The Book of the Week is “Handsome Is” by Harriet Wasserman, published in 1997. It is a memoir of the intertwined careers of the author and Saul Bellow.
Wasserman was Bellow’s literary agent for twenty-five years. She first worked at Russell & Vokening, a literary agency in New York in the 1960’s. Bellow and Bernard Malamud were clients of her bosses, the managing partners. “They were representative of Male Jewish American Novelists at the time when MJANs were the high point of our culture.” In the early 1970’s, the then-big publisher Doubleday offered Bellow “… a two-book contract for two hundred thousand dollars and promised to get [him] a summer house in Spain.” Such were the times.
Wasserman described another aspect of the book industry in her generation. Malamud’s book “The Closing of the American Mind” became a runaway best-seller immediately because a TV, radio and newspaper blitz made it into a blockbuster. “Ten thousand books had been printed, three thousand were in the warehouse, and seven thousand were in the stores.” In 1987, another famous author, Allan Bloom appeared and promoted his book “More Die of Heartbreak” on the TV shows and networks, “…Evans and Novak, Open Mind, ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, CNN…” but the one show on which he appeared at his own insistence, was Oprah.
Read the book to learn of what became of Wasserman’s bosses– the reason she struck out on her own, how an auctioning off of the longhand notes and other preliminary materials of a Bellow novel fared, Bellow’s love life and families, Wasserman’s philosophy on representing an author who wants to retain separate agents for: a) his backlist and foreign rights, and b) his current works; and many other nostalgic scenes of a bygone era in publishing.