A survey a couple of years ago found that the job most people wanted to have was being a writer, presumably because we all know it only takes a bit of sitting down and a good idea or two, don't we? And yet at the York Festival of Writing this year, a panel of agents was asked whether they'd like to be a writer, and with a horrified intake of breath every agent said, "No, not at all." I laughed because I knew exactly what they meant - in fact, I was surprised to see a forum comment later that heard that horror as condescending. It's not scorn for the writerly trade that makes most agents and writers know they couldn't and don't want to be writers, it's having more knowledge than most of what being a writer is like. If they're occasionally exasperated and frequently baffled by us, then it's hardly surprising: it's a rare writer who isn't exasperated and baffled by their own self, after all.
There are agents who are writers - poets, novelists, non-fictioneers - just as there are editors who are; I'd never say that it's not possible, and I can say from personal experience that having a novelist for your editor means you get, among other things, the most fantastic blurbs. But agents are the nearest professional thing a writer has to a best friend, and they know that earning a living by writing is hard, insecure and lonely ... or the three other depressing adjectives of your choice. Indeed, since an agent might have anywhere between fifty and two hundred clients, each of whom is locked in an individual, unheated garret, they may know more than each of us does about all the different ways we have to find to pay the rent, while trying preserve both our body heat and our writerly self-respect.
And then the other day, at the launch for Essie Fox's gorgeous second novel Elijah's Mermaid, I mentioned the Open University course I teach, Creative Writing A215. One of the Random House editors said that she had done that very course while working as an editor, as part of an arts degree. It was the last course she needed to make up the degree, and she fancied some fun: some creative work after all the analysing. Plus, she thought she ought to know a little about what all her authors do with their brains.
How had she found the course? I asked. She absolutely loved it, she said, but she wasn't very good. (Mind you, I would love to know what a senior editor's definition of "not very good" is!) But, above all, she realised as never before just how hard writing is. She came to understand how difficult it is to know, when you start, where a piece will finish - and how often it doesn't finish there at all, or doesn't finish full stop. And from an editor's perspective she realised how when you're looking at stuff on the page, you can be very clear about what needs to be different, but it's still incredibly difficult to work out what reverse-engineering will result in the changes that it needs.
Lovely though it would be to think of demanding that everyone who has to have a relationship with our writerly selves should sign up to A215, just as every CEO ought to spend a week on each of his or her various shop floors, it's not so common. But one part of good in the phrase "good editor" and "good agent" is that they do understand, at least a little. That doesn't mean they don't have to deal in hard, industry realities, which don't care how saleable words get on the page as long as they do; and then they have to transmit those hard realities to us. And it doesn't mean that they can magically tell us what reverse-engineering is needed when we ourselves don't know. But it does mean that your agent will listen when you're honest about what you need to do your best writing. After all, she or he has every interest in your doing that too.