What are some upcoming trends?
A trend that’s been around for a while is literary novels set in a dystopia or post-apocalyptic setting, like Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel or Gold, Fame, Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins. It seems like authors who might have shied away from a sci-fi or genre-influenced setting are using those tropes to project our anxieties about the future and also to explore traditional topics in literature with a new and extreme vocabulary. I’ve also noticed that fiction is getting longer—or rather, that there’s more room for big, baggy books like Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, or Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. Readers and editors seem to be excited about books that don’t have a clean, cookie-cutter story arc that wraps up in 300 pages. In nonfiction, I’ve seen growing interest in linked, voice-driven essay collections, which seem to be taking the place of the short story collection and the memoir in some ways.
I think it’s been mentioned here before, but one trend I hope will continue is an increased interest in literary fiction in translation or from abroad. Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard are the two bigshots, but there is evidence of even sneakier titles like the bestselling Girl on the Train, which was originally published in England and whose British author grew up in Zimbabwe.
What book/genre/topic would you like to see cross your transom?
Family stories are universal, but I would love to see more literary novels specifically tackling the complicated and fascinating connection between siblings.
I also love nature/adventure stories, both in YA and adult fiction, which I feel have fallen out of favor, possibly in light of what climate change has wrought. But I would love to see a book taking on that classic transcendental ideal of living in or tackling the outdoors and updating it to a current setting, with all its complications but without losing that sense of the reverence and power of the natural world. Literary revisionist history interests me very much—either a new take on a classic in the canon, whether told from a different character’s point of view, like Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, or a new setting for a beloved character, like Jane Eyre or Jay Gatsby, or classics from Edith Wharton, Henry James, or Shakespeare.
In nonfiction, I’d love to see accessible, voice-driven science, medicine, and even politics—à la the great, recently departed Oliver Sacks—that helps make those esoteric topics accessible to the literary-minded.
What topic don’t you ever want to see again?
I would never say never. Because I work so much with literary and upmarket fiction, I think voice trumps all—it’s not so much what a book is about, but how it’s told and if it can hit something universal. Certain plotlines or topics may have become cliché in the eyes of those working in the industry, but in the right hands, even the oldest chestnut can be fresh again. That said, I think as an agent, my biggest pet peeves are when authors don’t consider where their book falls in the market or who would read their book before they query and when authors submit a draft rather than taking the time to edit and develop their project fully.
What is unique about your corner of the industry?
Writers House is a great place to grow a list. Over the years, they’ve had success in so many genres and styles, and there are so many people to learn from and approaches to the business—as many as there are books to publish. Something quirky I think about as an agent is the presence of all these different personalities you develop in your head. Because of the things you learn about in reading manuscripts and the varied skill sets required to do the job, these different voices start to appear. You start out with an editorial voice but find that you are, in a day, alternately bold, encouraging, tactful, and tough—and this is both with editors and with clients. There are the nurturing moments and the come-to-Jesus talks. Also, having had experience as a literary scout and as a foreign rights director, when I’m reading a manuscript, I have a little voice inside my head that’s evaluating if something can sell in Poland or Brazil. So you sometimes can’t know what strange voices will pop up next. It’s a strange and wonderful schizophrenia.
Any interactions with indie authors lately?
Tin House is publishing my author Rosalie Knecht’s wonderful novel Relief Map in the fall—a coming-of-age story wrapped within literary suspense set in a small town in Ohio. Tin House’s editorial commitment is incredible, and they have a really thoughtful, dynamic approach to marketing their books to the right group of readers.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Writing as a craft has never been more thought about, talked about, criticized, and developed. Though we wonder about fiction’s place in the world and have been holding our breath for the novel’s extinction for so long, it seems to me that the reading public is as passionate and demanding as ever.
Soumeya Roberts has worked in editorial, as a literary scout, and as director of foreign rights at the Susan Golomb Literary Agency, where, in addition to representing her own clients, she handled translation rights for award-winning authors such as Jonathan Franzen, Rachel Kushner, and William T. Vollmann. Soumeya joined Writers House in 2015, where she focuses on building a list of fresh, vital, diverse fiction and nonfiction while nurturing lasting relationships with her authors. She is from the San Francisco Bay Area and lives in Brooklyn.