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Breaking through the publishing glass ceiling: A tribute to my literary agent

BY SHERIDAN PRASSO

I found out in June, by reading her obituary in the New York Times, that my agent had died. Elaine Markson was a remarkable woman, and her obituary told those who didn’t already know. She was a feminist, an advocate for the voices of women who weren’t otherwise heard in the writerly circles of New York. She had started her own literary agency during the equal-rights push of the 1970s and was one of the only women in the publishing world to do so. She believed in championing us: Grace Paley, Alice Hoffman, Andrea Dworkin, Elaine Showalter. And ultimately me. She believed in making us heard.

When I sent her my idea for a book, “The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls & Fantasies of the Exotic Orient,” she was intrigued. I had spent many years living in Asia and found myself often confronted with the images of Asia, particularly of Asian women, that we see in the West: sexualized, exotic, submissive, ready to pour tea and scrub your back in the bathtub; or the converse, the steely kick-ass martial arts mistress. Where was the real Asia, the reality that differentiated between Chinese, Japanese, Thais and Koreans, the lives in between that I and everyone I knew was experiencing daily? Where did these images come from, and why did they perpetuate? Was it because famous writers delivering visions of China and Japan to Western audiences are mostly male, and we see it through their eyes? This was a point of view Elaine Markson was keen to see examined, and my book was published by a large commercial press (Perseus Books, later acquired by Hachette Book Group), mostly to great reviews, in 2004.

Last year, I had another idea for a book, an anthology bringing together writers around a certain topic on China. Elaine, who was well into her 80s, had retired, so I went shopping for a new agent. The names I was recommended were men, and one was trying to build a practice of finding writers in Asia. I sent him my proposal. It’s interesting, he said. He would like to represent it. But . . .

I would need to find a “big name” on China to agree to serve as “editor.”

The “big names” that immediately sprang to mind were men, of course. That’s who the “big names” on China are. So he was asking me to try to enlist one of these men to put his imprimatur, his name, on my book idea. It didn’t matter that I had gotten tentative commitments to contribute from some of the biggest female writers on China (Xinran, author of “The Good Women of China” — not famous enough, he said; and had approached Leslie Chang, of “Factory Girls,” and Xu Xi, Hong Kong’s most prolific novelist). It didn’t matter that I myself was already a published author of a successful book, or that I had almost three decades of experience writing about Asia, including for The New Yorker, The New York Times, and almost all major U.S. magazines, or that I was a fellow at the Asia Society providing public commentary on social issues, or even that I had something worth saying. But I would do the work, find a big name to give the credit and most of the money (there’s virtually no money in book publishing anyway, unless you’re one of those guys).

I could almost hear Elaine’s outrage. How do you get women to become the “big names” on China if you don’t publish their work under their own names? How is it that the publishing world keeps perpetuating the publishing glass ceiling that keeps women from breaking through? Look, I get it. Publishing is a business. But as the #MeToo movement has shown us, business as usual must be examined and be made fairer. We are actively protesting “manels” on social media, shaming organizers with #womenknowstuff hashtags. But the writer-agent-publisher relationship is necessarily out of the spotlight, harder to examine and bring to light.

I’m not the only woman writer on Asia to have heard this same feedback from agents and publishers. I think it’s fair to speak up in response, to question the biases, to try to make our voices heard. Elaine is gone, but her ideas and her life’s work must carry on.

About the author

Sheridan Prasso is a Hong Kong-based writer, author and journalist currently working as a Senior Writer for Bloomberg. She is the author of “The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls and Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient.

Website: www.sheridanprasso.com

Twitter: @SheridanAsia