NB: I’m not sure if my sympathies are with J.R.R. Tolkien or with the (fictional) agent. Herbert makes some good points!!
By: Peter Cooper
Dear Mr. Tolkien,
Thank you for submitting a query for your children’s novel, “The Hobbit”. I regret to inform you that while the proposal shows merit, this agency may not be the best fit for your work.
If I might venture some feedback, your query letter needs to be improved if future submissions are to be met with success. Although well written, with some of the strongest grammar this agency has ever seen, your outline of the dilemma facing the main protagonist failed to engage me on an emotional level. You also spent far too much time talking about your professorship and expertise in Norse mythology and foreign languages. What has that got to do with anything? Tell me about your book!
On to the sample pages you supplied. From what I can see, most of your first chapter is taken up with back-story concerning “hobbits” and their unusual living arrangements. Indeed – by the end of this first chapter, the story still hasn’t started. Might I suggest commencing at a different point in the narrative? Your best bet would be to open with Bilbo in the grip of the Trolls, and gradually, as the tale progresses, present the back-story of how he came to be there. This will grab your young reader’s attention from the start, enticing them to read further while moving the story along at a much quicker pace.
As for the main protagonist – is it likely that children will relate to a fifty-something man with hairy feet who lives in a pit? Might I suggest making Bilbo younger and perhaps a tad less hairy? How about having him as a young tear-away living in his parent’s attic, perhaps escaping one night by tying his bed-sheets together, that sort of thing. This demonstration of a rebellious attitude and a desire for personal empowerment will far better capture the imagination of a young reader than a middle-aged man running off without a pocket-handkerchief. Trust me.
This might be a good place to mention the apparent gender imbalance in the work. There would appear to be just a slight deficiency of female characters in the story. To put this another way, there are none – zilch – zero. There are men with hairy feet, men with long beards, men with pipes, men who can see in the dark – there are even men who can turn into bears. There are men of every size, shape and smoking habit imaginable, but the closest you come to a female character is the inclusion of several slightly effeminate elves. This just won’t cut it in today’s publishing world. If you want to attract a female audience, you must include strong female role-models. My suggestion would be to make the wizard a woman. Gandalina has a nice ring to it. But lose the beard.
A final comment – the conclusion of your story is far from satisfactory. Having brought Bilbo across miles of uncharted wilderness and ever-present danger, someone else kills the dragon! I can already hear the wails of your young readers, devastated at such a radical deviation from accepted norms of children’s literature. I for one will not subject them to such a trial.
I wish you all the very best for your future submissions. Remember, publication is a highly subjective business, and one person’s trash may indeed be another person’s gold.
Herbert T. Agent
I agree that strong women role models were (and still are) hard to find. I believe that we are always searching for a balance. The thing I've noticed and I could be sorely mistaken is that originally everything in the early days was male driven with main characters and male supporting characters. Even children's shows back in the eighties were still mostly male characters. The Muppets, Winnie-the-Pooh, and the Smurfs to name a few. These barely had a female part much less a strong character. Even Spongebob is a fairly newer show but falls short in the female dept. Although, at LEAST Sandy is a pretty smart cookie and a great fighter! 😉
Slowly we've seen an increase in heroines. Now, I've seen various agencies looking for strong male role model/mc's for children's books because now the balance has tilted ever so slightly the other way. However, adult books we still see it tilted towards male heroes IMO. Although, I admit I haven't read every book on the shelf to base that opinion. But literary agencies state point-blank what they are looking for and the reason. No implications. Point blank.
I think it's definitely tricky. It's hard to reverse discrimination without creating reverse-discrimination. However, it seems like strong female characters are just finally digging their heels in but we still have a long way to go!
It's just a slow process. Plus we still have to get the point across that "feminism" isn't a dirty word like we were taught in the eighties by our mothers and grandmothers. It's actually a good thing and doesn't require letting underarm hair grow. Unless that's your thing.
Fantastic, Peter! Keep the faith, your post says to me, whatever 'They' say.
Regarding Tolkein and female characters…it's worth pointing out that LOTR in particular borrowed heavily from his experience fighting in WW1. His critique group and closest friends were male. He wrote what he knew, a good vs. evil epic battle for the future of mankind set in classic Northern European folklore. The very few female characters who appear in his work were quite strong and overall it would be hard to argue misogyny of any sort. In the current market he would certainly be dinged for the lack of women in his story but adding them in just to have them seems condescending to me.
As far as women in children's literature prior to the twentieth century everyone seems to focus on Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Cinderella. Hans Christian Anderson, however, wrote many stories where the hero and the vilain were both female. In other classic fairy tales the prototype of the fairy godmother appears with nearly the same frequency as the wicked witch. Both the figure of the stepmother and the actual mother figure very prominently into the development of the protag, be it a he or a she. Women in children's lit have a long standing traditional role of power for good or evil. They don't usually get to slay the dragons but that doesn't mean they haven't had anything important to do.
Jack Roberts, Annabelle's scribe says
Well done! It makes me wonder how many gems are passed on because they don’t fit the mold. If given the chance, how many of our stories could become the next classics? If only we had that one chance.
Instead we try and try, hoping to find that incredible agent who feels what we feel. Someone willing to take a chance on a new author.
Our stories scream their worth into our souls and we suspect possible greatness. Then others who don’t care if our feelings are hurt, read and review. They may find our imperfections (thankfully) but they, too, see something great. Our hopes soar and we try others. More of the same.
Yet the rejections continue and we can’t help but feel stagnant. We wonder if the unbreakable wall is too hard. We question the merit of others, old and new, who have climbed it and now share their dreams with all.
This article brings up the question; is that wall too high?
Yes – I completely agree about strong women role models still being hard to find. And that's an interesting point about reverse discrimination. I don't think though, that it's reverse discrimination – I could be wrong, but I don't think so. I think it's just that more women read fiction, and so the market for strong female protagonists has grown; therefore the swing. But, traditionally, boys (and maybe men, too) don't like to read books with female protagonists. So, I would guess that publishers want books with male heros in order to reach that market segment.
And I agree about remembering that feminism is a positive thing. We're so used to having rights in this country, I think we forget that it was only a short time ago women were fighting very basic things: the right to vote, to work, to divorce, to own property!
Laurel – misogeny! I never said Tolkien was a misogenist!
And I'm not saying there weren't some positive, powerful female characters, but they are always side characters. Nurturers. But not the hero.
Sleeping beauty, Cinderella, Snow White; these are classic cases of beautiful and helpless heroines that needed to be rescued.
The backstory and female points are definitely valid. I don't think I'd have Bilbo climbing out a window on bed sheets, though.
Very funny. And (for me) timely. Thanks, Herbert!
I still say Dorothy Gale wasn't a nurturer. She was a hero. A slayer of witches. The equal of wizards. No man's consort. She was admired and followed. Not ignored.
Well, I have to say, I don't remember Frank Baum's book very well, which is why I didn't respond – sorry. But I vaguely remember she was a child heroine, not a warrior. I don't really remember, though.
In terms of the movie, well, that was made in 1939, and I'd agree. Dorothy was a fairly strong child-woman in the movie, given the times.
I am curious why people always say that Tolkien should have had female main characters and say that he was a product of his time. To me it has little to do with his time and more to do with the type of realm he was creating. How many women were running around in armor with swords in our own dark ages or even middle ages? I think it would read as a very unrealistic book to have female characters like that in such a setting. It would only strike me as odd if it were set in modern times and left out such characters.
Brilliant – I've been meaning to do a series of this kind of post, because I am sure many of the great sellers in our bookshelves would have had this kind of rejection today.
Too funny! Makes me think of how some other rejections would start out:
Dear Mr. Steinbeck: Am in receipt of the manuscript for 'The Grapes of Wrath.' While I like turtles, I found that devoting an entire chapter to them detracted from the action and the ending was all together too vague and depressing. Could you inject some romance or perhaps a car chase?
Dear Mr. Michener: Am in receipt of the manuscript for [insert geographical name – Hawaii, Alaska, Texas, Chesapeake]. While I like backstory as much as the next person, I am finding that 25 million years of geological evolution is just a bit too much to expect from today's fast-paced reader. If you decide to revise, I'd like to take another look.
Sigh . . .
I grew up with my dad reading the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit to me and my siblings. When he finished, we would read the entire series of Narnia, and then start over again. I love these books.
That is sad though. It's the difference between having turkey or candy. All the world wants from books today is the candy and people's teeth are rotting from so much of it. But Tolkien's writing, among others, was the good substantial turkey that should exist always in our diets.
I don't want to be a candy writer. I want to write turkey. Will the publishing pressure win in the end? I hope not, but we'll see.
A couple of years ago, a guy named David Lassman took chapters of Pride and Prejudice, changed some names, and sent it off to 18 publishers, all of whom rejected it, and only one of whom recognized the ploy.
Terrific post and great follow-up in the comments section. Makes one think.
LOL … A very amusing look at the query process.
Though, I do have to say some of the points that were made while funny are true. I've read The Hobbit and LOTR once. I tried rereading LOTR last year and gave up. They aren't the types of stories that lend themselves to reading more than once for me. And I will read a favorite book multiple times.
Well. Another one bites the dust!
So sorry, J.R.R. I guess its the boots to C.S. Lewis, too. Which is only fair, since you didn't like the way he wrote his Narnia Chronicles. How. Sad. Um, don't look now but there's an orc standing behind you.
This is pretty funny and actually is a valuable glimpse into the change of conditions required of a book before it is accepted from then and now.
Beth Terrell says
This was absolutely hysterical. I'm still wiping tears from my eyes.
While I merely enjoyed the Hobbit, I loved the Lord of the Rings and still read it every few years. I thought (and still think) the book is perfect. I didn't think LOTR suffered from a lack of female heroes at all; Eowyn was strong and courageous (as well as compassionate), and her sorrow over an unrequited love doesn't, in my opinion, diminish that.
In fact, the only thing I hated about the movies was what they did with Arwen. I would have preferred they left Arwen out altogether if they were going to make her so whiny and selfish. (What kind of woman puts a knife to the throat of the man she supposedly loves and squeals, "OOoooo, a RAAAAANGER caught unawares in the WOOOOOODS!")
Tolkien's Arwen was no wallflower. While her role in the LOTR was a small one, the Silmarillion showcases her strength (and Galadriel's too; she was a lot more than just a pretty face).
Peter Cooper says
I have to agree with you, Beth! Liv wasn't too bad, but she had her painful moments – and that bit you mentioned was one!
But, she was kind of cute with those pointy ears, even if she did have a deep voice….
Kate H says
This just goes to show that great writing often breaks the "rules." I think a topnotch agent/editor has to either have a sixth sense to nose out greatness, or else read a lot of partials (even just first pages–who could read the first page of The Hobbit and not be charmed?).
One of the funniest things I have ever read. I sent this to all my friends who are following my struggles to find representation!