Over the course of this column, we've explored the role that writers, editors, publishers and fans have played in the science-fiction publishing landscape. But, there's another type of individual that played a key role in the lives of a huge number of authors: their agent. Agents were vital partners for authors: They were their representation before an array of publishers and periodicals. One particularly influential agent was Virginia Kidd, who represented some of the genre's best known authors and whose presence helps to dispel some long-standing preconceptions of the genre.
Mildred Virginia Kidd was born in Philadelphia, Pa., on June 2nd, 1921 to Zetta Daisy Whorley and Charles Kidd. Her family moved to Baltimore shortly after her birth. She had a difficult childhood: At the age of two, she was completely paralyzed and bedridden when she contracted polio. By the age of six, she had largely recovered, but had to rely on a brace for some time and faced weakness in her leg for years afterwards. It was at the age of nine when she borrowed one of her brother’s pulp science-fiction magazines, and found herself hooked. Within a couple of years, she began to send letters to the magazine's letter columns. She struck up a close friendship with fellow fan Robert W. Lowndes, and even became engaged to him via a letter, before quickly changing her mind.
In her late teens, she attended the Berlitz School of Languages, learning Spanish, Italian, French, German and Latin, where she developed a particular affinity for words and language. Living with her sister in Baltimore, she worked night jobs at nearby bars, and met her future husband, Jack Emden, at church. She noted the strange shape of her life during this time: "I was living a number of lives superimposed on one another, with language school in the daytime, working in the bars at night, singing in the choir on Sunday, and attending dancing lessons to strengthen my leg." It was a thrilling time for her as she stayed out late, dated and enjoyed herself.
Things changed in 1941 with the attack on Pearl Harbor. In a fit of newfound assumed responsibility (she noted that after two years, they were likely going to break up), the couple married, and Jack joined the Army as the U.S. entered World War II. She followed him from post to post, became pregnant and found herself alone when Emden went overseas. Alarmed by the prospect of giving birth in South Carolina, she moved to New York City—with a renewed interest in science fiction. Picking up a random magazine, she found a familiar name on the masthead: Robert Lowndes. She called him and the pair reconnected. Shortly thereafter, her daughter Karen Anne Emden was born.
In October of 1944, Lowndes introduced Kidd to a friend, Judith Merril. Kidd wrote to her at the end of January, inviting her over to visit. Both single mothers, the two bonded and before long, they ended up moving in together on Washington Street at the western end of the city. Kidd impressed Merril, who later described her as "the first smart woman I knew....This common intellectual respect formed the basis of our friendship. Virginia was every bit as intelligent, every bit as well-read, every bit as inventive as I was. And we found, bit by bit, that there were many, many other things we had in common."
Lowndes was their gateway into the world of the New York Science Fiction fan scene. A member of the Futurians, he introduced the two to the rest of the group's members. Their apartment soon became a frequent meeting place, often in conjunction with a weekly communal dinner. Kidd in particular was described as a sort of motherly figure for the group, an image that appears somewhat at odds to their liberated lifestyle in New York. It was here that Kidd met fellow Futurian James Blish, a frequent collaborator with Lowndes and frequent antagonist of Merril's. The two struck up a relationship. The couple had their ups and downs: Blish wasn't keen on marriage, and the group endured an ever-changing web of relationships before Blish and Kidd reunited. After Emden's return to the states in 1947, Kidd and Emden divorced, and shortly thereafter Kidd and Blish married. Later that year, Asa Benjamin Blish was born, but tragically died shortly after his birth.
By the end of the 1940s, Virginia, James and Karen moved from the city out to the small town of Milford, Pa., on the Delaware River. The Futurians had splinted, and members of the group had fled the city: Cyril Kornbluth and his wife had left for upstate New York, and Merrill ended up in Milford. The Blishes welcomed a third child, Dorothea Elisabeth Blish in 1954. Their fourth, Charles Benjamin Blish, was born in 1956. The same year, Merril and Damon Knight organized the first Milford Science Fiction Writer's Conference. A number of authors descended on the tiny town, including Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, and 40 others. The event became an annual occurrence, attracting authors from across the country. Along with Knight and Blish, Kidd helped develop a particular critique for authors presenting their work known as the Milford Method. Critics read and comment on the stories, who then go around the room and explain their notes to the author, who's not permitted to speak, save for “Yes” or “No” answers to questions. At the end of the session, the writer responds to the notes.
While Milford was booming, the Blishes ran into domestic problems. By 1962, Blish and Kidd divorced, the same year they jointly published a story together, titled “On the Walls of the Lodge”, which came out in Galaxy Magazine's June issue. While Kidd enjoyed writing, she later noted that it wasn't something that she set out to do often: "Agent First, Anthologist Sometimes, Writer in the Cracks," she would later note. Blish remarried a year later, although he remained in touch with Kidd even as he moved away from Milford. (He would take the Milford conference to England, where it remains today.) Three years later, in 1965, Kidd became the first female literary agent in the science fiction/fantasy world when she established the Virginia Kidd Literary Agency out of her Milford home. Keeping her records under her bed, she became a pivotal figure in the publishing world. She published another story, “Kangaroo Court” (later reprinted as “Flowering Season”), with Damon Knight's inaugural Orbit anthology in 1966.
Kidd’s position was perhaps inevitable: She had long been friends and professional partners with some of the major writers of the day. Blish became one of her clients (his estate is still managed by the Agency), and she began to represent authors such as her friend Judith Merril, Gene Wolfe, Murray Leinster, E.E. 'Doc' Smith, James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon), Carol Emshwiller, Anne McCaffrey and Ursula K. Le Guin. While a champion for a greater voice for feminism in science fiction, she believed first and foremost that it was the words on the page that spoke the loudest: "How can one believe there is a female or male writing style? As an elitist, I hold that with regard to writing that is worth reading and having written, there is style and style only. I’m talking about literature. There is also a kind of prefab or ersatz writing that has no style at all, is not memorable, and is bought by the nonthinking to assist them in passing their thoughtless time. Such writing can be distinguished by what sex it is aimed at—that for women gushes, that for men is too hearty—but it cannot be distinguished by the gender of the writer. It may be the stuff of best sellers, but it is not art."
Kidd became a fan of Le Guin's work throughout the 1960s, and nominated her third novel, City of Illusions, for the Nebula Award. In 1969, Le Guin had sold her novel The Left Hand of Darkness to Ace Books, and had trouble finding a hardcover publisher. She wrote to Kidd, asking if she would be willing to represent the book. Kidd's response was immediate: "Yes, I will handle it, but I want to represent all your work, not just some of it." It was the start to a three-decade professional partnership. Le Guin noted that "She had terrific intuition about which editor would be able to see what I was doing, and great charm and tact in dealing with editors. She always started at the top of the market, and often made the sale there," and that she "never told me what to write. She never asked for a rewrite. Knowing that I wanted to sell only what I had written, she never made me sell on spec." The two met only a handful of times: twice at meetings on the East Coast, and twice in Milford, Pa.
In 1978, Kidd branched into editing with an anthology titled Millennial Women, an anthology devoted to the works of female authors and characters in the genre, and included authors like Cynthia Felice, Diana L. Paxson, Elizabeth A. Lynn, Cherry Wilder, Joan D. Vinge and Ursula K. Le Guin. The anthology is part of a notable movement in the later half of the 1970s, a cluster of anthologies dedicated to the hard working women in the field. Notable anthologies include Women of Wonder and its sequels, by Pamela Sargent; Aurora: Beyond Equality, edited by Vonda McIntyre and Susan Janice Anderson; Cassandra Rising, edited by Alice Laurance; and Shawna McCarthy’s Asimov's Space of Her Own. These works provided a solid core for feminist works within the genre. Le Guin noted that Kidd, along with the other women working in the genre faced "an imbalance: she saw what all women writers and agents see—that the playing field is not level."
Kidd’s work was mainly behind the scenes, but crucial as science fiction transformed into the New Wave movement in the 1960s and 1970s. For the next three decades, she tirelessly worked to represent her authors before retiring in the mid-1990s due to illness, and on January 11th, 2003, she passed away at her home in Milford. Le Guin summed up her admiration in a brief note on her website after her death: "I don't believe that any other agent, in any other agency, would or could have furthered my writing career, and my writing itself, as Virginia did. I was supremely lucky in having her as my agent." Kidd built a strong foundation for her life's work: Her Agency still lives on in quiet Milford, on the banks of the Delaware River.