The Great Unagented: A Reviewy-type Essay About Saul Stories by Elizabeth Ellen
Reviewed by Alan Good
Determining what qualifies as a good book is based on so much subjective criteria, like taste and style and—except agents and editors aren't merely, if at all, even looking for good books. They want salable books. Books with vampires, orgies, and celebrity bunnies. If you ever find yourself feeling overly sympathetic to the plight of the literary agent, Saul Stories is a good book to turn to. It's the first book I've ever encountered that talks shit about literary agents on the dust jacket: "Elizabeth Ellen has been writing and publishing unagented fiction for over a decade. Of the linked stories in Saul Stories, one agent who read them wrote, 'I can't determine the stakes.' (The agent came to Saul Stories after finding one of the stories contained within — 'Teen Culture' — in the Pushcart Prize anthology.)" Fuck stakes. You never heard of Charles Bukowski? People seem to love his poetry; I've never cared about it, but I've read most of his novels and the story collection Hot Water Music. Except for the novel Pulp, the stakes are always the same: an asshole who drinks too much and treats women like shit fucks a lot of women and becomes a famous writer. That's the whole plot and those are the stakes: will Henry Chinaski get his nut off again or will he pass out drunk first? OH THE TENSION IS KILLING ME! Bukowski had shit for stakes, but he had mythology on his side, the legend of Bukowski. Elizabeth Ellen seems to have her own mythology; it just hasn't spread as far yet, and those are the fucking stakes.
To be fair, the agent who sought out and then rejected this book might not be as dense as indicated in the quote on the book jacket. The agent might have just been being polite, looking for a kind way to reject the book after realizing none of the characters was a vampire and none of the teenagers was really precocious enough to entertain a mainstream audience. More likely, the agent caught wind of Ellen's unpopular essay "An Open Letter to the Internet," published in Hobart in October 2014. The essay angered a few people and cost Ellen a spot in an anthology after Black Lawrence Press dropped a novella they'd already accepted. I don't know that the agent who was interested in Saul Stories and then suddenly became uninterested in Saul Stories lost interest because of that essay, but I am reminded of the time Milo Yawnoppoulos's supposedly liberal literary agent defended the infamous Trump toady's book deal. Go fuck yourself, you disingenuous trollmonger. People in the literary and publishing worlds were mad that Milo was getting a book deal because Milo didn't deserve a goddamn book deal. It wasn't because political correctness is silencing conservative voices, or holding conservatives to a double standard (no one holds conservatives to any standard at all, which is a big part of our problem); it was because he is a shitty writer with nothing valuable, original, or insightful to say. You got him a book deal because you know there's a big market for race-baiting, liberal-bashing drivel. Elizabeth Ellen is a very good writer. Maybe if she was also a racist, self-aggrandizing piece of shit that agent would have stuck by her. Or a dude. Fuck it.
Saul Stories is a book about which narcissists will say, "I can't relate to the main character," who is self-absorbed but not really a narcissist. I'm out of patience with the fetish for relatability. Writers don't make books according to the specifications of self-obsessed readers. If you can't relate to a book, that's only because you're not doing it. It's not the job of the author to relate to readers; authors tell the story, create the characters, and readers find ways to relate to them. If you can't relate to the characters in a book, it could be because the book was written by a weak writer, but there's also a good chance you're a sociopath. Of course, I can relate to the main character, whose name we never learn but who is frequently referred to as "Eli's mom." I have a name, but I am frequently referred to as "George's dad." So there's that. The unnamed narrator has trouble relating to people her own age. She enjoys hanging out with her teenage daughter and her friends. My kids are still young, so I'm not smoking weed with them and shit like Eli's mom, but I'm the dad on the playground running around with and being crazy and silly with my kids and the other kids, the dad who doesn't say much to the other parents. I'm just not a people person. I can talk to my students, even the ones who are older than me, but that's it. Most adult humans are mysteries to me that I don't really feel like fucking with. Like the narrator, I know loneliness, boredom, self-sabotage, despair, depression—that's enough relating.
Elizabeth Ellen has been publishing for a while. I thought Saul Stories was the first work of hers I'd read, but it turns out we were published in the same issue of Bookslut in June of 2010. I noticed a Bookslut credit while doing some background research and thought, "I bet she wrote that thing about stalking Dave Eggers," and I was right: here's "Stalking Dave Eggers."
Saul Stories can feel creepy. I don't like that word, but it has a lot of cultural significance at the moment. If the stories in this book were written from the perspective of a forty-year-old father who hangs out with his daughter's friends, who smokes cigarettes with them, who buys beer for them, who sleeps in a bed (even with no fucking) with them, who sneaks out of a window to go hang out with them while avoiding the wife he's spent the first half of the book wanting to get back together with, we'd probably be hearing more about it. There would probably be a hashtag.
The narrator sets us up to assume she's fucking Saul, her daughter Eli's friend, who is underage for most of the book, as young as fourteen or fifteen for much of the book. The film references—to the Kubrick Lolita, to Manhattan, American Beauty, and The Graduate—feel thematic, or like foreshadowing. But Eli's mom—sorry for the spoiler—is no Humbert. She goes out of the way, when it seems like she probably is going to tell us she fucked her daughter's friend, to dispel us of that notion. Eli's mom, a writer and photographer of not much renown, writes a novel about Saul, whose name she changes to Evan, and gets a rejection. "I didn't care about the rejection," she says,
but I fixated on something the editor had said that implied she thought Evan and the narrator were having sex. That bothered me. It felt lazy on her part and mine (were it true; it wasn't). I wrote back right away, to say that they weren't, that she was making assumptions based on other novels and films she'd read and seen, not on anything I had put in the story. ("Yes, she wears his t-shirt to sleep, but only because she doesn't have pajamas," I said. "Yes, they are close friends. That doesn't mean they are fucking. Do you fuck all your close friends?") I never heard back from that editor.
Not to sound prurient—and I really didn't want their relationship to get sexy, was relieved when it didn't—but Eli's mom hints at the possibility, or the desire, for sex. At one point she notes how easy it would be to seduce him. And here she is texting back and forth with him on his eighteenth birthday, and she asks whether he's going to buy cigarettes now that he's old enough: "There was one other thing but I felt uncomfortable mentioning it," she says. "Mentioning it felt like a question or an invitation or something." There's this justification, early in the book, from "Teen Culture," the Pushcart story:
And I know what you're thinking. You're thinking: what an asshole. You're thinking: how pathetic. You're thinking: maybe if just one time she'd gotten laid in high school . . . And I'm not going to argue you. I'm not going to deny I'm flattered by the attention. I'm not going to pretend anyone at my twenty-year class reunion had a clue who I was. I'm merely going to ask you to take a harder look at your own life, to write down every petty thought, to examine every questionable motivation. Then I'm going to ask you to spend five minutes with a fourteen-year-old of the opposite sex. And not one of the insecure, unattractive losers, but one of the cool ones, one that's cooler than you were in high school, one that knows more about music and cracks jokes and smokes better weed."
Contrast that, Eli's mom says, with a forty-year-old. I can see now, having read the whole book, that she really just likes the attention, she enjoys the company, but on a first reading I think you would be forgiven if you interpret this passage as meaning she wants to fuck a teenager.
Saul and Eli's mom flirt with boundaries, but they know where the line is and stay just on the safe side of it: "We weren't going to do anything criminal at all. We had too much and nothing at all to lose. I wasn't a revolutionary; I was a chickenshit, goddamnit. I was privileged and Saul was privileged and neither of us was going to fuck our lives up too much even if we both played with fucking our lives up, even if that's what we both thought we wanted."
So what are the stakes? There's loneliness, despair, ennui, parenting anxiety, the conflict between security and autonomy. Plus if she gives in to some of the impulses she hints at she'll ruin her life and probably her relationship with her daughter. The book is more about a mood than stakes or plot, the type of mood where you can't really feel the horror of a devastating tsunami that affects people far away from you, where you sleep in the closet because you have a thing about open spaces, where you send secretive texts to a person who treats you like shit and can only be friends with people whom, according to social norms, you shouldn't really be friends with.
My wife asked me what this book was about, and I said it was about a woman who likes hanging out with her daughter's friends. Saul Stories plays on readers' expectations about age and relationships; in order to make a story, the reader is likely to assume, something has to happen, "something" meaning sex, but it doesn't. It's not lascivious. I'm trying to imagine how you would write a query letter to pitch this book to an agent; I just don't see how you could sell this story in a one-page query letter or an elevator pitch or a goddamn tweet during one of those Twitter hashtag pitch frenzies. You have to experience this book, to sit with it and think about it and be uncomfortable, to really get it, but even then when your wife asks you what it's about you'll say something stupid. There's a gulf between what books are about and what we say they're about. There's a gulf between what a book is and what makes it salable. No one was ever going to rep this book. You have to be the editor of a small press to get this book published. (Ellen is an editor at Short Flight/Long Drive Books, the book publishing imprint of Hobart Pulp, an online literary journal run by her husband, Aaron Burch. Here's some praise for transparency in blurbing: Ellen's best friend is quoted on the dust jacket and identified as her best friend; friends are blurbing for each other all the time, but they seldom point out in the blurbs that they're friends.) If you're reading this, and you're a writer to whom literary agents seem to be allergic, reading this book might make you feel better.
Short Flight/Long Drive Books
Transparency note: I received my copy of Saul Stories for free. Hobart tweeted they were giving away copies, I sent a message, I got a free book.