Mr. Passion

Meet Dallas literary agent Evan Fogelman, the brains behind the bodice-rippers

"Look at the writing--the writing," exclaims Evan Fogelman, his well-tanned, shaved pate gleaming in the low incandescence of the Melrose Hotel's Landmark restaurant. With one Bombay Sapphire martini (straight up, with olives) under his belt and another queued up, Fogelman, a Dallas-based literary agent who is the prince of the romance novel, is warming to his favorite topic: literary style.

"The question is, How elegant and cogent and captivating is your expression?" says the dapper, custom-suited 37-year-old, speaking in a low, raspy, unaccented voice and looking like a cross between Yul Brynner and Mr. Freeze, arch-villain of the latest Batman sequel. "Forget the triteness of your plot," he says, punching his words through perfect white teeth. As he speaks, his pale green eyes, half-hidden behind a tiny pair of ultra-chic LA Eyeworks frames, begin to glow with the sort of passion that might, if he's not careful, earn him a role in one of his clients' books. "What's your writing style? How do you use language? Everyone thinks that the plot is king. It's not. Language is the king--in our agency, anyway."

If this seems an oddly old-fashioned view of books, well, Evan Fogelman is in many ways an old-fashioned kind of book agent. He doesn't dabble in promotion. He doesn't court the press. He doesn't do celebrity or "self-help" books, unless the celebrity or self-help huckster is willing to (heaven forbid) do an old-fashioned book proposal. He believes books--even bodice-rippers--should be art or should go unpublished.

And despite these decidedly retro rules, he's getting seven-figure deals for his authors.

This is no mean feat in these dark days of publishing, when front-page stories in the New York Times tell of publishers canceling hundreds of authors' contracts at a time and when most of the major publishing houses are writing off losses in the eight- or even nine-figure range. Yet, in the midst of the industry's self-described "crisis," Fogelman is somehow bamboozling editors into paying once-unthinkable sums for that odd love-conquers-all female erotica known as "romance."

In many ways Fogelman is himself a character out of long-eclipsed genres, a sort of Sir Lancelot of literature defending the virtue not only of his romance writers, but of good books generally. And for those of us who consider these somewhat contradictory quests, he has a ready answer: phooey.

"Why is it, when a man writes a book where justice or compassion triumphs, it's art? Yet when a woman writes a book where love triumphs, it's a 'fantasy'?" he demands. "It's maddeningly unfair, artistically and commercially.

"There's a tendency among the good-ol'-boys of publishing to lump romance writers together as 'those girls,'" he says, getting wound up. "Those girls are 54 percent of the mass market and 60 percent of the customers who buy books. But there hasn't been parity in terms of compensation. They've gotten much less in compensation than they provide in revenue."

And in the name of art and commerce, Fogelman is on a personal quest to right this grave affront.

As Ken Auletta recently noted in the New Yorker's annual publishing issue, the book business has always been filled with Chicken Littles--only this time, the industry insists, the sky really is falling.

The central problem is that publishing is in many ways not really a "business" at all, at least not in the sense that maximizing profits has ever been its chief underlying objective. "The entire book business is only a $15 billion-a-year business," notes Fogelman. "It's tiny." (By way of comparison, the diet industry rakes in $39 billion per annum.)

"People like [Rupert] Murdoch have been carrying book publishing for years," Fogelman continues. "Sometimes it's for the losses; sometimes for the glamour."

But for a variety of reasons, publishing now finds itself being judged by Wall Street expectations. In a business where the occasional bestseller absolves a host of mistakes, editors are all panning for that next big hit. The pressures to appeal to mass-market, pop-culture tastes are consequently enormous.

But there is a paradox in that the pop culture book is not what the book business fancies itself as being about. The book business sees itself as the guardian of Western culture, in search of the piece of literature that will endure when no one can remember who the hell Kato Kaelin was. By and large, the Ivy League-educated trust-fund kids and Ph.D.s who take $20,000-a-year jobs as associate editors at Manhattan publishing houses do so in hopes of finding the next Faulkner rather than the next Joey Buttafuoco, despite the fact that they can get the latter an immediate Nightline gig.

The problem is that because of economic pressures, the pop-culture book-buying phenomenon has not only invaded the book business, but, some maintain, has metastasized into something deadly. With sales of adult "trade" books down, they suggest bookselling is a zero-sum game. For every sale of, say, Dennis Rodman's latest, a serious work of biography or fiction goes unsold, if not for price considerations then at least for want of reading time. Not only are we becoming a nation of Sally Jessy-watchers, the argument goes; now Oprah has usurped Yale University academic and literary critic Harold Bloom's role in telling us what to read. Even with bookstores springing up like crocuses, even with posters and platitudes about the virtues of reading all around, if what the public is "reading" is Tony Robbins, not Toni Morrison, one can argue they might as well get it on the boob tube.

The peddlers of "celebrity" books respond that the pop-culture book (e.g., Faye Resnick's book on O.J., or anything by Deepak Chopra) is what makes the "legitimate" book business possible, making up for many a mid-list title that didn't "earn out" (earn back the advance paid to the author).

Either way, it seems clear that the cult of celebrity represents publishers hitching onto easy marketing gimmicks. Many agents charge publishers with abdicating their duties of promotion. "I think it's unfair," says David Hale Smith, a Dallas-based literary agent, speaking of the celebrity book pop-culture craze. "The publishers are counting on preexisting star power to get them on Letterman or the Today show, and then they won't spend money to promote a new novelist." Smith, a Young (29-year-old) Turk who has had impressive success in that most difficult of all genres, "literary" fiction, points out that works of merit are still being bought and sold, citing the success of books such as Angela's Ashes, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and The Liar's Club. (Smith himself recently sold a first novel, a "literary thriller" tentatively titled God is a Bullet, to distinguished publisher Alfred A. Knopf for $500,000.)

What frightens Smith most is the "Hollywoodization" of the book business--the excessive emphasis on first-weekend gate and the attempt to find the next overnight success. "It's scary," he says. "The biggest sales I have had have been first-time authors. The pressure to hit the first time out is tremendous. It's almost better not to have a track record; then there's no danger that you didn't earn out or had small sales."

Amidst this hand-wringing, the romance industry is a quiet little corner of the book world that is not merely holding its own, but actually growing--not only in number and dollar amounts of sales, but also in terms of market share. More than any other genre, it seems to be unaffected by this culture of celebrity. Though the success of novels like Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell, 1936) and Forever Amber (Kathleen Winsor, 1945) hinted that there might be a mass market for romantic historicals, the "modern" romance traces its roots to a 1972 paperback, The Flame and the Flower, written by Kathleen Woodiwiss. "It was a large-scope novel with a historical setting that really pushed the boundaries of 'women's fiction,'" recalls Robin Lee Hatcher, a former president of the Romance Writers of America and the author of some 25 romance novels. "By that, I mean it opened the bedroom door. It was [sexually] very explicit, compared to what had been published before."

The book, which has sold countless millions of copies, demonstrated that there was a mass market for inexpensive books geared to what Hatcher calls "women's concerns." Since then, the romance market has experienced exponential growth. In 1994, the Association of American Authors estimated that mass-market romance was a $700,000 to $800,000 industry; just three years later, in fiscal year 1997, total revenues are expected to exceed $1.4 billion. (These estimates include the crossover "romantic suspense" category.)

According to a recent survey by Harlequin Enterprises (one of the biggest romance publishers) and Forbes magazine, the average romance devotee is a 39-year-old woman with a household income that exceeds $40,000 a year. Somewhat surprisingly, 45 percent have college educations, and 50 percent work outside of the home.

The romance genre is one of the few that still grooms authors for long-term success, points out David Hale Smith. Although Smith does not handle romance unless there is a potential for "breakout," or hard-cover, success, he admires a number of things about the "traditional" romance business. "In a way, I wish I were in Evan's industry," Smith says. "It's one of the few where there's still a sense of building an author the way it was traditionally done."

Evan Marr Fogelman is a native son, the oldest child of a Jewish surgeon from Chicago and a Dallas woman who converted to Reform Judaism when they married. He was raised in the Preston Hollow section of North Dallas, where he still lives, and attended St. Mark's School of Texas, the elite Dallas boys' school. Though he was raised in comfortable upper-middle-class surroundings, he does seem to have learned something about drama at home. His parents divorced when he was young, and both remarried quickly. Fogelman and his siblings, Joe and Margo, were raised by their mother and stepfather, Henry Klepak, a prominent Dallas attorney, supporter of the arts, and, perhaps most impressively, the man who in the '50s invented the "private club" concept as a way to get around Texas' Baptist-inspired liquor laws.

In 1982, while Fogelman was in college at Tulane University, his sister Margo died in a car crash the night before she was to graduate from The Hockaday School. Fogelman went on to earn literature and law degrees, graduating from Tulane's law school in 1985. He practiced a year with a big New Orleans firm, then came back home "for family reasons." In 1989, he swapped the legal paper-chase for the literary one, taking over the client list of Vicki Eisenberg, Dallas' first real literary agent. (Eisenberg abandoned the agenting business for the greener pastures of advertising.) Fogelman attributes the move, in part, to his sister's death. "When someone you love is killed at a relatively young age, you're motivated to spend your time doing what you really need to do," Fogelman says. "I'm a book man. I could be killed in a car wreck. Am I going to sit behind a desk and play golf once a week, or am I going to take a chance on stepping out and doing what I feel I need to be doing?"

At the time he took over Eisenberg's clients, Fogelman says, the list included mostly true-crime authors--a natural enough specialization for a Dallas-based agent. "I was an abysmal failure," he laughs, "because I neither read nor cared about true crime." Shifting strategies, he began angling for invitations to speak at romance writers' conferences. "I got into romance for two reasons," he stated in an interview published on the Internet earlier this year. "One, because it's almost 60 percent of the mass market, and it's profitable, and if I suggested anything else to you, it wouldn't be the truth. But also because for years and years, romance writers...have been treated less than fairly when it comes to contractual and financial standards."

Gradually, over the last seven years, he has built the Fogelman Literary Agency into a force in the industry, one that includes among its authors some of the brightest names in romance: Katherine Sutcliffe, Julie Beard, Anne Eames, and Peggy Webb, among others.

In 1996, he won a special award from the Romance Writers of America, recognizing his outstanding contributions to the industry and his author advocacy.

Although he is best known for romance, he also handles a number of other writers, including mystery writer S.K. Epperson and Andy Collins, who has written on everything from Lassie to country music. He charges the industry standard 15 percent for non-published authors, although he says that with established authors he sometimes cuts his fee to 10 percent.

To the surprise of many in the book business, Fogelman is one of at least three prominent bookpeddlers currently operating in Dallas. In addition to Fogelman and David Hale Smith, there is Jan Miller, who may well be the preeminent name in the "self-help" genre. Given that Dallas is, to say the least, not a writers' mecca, the phenomenon of the Dallas agent at first seems mystifying, especially when coupled with the myth of the New York agent. Although many of publishing's hottest agents now live outside New York, the notion persists among authors and even some book-midwives that one must have a Big Apple advocate to be taken seriously. "Fifteen years ago it was true, but not anymore," says Fogelman, who nevertheless maintains a New York office at 53rd and Lexington. "These days, there are successful literary agents in every major city. There are only about 600 editors in Manhattan, and it's just not that difficult to meet them. The question is, Who has the passion and the emotional and commercial rapport with your manuscript?"

Of course, there is another consideration: the agent's approach. "There are three different types of agents," Fogelman notes. "There's the publicist-agent, the former editor-agent, and the entertainment lawyer-agent." The publicist-agent is best personified by Miller, the Faith Popcorn of the book business. Miller, who has handled such self-help infomercial icons as Tony Robbins, Larry North, and Susan Powter, is famed for dragging her decidedly flaky celebrity clients into editors' offices and whipping up a bidding-war frenzy. For this, Miller was recently rewarded with a New Yorker profile so fawning that even one of her clients describes it as "a total blow-job." According to New Yorker writer James Stewart, when Miller meets a client she wants to represent, she does what she calls a "mind map" for promoting them as a celebrity.

Fogelman's approach is in many ways precisely the opposite. There is nothing of the carnival barker about him, and little of the "positive thinker." His approach is lit-crit, not mind-map, and is based on discernment rather than on channeling for the zeitgeist. Although he will, on occasion, handle a self-help book, he is bigger on credentials than on celebrity--an approach he acknowledges is not currently in vogue. Even when he deals with celebrities, he wants to see that proposal.

"I don't want to talk about the book until I understand what the book is," he explains. Indeed, a number of Miller's clients, including the infamous fitness guru Susan Powter, came to Fogelman first and were turned down. ("I have no comment on anybody I may have turned down," says Fogelman.)

The clients he has taken on say he devotes substantial attention to development of their careers and to management of their business affairs. ("That's where we really earn our commissions," Fogelman says. "The selling just isn't that difficult.") Clients and authors tell stories about his aggression negotiating contracts. "I call him my pit bull," says Julie Beard, a best-selling author of medieval romance. "He's very high-energy, very aggressive. He lets the publisher know he wants the best deal; he wants it now, and if he doesn't get it, he's going somewhere else." (Fogelman admits he has been fired by clients for being too adversarial in contract negotiations.)

Even spotting him his inexplicable fondness for Southern Gothic writers, he has impeccable taste. (On Walker Percy: "He's so good, you'll have to read him with your clothes off.") His personal list of his 10 favorite books includes works by Thomas Hardy, T.S. Eliot, and Dante, as well as readings in psychology and economics. Interestingly, the genres that appear on the list more than any other are poetry and biography: McCullough on Truman, Ellman on James Joyce.

"I'd really like to expand into serious biography," he says. "But so far, no luck."

Given his level of taste, he is curiously unembarrassed about trafficking in that strange form of $4.99 paperback soft-porn dubbed the romance novel. With no apparent hesitation, Fogelman offers up the fact that 50 percent of his clients--and more importantly, 62 percent of his revenue--come from bodice-rippers.

Of course, as someone somewhere once quipped, rationalizations are infinitely more important than sex, for who among us has gone a whole week without a rationalization? So he at least has a coherent excuse system: "I like great stories, period. I don't like all of anything. I like the good ones."

And if some rationalizations are more plausible than others, they all provide a glimpse at how he manages to hoodwink poor Manhattan editor-types into giving six and even seven figures for romance novels. He is passionate, intense, argumentative, even slightly outrageous--not unlike the hero in a modern romance: "Shakespeare was the definitive romance writer of his day," says Fogelman, neglecting his salmon steak in order to argue. "And today no one thinks he's a hack."

Perhaps--but Shakespeare's comedies are back-handed compliments to love, at best (and that's not even considering the "dark" comedies). On the other hand, romance novels do borrow heavily from the Bard's more absurd plot twists; disguises, mistaken identities, and misunderstandings abound, as do gallantry, melancholy, and, of course, the deus ex machina.

Like the Bard, romance writers dabble in all sorts of subgenres and historical periods. There are medieval romances, Revolutionary War romances, and Regency romances (set between the years of 1811 and 1823); Victorian romances, Elizabethan romances, and even present-day romances. Whatever the period, they have one thing in common: They bear the same relationship to actual historical conditions as Six Flags' Boomtown section does to Beaumont, Texas, the year after Spindletop came in.

Whether they work as art is another question. For one thing, they are so lacking in humor, irony, and wit that they alternate between a painful hyper-sincerity and uproariousness. The worst have an embarrassing habit of opening chapters with lines from Great Books: Melville, O'Connor, Fitzgerald, Lord Byron.

And then there is the matter of dialogue.
From the fool, listening at the bedchamber door: "He's the lucky one, Bron is. Getting himself a good swiving."

From the matron to the maid, on men: "I know that they can speak words of love and leave you with a babe in your belly."

The noble-but-tortured hero: "After all, what sort of man was he? One unable to defend her, and now even helpless against the edicts of the church. He could not even arrange a marriage, for God's sake! He had despoiled her and now would leave her without the honor of marriage, something he had sworn he would never do. And what if she were with child? Oh, Lord!"

Ironically, Fogelman's most apparently absurd argument may turn out to be his most compelling. He maintains that romance novels aren't retrograde fantasies, but a form of feminist literature for the masses.

"Romance novels do not deal with sexual fantasies," he asserts. "They deal with reality. In romance novels, love triumphs. In reality, it often does too. At least, we all hope so."

As his own recent divorce and remarriage attest, he's willing to put his marital status where his mouth is. "It had been suggested that I worked my first marriage into oblivion," he says, "that I was much more attentive as a bookseller than a spouse." It isn't a charge he's eager to admit. "I suppose it's in part true. Let's put it like this: I have a happy obsession with what I do."

Apparently he's not convinced that peddling romance and having one are mutually exclusive. Just two months ago he remarried, this time to a "homemaker" named Anna with two teenage sons; thus he's in no shape to criticize Cupid. "You show me someone who's been in a happy marriage for 25 years, and I'll show you someone who's not real critical of romance novels. You show me someone who's been divorced three times, and I'll show you someone who is."

Whether out of an excess of endorphins or out of hypercompetitive salesmanship, he'll even try to sell the notion of the romance novel as feminist literature.

"Many romance authors will tell you their work is the opposite of what it's criticized as being. Janis Reams Hudson, the president of the Romance Writers of America, last year put it like this: Romance novels are the most feminist literature there is. The woman always wins."

It's a tough sell. In the romance novel, marriage is the Holy Grail. Still, the heroine isn't a girl who has mastered The Rules; she has her pride, thank you very much, and indeed usually displays a stunning lack of artistry when it comes to bagging her man. Though there are some Good Mother types and saintly divorcees, virgins constitute the majority of heroines, albeit virgins without excess reverence for their unspoiled state. Instead, they are typically lusty wenches, willing to follow the dictates of their hearts, or at least of their inflamed loins.

The hero is not unwilling to marry; romance heroes are never commitment-phobic, but simply waiting for The Right Woman. The men are mostly decent types, if downright selfish lovers. Their common flaw is oversensitivity, which can cause them to behave churlishly. There are a few progressive types (e.g., the Good Dad), and some retro types cleaned up a bit for the '90s (notably, the Cowboy). There are even rakes and womanizers, although they are rakes and womanizers willing to be reformed by the love of a good woman. Whatever their type, the hero is never a sports junkie; romance heroes do not swill beer and watch ESPN.

She doesn't use birth control. (Neither, for the most part, does he.) Hers is a curiously pre-Shere Hite world-view; the sex in romance books is breathtakingly phallocentric. (In one of the more fantastic elements of the genre, she is never disappointed.) In fact, on more than one level, romance books hinge on the premise that the primary female sex organ is between the ears. Nevertheless, they do concern themselves with what many consider "women's issues": illiteracy, handicaps, wife and child abuse, eating disorders, beauty, even animal treatment.

All in all, though, the world of the romance novel is not a feminist Utopia. And in this respect, Fogelman may be right: The genre may approximate the reality and concerns of most women's lives. Indeed, the discipline that comes closest to explaining the phenomenon of the romance novel is socio-biology (or, as many a wag has dubbed it, so-so biology).

As the so-so biologists would have it, male and female fantasies are not just culturally based, but genetically hard-wired to ensure the ultimate goal: passing on the individual's DNA. Accordingly, thousands of years of evolution have predisposed the female to seek out the one-woman man, who is not only a better bet for sticking around and seeing junior into adulthood, but also through grad school and into the family business. Men, on the other hand, simply want to get into women's genes--and the more women the better, reproductively speaking.

Seen this way, the romance novel is one in which a woman triumphs over a biologically and culturally hostile world.

Of course, Fogelman is acutely aware of publishing's birds and bees. "One of the saddest things that has happened to me was when I couldn't sell Mortimer Adler's biography," says Fogelman. "It was a defining moment in my career." Adler, a famed University of Chicago professor of philosophy and law who's now in his 90s, masterminded the undergraduate curriculum at the University of Chicago and is the author of such classics as How to Think About War and Peace. For a good part of this century, he was one of the world's most influential literary critics, a sort of modern-day Samuel Johnson. The book proposal came from a philosophy professor at Notre Dame, a former student of Adler's with credentials and writing ability. Fogelman has been shopping the book proposal for months, without a bite.

"Everyone says, 'He's such an intellectual, he'll never appeal to a contemporary reader,'" Fogelman recounts. "I haven't given up yet, but my failure has taught me something about the business I'm in. I've learned that in many ways, the book-buying public is a bunch of people with their noses pressed up against the glass. The closer you can relate a book to pop culture, the better. Unfortunately, whether Faye Resnick had a lesbian affair is just more interesting to most buyers. And there's something truly lamentable about that."

A few days later, from his room at the Oakbrook Hyatt in suburban Chicago, where he will address a gathering of the Romance Writers of America, he broods on the meaning of his apparent failure. "It's funny," he says, noting he's just watched William Bennett debating Naomi Wolf on one of the Sunday-morning news shows. "In many ways, both [Harold] Bloom and Bennett approach the ideas of Adler. Their books are Adler's spiritual legatees. But Adler's not on Meet the Press these days, so it's as if he doesn't exist.

"It was my chance to consider myself a commissioned officer in the forward march of culture," he says. "Unfortunately, I'm still non-com." Like the optimist he is at heart, though, Fogelman shrugs it off. "I haven't given up yet" he says--and at that, peruses the weekend's headlines. "I'm really interested in Roberto Goizueta," he says, scaling back his ambitions for the time being. Goizueta, who died last Saturday, was a Cuban-born Horatio Alger story who rose to head Coca-Cola. "I wonder how many copies of that might sell?" he muses.

Given today's literary facts of life, Fogelman's approach seems a defensible philosophical position. And for those who question his sincerity, consider this: He is a cousin of Aaron Spelling, the (in)famous producer of such definitive pop-culture series as Dynasty and Falcon Crest.

"I've never sold anything to him," says Fogelman, who rather defensively tries to hide rather than trade upon the connection. "In fact, I've never submitted anything to him. He's only a relative through my stepfather, and the fact is, he's in an area of the business that does not option books."

Not that he's totally averse to television. He has begun placing his best-selling romance writers in the lucrative business of writing for daytime soap operas--a move that he maintains is raising the quality of daytime TV. He also handles the occasional movie script, but says that books, not movies, are his "passion."

"If it weren't a passion for me, I'd be in something else. There are easier ways to make money, and more direct ways to get attention. But this--this is the most fun money there is. I get to stand at the bloody crossroads of art and commerce. And I can tell you that the energy surrounding a $250,000 book contract exceeds the energy surrounding a $200 million leveraged buyout of a small financial services company--at least in terms of emotion. Because I have never seen anything approaching the energy and the love that an author puts into a book.

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