of Exploration but I have no memory of Brazil ever coming up in school other than on Earth Day to learn about the Amazon Rainforest.

      I hope you’re right that Rio is better known to Americans! It will help me sell my story.

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