The Benefits of Being Conformist

Curtis Brown, one of the most self-important independent literary agencies, has set up its own creative writing school. And frankly I don’t see what all the fuss is about. We’re only gently molesting writers while we take their hard-earned money. We’re not nearly as bad as derivative traders, but give us some time. We differ from vanity press operations only in the scale and technique in which we crush young writing dreams. (Don’t worry. For an additional $500, Curtis Brown will rip off your clothes in the forceful manner of a rapist just after you give us your manuscript.)

Frankly, this was not the debate I anticipated. Will we stub out innovative writing once and for all? Well, we hope so. But this is still a fledgling operation. So it’s hard for us to make sufficient projections until unpublished and destitute writers start blowing their brains out. Had I stumbled onto the idea after reading Ayn Rand’s collected works? Well, yes. But I only skimmed Atlas Shrugged, much as I skim the manuscripts of those silly fools who laughably believe that we’ll get them published. These are the questions I had hoped to debate. In fact, I hadn’t really anticipated debating anything at all. We employ large and threatening men at our office for a reason. It’s important that public discourse be confined to softball inquiry.

First off, let me just say that Curtis Brown Conformist will be of no interest to bloggers who have purchased any recent titles from Word Riot or Two Dollar Radio. For those who believe that reading audiences exist beyond the conventional, CBC is probably not for them. Let brash young idealists, no doubt attending their Marxist rallies, discover the hard way that we live in a cruel capitalist system that needs to be embraced. But for those who are committed to flooding the marketplace with predictable novels capitulating to every petty big box retailer demand, let me clarify a few points.

Curtis Brown Conformist is the first writing course in which a literary agency kills the life out of a neophyte’s manuscript. What’s great about CBC is that we take your money too. You might even say that we’re correcting the marketplace. CBC is an intrusive three-month course for new writers promising access to industry professionals who will fill young heads with cynicism and lies. First prize is the opportunity to be considered by one of our elite agents. Second prize is a set of steak knives.

Paying for access? Not exactly. We like to fleece naifs in other ways. We are still one of the few agencies that pretend to read unsolicited manuscripts. We are committed to leading newly minted MFAs astray, taking as much as we can from our authors, and providing career management similar to the way that Allen Klein once managed the Beatles. We like to think that our authors will come to us, saying, “I think you’re screwing us, but I don’t see how.” We’re hoping to screw at least 200 new writers a week.

Unethical, you say? Well, launching new writers isn’t just hard. It’s fucking impossible. If we can’t find ways to publish new writers, well we may as well screw them. We may as well turn them into a profitable army of James Pattersons. Or turn them into B-list celebrities. The big takeaway from Curtis Brown Conformist is that writing well is the least of your worries.

CBC is run by Benito Pooter, a novelist who published twelve profitable potboilers in the last year alone. Before he was a novelist, Pooter knew how to make the railroads run on time, shooting several conductors who could not comprehend how important it was to adhere to the timetables. He is also an expert in passive-aggressive behavior. Thanks to Pooter’s innovative education techniques, which involve electrodes being glued to gential areas, CBC hopes to reduce the remaining idealism plaguing the market. CBC will not just be making false promises about getting access to the industry, but forcing its young writers to memorize and chant four hundred maxims that will ensure that all distinct writing is stubbed out.

So, the fee. It will cover our tutorial costs. It will cover our valets. It will cover our forty weeks of luxurious holiday each year. It is comparable to a high interest Tranche D loan, which we feel is quite generous.

Will these writers be compelled to be represented by CB? Of course not. We only want their money. But when these schmucks head home with unfulfillable dreams, we will throw all their manuscripts into a bountiful bonfire!

Publishing is often viewed as a closed door. With this course, we hope to keep it this way.


  1. “So, the fee. It will cover our tutorial costs. Our fee is comparable with the other top courses available (20% VAT has to be included too which pushes cost higher). In fact, authors seeking editorial advice can pay upwards of £400 for a one-off report. This is not a money making venture.

    We will continue to support other creative writing courses through bursaries, prizes and scholarships, as we have always done. We will look to extending this to our own course.
    So, is this our core business? No. Will this benefit new writers? Yes.”

    As someone who has debated whether writing needs to be a self-contained act, or one with interactions with people (writing workshops, mostly), I really feel awful about this. Does good writing come from a training ground of experience? Or from years of hard solitary struggle? Or is that question too naive?

    Gary Shteyngart, Mary Gaitskill, and Jonathan Lethem all will be teaching. (Well, Lethem will be teaching shortly.) I wonder what they say to students who see something like this. I’m no spring chicken, but to straighten up into cynicism seems to have a negative conclusion.

  2. “Gary Shteyngart, Mary Gaitskill, and Jonathan Lethem all will be teaching.”

    The Mod Squad (with Shteyngart as Clarence Williams III?), some bad, bad, bad cops all. Eddie, did you catch Edmond’s review of Best European Fiction of 2010 over at Chagall Position and Chicago Review? It’s an antidote; my favorite line so far is:

    Even when emotional tempests blow, as in Danish author Naja
    Marie Aidt’s “Bulbjerg,” the story’s conclusion (the boorish narrator gets a
    surprise comeuppance from his ill-treated wife and learns to bond with their
    damaged adoptive child) retrospectively reveals its inner IKEA.

  3. Mike: To answer your question (Not naive at all! Fuck, man, we need more sincerity instead of rapacity!), having interactions with people in ANY trade is always a good thing. Particularly when your fellow craftsmen love what they do and are willing to exchange hard but encouraging help with you (without anybody in particular running a tab) so that everybody can do the best they can. Every Sunday afternoon, I meet with a bunch of writers and we pretty much just work on stuff in our laptops and shoot the shit. It’s great. Nobody judges anybody. People swap stories, are very supportive. And it’s a lot of fun. It helps to do this every now and then so that you know you’re not just banging out words in a lonely room.

    What’s absolutely nightmarish is when writing comes down to upholding capitalistic values. What is an MFA workshop but a natural extension of free market competition? What is this Curtis Brown program but a way to profit further?

    On the other hand, writing does need to be about the work. At the end of the day, writing is really about keeping your ass in the chair and figuring a lot of very difficult things out while having the most fun possible. But if you choose to isolate yourself from people, or if you choose to view people in relation to where they stand in the pecking order (instead of being genuinely interested in them), then as far as I’m concerned, you can throw yourself off a cliff or go into a more avaricious vocation. There’s no room for that kind of attitude in such a meager-paying field that demands empathy, passion, curiosity, and an emotional commitment.

  4. Funny piece, but must say that the insinuation that Curtis Brown = a self-important bastion of conformity that only pretends to read unsolicited manuscripts doesn’t ring quite true to me. I’m represented by a Curtis Brown agent. They’ve sold both of my novels to a scrappy little independent publisher. They represent me because I sent them an unsolicited submission; my first novel was plucked from a Curtis Brown slushpile.

  5. As one of those that made it on to the CB Course, I have absolutely no idea what your beef is – we’re none of us rich, we are – all of us I’m pleased to say very very talented and benefitting from strong insightful and rigourous mentoring that has nothing to do with commercialism – there is a nod to what the business is about, but that’s not what we’re here for or focused on.

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