Mr. Passion

"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 He believes books--even bodice-rippers--should be art or should go unpublished.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.

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Christine Biederman

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