One in his ignorance used to think that literary agents were like those proxies of bullfighters who appeared in black-and-white Spanish movies: extroverted rogues, troublemakers and talkative ones. When I first met Guillermo Schavelzon (Buenos Aires, 1945) I thought he was a career diplomat, with his impeccable courtesy, his polite manner, his culture without affectation, his soft voice almost whispering. It turned out that he was a literary agent.
Just published The Enigma of the Trade, Memoirs of a Literary Agent in the editorial Trama of the battler Manuel Ortuño. It shows us a Juan Rulfo who “did not like to come home”, the integrity of Elena Poniatowska, a Roa Bastos who worked changing the sheets in the rooms of a furniture to the great and difficult Quino coming and going with his suitcase full of bills, a perfectionist Domingo Villar to almost infinity.
“Benedetti and Onetti had to pay for the first editions of their novels”
The pages of Schavelzon are chronicles that capture small stories of writers lived throughout more than half a century in those book worlds between Argentina, the ten years of exile in Mexico for having published a book that displeased the military, and their landing in Barcelona, where he has lived for many years.
I try to meet him in the center of Barcelona but I detect a slight resistance, surely little friend of crowds and franchises. We end up in the cafeteria of the Alma hotel, in that Roman peace of the Eixample, and although I arrive rushed and late, his calm voice calms me. I confess that I really liked that he put Domingo Villar first, who is so missed… “He was a much-loved writer because he was a humble man. He didn’t talk about him, he preferred to talk about food or wine, about which he knew a lot and taught me so much”.
His excellent first novel, water eyes was rejected by twelve publishers!: “Benedetti and Onetti had to pay for the first editions of their novels,” he says.
Schavelzon shows a lot of tenderness towards the writers, but without the fake glamor makeup.
“From the first edition of ‘La hojarasca’, by García Márquez, 300 copies were sold”
He describes his visit in Mexico to a desperate García Márquez for not being able to pay the rent… “From the first edition of Litter 300 copies were sold and he paid for it out of pocket. It is important to show that to the one who wants to start. The path begins by breaking very hard stone”.
The publisher Paco Porrúa detected Gabo’s talent and advanced him money to finish the book. Today it seems difficult for a publisher to take a risk on an unfinished book by an author who has not sold anything. Is there less courage?
“Before, the editorial decision was made by the editor, but this is no longer the case. What happened with editorial concentration and the industrialization of publishing is that today it is decided by a committee. The sales commercial has much more weight than the editor. An editor who goes against a committee and a commercial department, if he insists on an author and does not succeed, he is risking his job. That role went to small publishers where there is an editor who is the owner, who puts up the money, designs even the cover and takes the risks”.
There are agents who say that they do not work against the publishers but with the publishers… is that a sweetened truth? “Sometimes you have to confront because the agent works for the author. They say in Mexico that you cannot be on both sides of the counter. Now, since your job is a constant negotiation with the publisher, negotiation does not mean a lack of courtesy or impoliteness. You have to get from the publisher as much as possible without going beyond reason”.
I tell him that I can’t imagine him raising his voice in a negotiation… “I’ve never had to raise my voice. Raising your voice does not help to strengthen your position”.