Show Trials, Part 2

“Oyez! Oyez!” The gallery, about a third full now, rises. “All persons having business before the Honorable Judge Charles Burks are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. May the gods judge this Honorable Court according to those selfsame standards etcetera etcetera.” From the rear of the courtroom a snare drum rolls and a trumpet announces a four-bar fanfare. In stalks Judge Burks from somewhere behind the bench, decked out in a black robe that looks as though it might a year or two ago have been his college graduation gown. He takes his seat, a smallish man in the big chair; everyone follows suit. “Thank you darlin’,” he drawls to the Clerk, who nods and smiles. The judge rubs his hands together. “Very well, let’s serve us up some justice.” He pronounces serve as soive, evidently going for a Mississippi accent. Down comes the gavel.

“Excellent, Your Excellency. First case: Molly Andiver, plaintiff, seeking representation, contract, and advance. She will be representing herself.”

“Well come on up, Miss Molly.” A middle-aged woman in the second row, stylish but modest in appearance, green portfolio slung under one arm, squeezes her way to the aisle and approaches the bench. The Judge gestures toward the Witness Stand; striding gracefully and purposely in medium heels Molly walks over to the little door, swings it open, stands in front of the chair facing the Judge. The clerk swears her in, and she sits down.

“An advance,” the judge says as he reviews the paperwork. “How much you have in mind, miss?

Demurely she demurs. “I’m sure Your Honor can arrive at an appropriate figure.”

“All right then, let’s hear your pitch. Log line.”

Molly extracts a sheet of paper from her portfolio. If I’d managed to get this Trial staged for real I’d have recruited some local writers to present their own books. For expediency’s sake I’ll give this fictional Molly one of my own. She reads: “Escorted by an unconventional guide, a handful of outliers embark on a pilgrimage into the wilderness where, through an uncertain alchemy, obscurity is turned to legend.”

Molly looks uncertainly at the Judge, who is fiddling with the sleeves on his robe. He twitches his fingers. “Go on. The paragraph summary, if you please.”

Molly goes on: “After nearly bleeding out onstage, a hemophiliac body artist immerses himself in an ancient ritual for freeing the clotters of the world. A high-priced corporate consultant risks his career to…”

“Thank you, my dear. I have reached a verdict. I find the defendant” …drumroll… “guilty as charged.” Down smacks the gavel; tadaah! blares the trumpet. My wife’s cousin is a professional military drummer; his wife the music teacher plays trumpet. I might have approached them about being the house band for the Show Trials if they’d come down from West Point for Thanksgiving. Probably it’s a blessing they didn’t.

“But Your Honor,” Molly objects, “I’m the plaintiff, not the defendant.”

“One more outburst like that, little lady, and I’ll hold you in contempt.” He looks out across the gallery. “Colonel Lynch?”

“Here, your honor.” A woman near the back stands, a length of thick hemp rope tied around her left bicep.

“Colonel, would you be so kind as to escort Miss Molly from my courtroom?”

“It would be an honor, Your Honor.” Halfway down the aisle, Molly and the Colonel are joined by three other gallery members, all of them wearing the rope armbands. As they descend the stairway the Clerk announces the next case:

“Rancifer Fust, plaintiff, seeking representation, contract, and advance. He will be representing himself.”

And so it goes, case after case, let’s say fourteen plaintiffs in all, each one a writer trying to get a book deal. Sometimes the judge lets the petitioner finish the one-paragraph summary, though in no case is any portion of the actual manuscript ever read. Some plaintiffs might be asked to provide information from their cover letters: why are you petitioning this court in particular, do you have an MFA, have you had any short stories published, and so on. In other cases the guilty verdict is gaveled down even before the plaintiff has a chance to speak. The simulated courtroom session takes the form of an iterating narrative performance, but it could just as easily be presented as a computer algorithm, or as written summary judgments. The actual procedure being simulated here remains opaque: I’ve never worked for an agent or a publisher, never spoken with one, never seen data-based percentages of submissions making it up to and past the various stages of due consideration as they sluice through the sludge pipeline. My sense is that the individual cases are given no attention whatever: all the cases on the docket are dismissed en masse. So the fourteen cases presented at Show Court can be considered the lucky few, with ten times as many prospective petitioners milling in and out of the antechambers hoping against hope to receive their formal rejections. For the purposes of the show, though, it’s essential that, after the drumroll, each and every petitioner is found guilty, mocked by the trumpet flourish while being escorted by the Lynch mob out of the courtroom.

Is this realism, this Show Trial? In the real world at least a few unsolicited fiction manuscripts are accepted, or so legend has it. Somebody wins the lottery; some start-up entrepreneur strikes it rich; some applicant responding to online job postings gets hired. But, hazarding a guess, out of fourteen submissions showing up during any given hour in some literary agent’s inbox, how many are going to get any consideration whatever? I’d say zero is the safe bet.

Maybe the agencies actually collect and analyze the relevant data. Not just how many submissions they receive per day, but how many get past the cover letter, how many past the one-paragraph summary into the actual manuscript. Maybe they run the online submissions through big-data AI engines, their four-levels-deep factor-analytic phalanxes of machine learning algorithms getting progressively better at predicting which proposals, if any, have the greatest likelihood of getting a second look, or a third. Pretty soon the unpaid interns responding to the queries are replaced by the algos; later the agents too are deemed redundant and shown the door. It would be fun to build the AI literary agent. Probably not worth the time and money; easier just to shut off the slush altogether, accept only known commodities. Which has already happened, I’m guessing.

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