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  1. The Weekend Interview
14 October 2023

Andrew Wylie’s rules for life

America’s most feared literary agent on his friend Salman Rushdie, what Sally Rooney taught him, and how he has thrived in the “land of the completely stupid”.

By Harry Lambert

Don’t call him the Jackal. “The Jackal thing doesn’t interest me,” he had told another interviewer, and I didn’t want to bore him. Andrew Wylie, 75, is the agent around whom the New York literary world has had to orient itself for four decades now. His pugnacious reputation as the man who holds publishers to ransom and snatches prized authors from other agents precedes him. Talk to him and you will soon realise he values two qualities in people: how much they have read, and whether they are amusing.

How amusing you find Wylie may depend on how dark you like your humour: “Perhaps the industry has made peace with Amazon. But it’s a little bit like saying that the Uyghurs are getting along well with the Chinese… When you’re driving down the highway and you see a horrific car accident, it’s not a sight you want to linger on, and yet you do slow down and look. That’s how I feel about life in America these days… The only noble enterprise seems to be Ukraine and the US will soon pull the plug and Putin will hang everyone by their feet.”

In today’s media world, few speak so bluntly. The crowd can’t cancel him. Only his authors can, and they love him. He drives their value up while serving as their literary counsel, or even friend. “I’ve been impossible for 43 years, but it’s OK,” he said when I asked how he charmed publishers into buying his clients’ books. “There are 1,500 writers behind me. So I can do anything I want.”

It’s less a question of charm than of market position. The top writers (Sally Rooney, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Rachel Cusk, Karl Ove Knausgård, Salman Rushdie, Bob Dylan) are represented by his agency, so publishers must work with him, whatever they think. “He’s a horrible person – if he’s a person at all,” one magazine editor told Vanity Fair in 1988. “The only question is why he hasn’t yet been run out of town.”

Thirty-five years later, Wylie remains in town. Today he surveys the city from the 21st floor of a midsized New York skyscraper two blocks south of Central Park, where he greeted me on 4 October. After Salman Rushdie was stabbed on stage at an event in New York State last August it was Wylie who updated the world on his client and friend. Wylie had been driving to Long Island when he heard the news. “For Rushdie the whole question was: will I lead my entire life inside a bubble, surrounded by police people? And he got away from that. Now he’s back in the bubble.”

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Rushdie will publish a memoir of the attack, Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder, in April 2024. I asked Wylie what the public misunderstood about him. Everything, he suggested. “He’s an incredibly joyous, Rabelaisian writer. He has a Mozartean fluidity,” as a writer and in life. Wylie acted out Rushdie’s manner at a poker table, comparing it with the clipped movements of Martin Amis (a client until his death in May). Philip Roth, another former client, would “grab his pen like this”, Wylie continued, hunching over in discomforted intensity, “as if he was sculpting in stone. I don’t think it came naturally to Philip, a poor boy from Newark. When he was writing a book, he would call me and say, ‘This is the worst shit I’ve ever come across, I can’t do this job.’ Salman doesn’t have that problem.”

This is how Wylie talks: in the language of cultural celebrity. He disdains the bestseller list (“it was composed of trash when I started in 1980, and it’s composed of drivel now”) but he has his own hierarchies. “Never think about whether a book will sell or not,” he tells his agents. “It’s completely irrelevant. We’re solvent. Just think about the level of the work.” Over time, he argues, only quality will endure. If you represent the finest authors of a previous generation, and canonical literary estates, the best young writers will come to you, as Rooney has. (“She taught me how to think about my children,” Wylie said. “I’d never understood what they were talking about.” He has three.)

[See also: Americans don’t belong in Europe]

Wylie rose by realising that publishers were getting away with undervaluing the great writers. At Farrar Straus and Giroux, Roger Straus had been paying Roth a fraction of his market value for years until Wylie began to represent him and took Roth elsewhere. (“Wylie’s a shit… but he’s really the most intelligent of all the agents,” Straus told the New Yorker in 2002.) Wylie would pitch authors with detailed studies of how their work was being under-sold all over the world, and how he could resell it. At the time agents focused myopically on the US market. Wylie used his relationships with publishers everywhere else, which he took care to build, living on planes.

In 2009, in the crowning theft of his career, Wylie stole VS Naipaul from the British agent Gillon Aitken, whose junior partner he had once been. (“I don’t do that any more,” he claimed when we spoke.) As a younger man he had pursued Aitken in the same way he later chased Rushdie. He’d ask if he could get a drink with them when he was next in London, and then take the next flight if they said yes.

That relentless style paid off. “He is a fierce protector of his writers, and he inspires fantastic loyalty,” Dwight Garner, the New York Times book critic, told me. Wylie, he added, “is the last interesting human in publishing, and maybe the last honest one, too.”

If you ask Wylie how a book is best sold today, he has no idea. “Just hope that the book is an immortal masterpiece and will survive on word of mouth. If there’s another way, I haven’t figured it out. Publishers used to take out ads. Then they declared that they were proficient in social media. And so I had a bunch of meetings with people under the age of 32 who didn’t appear to have read a book in their lives, and they explained to me how they sell books that way.” His verdict: “Incomprehensible, and unpersuasive.”

He is, as ever, excoriating about Amazon (“so tasteless, so wedded to bestseller-dom – everything they do is repellent”), which pressures publishers to delay or ditch paperbacks in favour of e-books, which it controls. The rise of an intolerant “woke” literary culture – in which publishers are more inclined to drop controversial writers such as Kate Clanchy or the historian Nigel Biggar, or rewrite authors like Roald Dahl for “sensitivity” – is a newer phenomenon, although one that no longer perturbs Wylie.

“You know we live in America: land of the completely stupid. And some of those stupid people work in the publishing industry. Not a majority, but a strong minority.” There are publishers, he says, who “in a prudish way, say ‘not for me’ ” to good ideas, and he suspects an underlying motive of fear. But he thinks the era of activist staff agitating to get books killed has petered out.

Wylie reads four books a week, along with three papers a day (the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Financial Times) and a raft of magazines (the New Yorker, the Atlantic “increasingly”, Harper’s “a little less”, the New York Review of Books, Foreign Affairs). What, I asked, had he read that helped him understand the 74 million people that voted for Donald Trump in 2020. If America is a Republican-induced car crash, why did they vote for it? “I’m not sure you have to understand everyone,” he replied. You just think they’re fools? “Or morally vacant.”

Doesn’t he want to understand the forces driving America’s division? “I’m not deeply invested in mainstream American life,” Wylie said (he did offer me a recent political history that dated America’s collapse as far back as the Florida recount that gave George W Bush victory in the 2000 presidential election). “I don’t routinely eat at McDonald’s. I don’t go to the movies. I don’t like the movies.” He named Breathless, the Jean-Luc Godard film released in 1960, as the last film he liked.

Books are the thing. This “fascination with and addiction to reading”, as he put it. Politics is secondary for Wylie, and all other art forms trail behind. He does quite like paintings, he said, and proceeded to tell me a typical Wylie story. “Allen Ginsberg [a client] was dying. And he had this small painting of an incredible sky, like a Vermeer, above his bed. Although he was dying, I was engaging him in conversation: where did you get that? Condo, he whispered. Condo. And that was my introduction to George Condo. He became a friend.”

What is Andrew Wylie still chasing? New York, he said, is host to “a divine rat race”. “Everyone is struggling, and some people have succeeded, and they’re very happy.” Is he one of them? “I’m engaged. Success? I don’t even know what it means. Happy? I’m not too good at that. Relaxed?” I suggested he seemed relaxed; we had been speaking for at least an hour. “That’s because I’m old. I’m a nervous wreck.” In the same breath: “I’m having a lot of fun.”

He would only like it to continue. He has been approached by “those gorillas in California” (the major LA talent agencies that are consolidating the industry). He sees no upside to selling his company. “What’s the advantage? I get a cheque, and then I’m unemployed.” He doesn’t fear an AI future. How much time does he spend thinking about it? “About four seconds a month.”

Wylie served a long and wayward apprenticeship before his ascent. After Harvard he set up an unmarketable bookstore in 1970s Greenwich Village. (“John Cage and Bob Dylan would come in, and that was about it.”) He came from money, which allowed him to wander. He set up a short-lived publisher, he worked as a freelance magazine interviewer, he wrote poetry he later allegedly tried to suppress, he fell in with Andy Warhol, who taught him “how to get clever”, but he was an undistinguished member of his rat pack. He wore leather jackets, dark glasses and berets. Eventually, aged 33, Wylie set up as an agent, “assuming the normal powers of his family station after a long experimental education”, as Ginsberg later put it.

“I used to sleep around a bit,” Wylie told me of his errant youth. “At one point, I slept with this girl in her parents’ apartment on Park Avenue. And I thought, ‘Wow, this is great. Look at the width of the street! And the way it slopes down from the 90s down to 42nd Street. It’s almost Parisian. When I grow up, I want to live on Park Avenue.’ ” Today he does, a short drive across town from his office, through the park, past the Guggenheim.

“I’ve had three or four distinct lives in this city. You can do what you want here in so many different ways,” he said. Hard work, he believes, is the sole source of success. Charm, talent and connections are inconsequential without it. “Everyone in England considers Americans to be uneducated, naive, somewhat grotesque, badly mannered, poorly dressed,” he said, reflecting on setting up the Wylie Agency in London in 1996. “That was a bit daunting at first. I realised I couldn’t actually play by those rules. I was never going to fit in that particular club. So I just did it my way. Know who you are. And stick to the game you know how to play.”

[See also: Richard Milward: “I use humour as a coping mechanism”]

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This article appears in the 18 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War on Three Fronts