“The Latin roots of the word ‘agent’ conjures up the idea of setting something in motion, contributing to the making of something, or driving something forward”: An Interview with Akin Akinwumi — Tobias Ryan

Akin Akinwumi set up the Willenfield Agency in 2019 with the goal of offering an independent alternative to the traditional agency model. His authors have nominated and listed for prizes such as the International Booker Prize, EN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction, Pushcart Prize, Fitzcarraldo Editions Novel Prize, Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and many more. I reached out to him over email looking for an insight into his work and an “agent’s eye view” of the contemporary literary scene.

You’ve worked in different fields throughout your life, what prompted you to set up your agency?

Books have always been a constant presence in my life from when I was old enough to be conscious of my consciousness, and I wanted to see more of the types of books I’m drawn to out in the world. Ground-breaking and paradigm-shifting books like Toni Morrrison’s Song of Solomon, W. G Sebald’s The Emigrants, László Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin, A. J. A. Symons’s The Quest for Corvo, and many others. So you could say there was a bit of a selfish aspect to starting the agency! I guess what really differentiates my approach from that of other literary agents is that I believe that there is an audience for cutting-edge, avant-garde, and unusual or non-traditional books, that they are marketable and can make a splash in a big way. To give you an example, London-based Fitzcarraldo Editions, then an industry upstart, published Svetlana Alexievich’s little-known Second Hand Time, a book about the collapse of the Soviet Union, to wide acclaim. They also published Olga Tokarczuk’s experimental novel Flights when no one else would. Both authors went on to become Nobel laureates in literature. In a nutshell, with Willenfield Literary Agency I wanted to do something along the lines of what visionary publisher Jacques Testard did by establishing Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Do you have any literary heroes?

I do! But there are so many of them that I could go on for days naming names. Right off the top of my head, I would say I have a great deal of admiration for writers like Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, László Krasznahorkai, Jean Giono, Thomas Bernhard, Samuel Beckett, J. M. Coetzee, Teju Cole, John Berger, Doris Lessing, André Alexis, José Saramago, Brian Dillon, Marie-Claire Blais, Cynthia Ozick, Gerald Murnane, Helen DeWitt, Roberto Calasso, Can Xue, Dionne Brand, and so many others.

How do your other cultural interests inform your engagement with literature?

I love cinema, documentaries, music, architecture, design, and visual culture, and I am attentive to their collective artistic repertoire, how they come together generatively to form what we call culture, as well as to the ways in which they individually inform and reinforce one another. In my mind there’s a strong connection between literature and these other cultural realms even though they inhabit different spheres, are driven by different logics, and are intended for different audiences. That being said, I do think there’s a kind of unity to them in the sense that they are propelled by creative and artistic impulses at a basic level.

I guess my thinking is informed to a considerable extent by the Dionysian and Apollonian Kunsttriebe concept popularized by Friedrich Nietzsche, the fundamental idea being that art is driven by rational and irrational energies, such as imagination, feeling, instinct, contemplation, passion, and anger, and that these drive or shape an artist’s ability to create things in the world.

On your website it states that the Willenfield Literary Agency seeks to offer a “compelling alternative to the conventional literary agency model”. To what, in particular, were you hoping to provide an alternative?

From the moment I conceived of the idea, I knew without a shred of doubt that I wanted to establish an independent-minded agency with a singular focus on contemporary literature and writing, making space in a sense for writers and books that attempt to push boundaries in one way or another. This is core to the agency’s raison d’etre. There are of course other agencies out there that champion writers doing bold and important work, but not as explicitly as WLA. This makes the agency totally different.

So, what are you hoping for when you receive a new manuscript/submission query?

As a general rule, I’m hoping that the writer has looked at the agency’s website to get a feel for my taste. At the same time, I’m hoping that the writer can show that they’re not working in a vacuum and can place their work within a broader literary and/or publishing context.

That seems like quite a business-oriented view, is there anything in terms of style, theme or approach that you get excited to see? What are the qualities, in terms of writing, that you hope to see?

The way I see it, there’s no point reinventing the wheel as far as the categories that exist in contemporary literature and writing are concerned. There’s just no value to doing so. When I deploy terms like absurdist fiction or cultural criticism, it’s more likely than not that you’ll get a rough sense of what I’m referring to and can think of titles that easily fit within those categorical forms. When reading a query, I’m really looking to see if the author can place their work in relation to certain categories and then say what makes their book different from well-known books in that category. That’s important because it would be challenging to virtually impossible to persuade a publisher to invest valuable time, money, and other resources towards publishing a book that’s a replica of a book that already exists. But beyond these business-oriented decisions, I am looking for writing that feels fresh and exciting. I want to see a strong text, strong in the linguistic, stylistic, aesthetic, and intersubjective sense. And although I am fairly agnostic about what constitutes literature and open-minded about style and form, I’m drawn to writing that can be described as dense, baroque, erudite, discursive, surprising, intellectually vibrant, ambitious. Like Stanley Elkin, I gravitate towards more and excess on the page, to language that is fulsome, robust, and reaches towards the heights of artistic possibility.

What’s your take on the contemporary literature scene?

I think it’s never been better or more vibrant especially if we’re zooming in on the past few years. I interact regularly with more writers than ever before who feel confident that they do not have to dumb down the literary or artistic qualities of their books. This makes me feel optimistic. It helps too, of course, that we have more publishers who emphasize those very qualities and embrace risk-taking.

What’s missing?

I think we need more well-funded literary magazines, big and small, that embrace the spirit of experimentation. Literary magazines and other periodicals serve as incubators of ideas and can spur writers on to do more innovative and exciting things. Most writers start off at the level of the short form, whether stories or essays, and hone their voice and style that way.

What have you seen enough of?

Novels that aren’t even trying to do something truly novel. Very long novels that can be a lot shorter. Memoirs that don’t do anything new or remarkable at all. Narrative nonfiction books that aren’t well conceptualized.

Is there really a viable market for challenging, ground-breaking books? (Anecdotally, the majority of interesting things I’ve read recently have come through translation.)

I’m inclined to think so, and I’ll point to the attention being given to recent titles like Ducks, Newburyport, H is for Hawk, Milkman, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, A Ghost in the Throat, Flights, little scratch, Pond, Fever Dream, Houses of Ravicka, and Sterling Karat Gold—all written in formally inventive and experimental registers—as proof that readers are a lot more open-minded and adventurous than we like to think.

Most of those titles you’ve mentioned have come from independent publishers. Is that an indictment of mainstream Anglo-American publishing?

Not at all. I believe that both mainstream and independent publishing models are necessary for a robust, balanced publishing ecosystem. It won’t be fair—or accurate for that matter—to say that the larger, more corporate publishers haven’t spearheaded some of the most important and iconic books of the past century. It’s just that in my experience the independent publishers are more likely than not to be willing to be adventurous, to take risks by publishing books that are innovative and original.

MFA programmes are handed a great deal of responsibility for the quality (or lack thereof) of mainstream literary fiction. What’s your view on their place in literary culture?

I have no major gripe with MFA programs. I think they play an important role in providing the structure that wasn’t there for many writers 100 years ago. I love working with writers who have MFAs because I find that they’re more receptive to critical feedback, tend to be great at time management and goal setting, and have better than average self-editing skills. That being said, I don’t think you need an MFA to be a great writer. Knowing how to put good sentences together and being a great writer are two different things entirely. The Spanish writer Agustín Fernández Mallo, who is one of my favourite contemporary novelists, worked for many years as an experimental physicist, specifically in the field of radiation physics, before he began to write poetry and fiction. Mallo has no training whatsoever in literature, but he is exceptionally, unbelievably good at it.

What do you wish writers who aspire to being published knew (or were taught) before submitting manuscripts?

That there’s the writing realm and that there’s the publishing one, and that both realms do not necessarily intersect. The reason being that they’re driven by different impetuses and objectives. So you can be an excellent writer producing work that’s ground-breaking and yet struggle to get published because of the tensions between literary and commercial objectives. To a large extent, one could say that publishing is first and foremost an art form. Acquisition, planning, editorial, design, production, distribution, and bookselling are all essential aspects of publishing that combine at points and lead to the creation of a tangible object. There is a beauty and distinct rhythm to these various aspects if one pays attention. When you connect the dots you can see the artistic dimensions of publishing at play, the creative energies being channelled by different people towards the making of a book. However, there is a business side to it all and those are shaped by real-world concerns about profit and loss, generating revenue, staying afloat, and so forth, and this is true for the independents as well as the corporate publishers.

How do you strike a balance the business and artistic elements of your job?

Both are important elements of the job and I take them equally seriously. It’s perhaps trite to say that publishing is a business, but it is however you want to look at it. Like anyone involved in business, publishers must make sound business decisions or else they won’t survive. Again, this is true for independent and corporate publishers alike. Artistic value alone can only go so far, in and of itself. But to answer your question about striking the balance, for me it lies in being mindful at all times of why I started the agency in the first place, which is to champion the best of contemporary literature and writing.

Does the agent play a creative role in the process of making a book?

I think of my role almost like that of a facilitator, which has a strongly agentive dimension to it. The Latin roots of the word “agent” conjures up the idea of setting something in motion, contributing to the making of something, or driving something forward. Seen on those terms alone, my view is that a good agent plays an important creative role in the process of making a book. Sometimes it’s not so evident for all to see, but agents are often a critical sounding board during the writing process and their input can go a long way towards making a book sharper, stronger, and generally more appealing as an acquisitions prospect to publishers.

You’ve described your process as involving “integrated information gathering techniques,” alongside critique, editing and strategic thinking. Can you unpack what these means and/or give an overview of how you engage with texts once you receive them from your authors?

My background being in the social sciences (I hold a doctorate in Human Geography), my thinking and processes tend to be information and research driven to a large extent. For example, I may be working with one of my authors on a memoir project. Because the market is so saturated with memoirs, it is easy for editors and publishers to be oblivious to what a new project is doing. So the author and I will do a bit of research to see what others have done in the past and then try to create a strong and compelling differentiating argument for this memoir and why it deserves a place on bookstore shelves. All of this entails being strategic and intentional about intended outcomes so that the book has a chance in what’s a tough and generally one-track publishing environment.

It is inarguably necessary for writers (or artists of any kind) to understand the business side of the culture they engage with. Does this work in reverse for agents? Do you have any creative outlets or experiences of the creative process? Have you ever submitted work yourself?

It is important now more than ever to be at least familiar with the basic business aspects of being a writer, which hinge to a large extent on a grasp of the language of the business of publishing, including things like advances, royalties, subsidiary rights licensing, and so forth. It just makes sense, at least from my purview, to be reasonably well-acquainted with the reasonings behind the calculations that publishers make on a daily basis and how those in turn have an impact on the possibility of earning a living from writing. To answer the second part of your question, some agents are writers themselves but personally speaking I don’t think that all agents need to be writers or be involved in the creative process directly. Just as an example, the most influential people in the art world are art historians, art dealers, gallerists, curators, and auctioneers, and they are usually not artists themselves. Typically, they started their careers by being art aficionados and connoisseurs and then devoted their whole lives to learning how to appreciate the intrinsic and/or ascribed value, commercial and otherwise, of art. The same is true for literary agents.

In North America, waves are being made by Penguin Random House’s attempts to merge with Simon & Schuster (incidentally, over here there’s the issue of Hachette buying the Editis group), what do you make of these corporate machinations? How will they impact an independent agent like yourself?

Mergers and acquisitions in the industry are always concerning because of their short-term to long-term ramifications. But I am also heartened at the arrival of a wave of new players in the publishing world. We need more publishers, not fewer, if we want to have a balanced and vibrant publishing ecosystem for years to come.

Do any of your clients have upcoming projects that you’re particularly looking forward to?

Absolutely. In no particular order, I am excited about Mandy-Suzanne Wong’s The Box (forthcoming from Graywolf Press), Isaac Yuen’s Utter Earth (forthcoming from West Virginia University Press), Daniel Allen Cox’s memoir-in-essays on leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses (forthcoming from Penguin Canada), Geoffrey D. Morrison’s Falling Hour (forthcoming from Coach House Books), Babak Lakghomi’s South (forthcoming from Dundurn Press), Jason Jobin’s memoir-in-vignettes The Wild Mandrake (forthcoming from Dundurn Press), Will Rees’s literary history of hypochondria (forthcoming from Coach House Books), and Curtis LeBlanc’s Sunsetter (forthcoming from ECW Press).  

Are you optimistic about the future of literary fiction?

I would say that I am cautiously hopeful.

Akin Akinwumi is the principal at Willenfield Literary Agency, which he set up in 2019. The agency’s focus is on contemporary literature and writing. Twitter: @AEAkinwumi; Willenfield Literary Agency: @willenfieldlit