Book Review: Query, a Novel by Zilla Novikov

A tRaum Press and Night Beats book, 2023

Reviewed by JoeAnn Hart

Query, a Novel, is snack-sized, but it took me a while to read because I kept laughing coffee out of my nose and onto the page, the best recommendation I can give for a book. When I wasn’t cleaning up coffee or phlegm, I’d pause for hours at a time to bleakly stare out the window and reflect on whether writing was the best use of my life. Oughtn’t I to be out trying to save the world from the coming climate apocalypse? Can I do both? Between the lines of these query letters[1], where “Zilla Novikov” tries to find an agent for her “post-modern eco-fiction novel,” you can watch the author Zilla Novikov wrestle with these bigger issues.

The first few letters to different agents are roughly the same, and then the queries begin to morph. First the title starts changing, a reflection of the writer’s ongoing attempt to adapt to an agent’s wishlist.[2] It begins life as Till Your Mouth Drips, then changes with almost every query, once appearing as Hot Hot Climate Change Action, pitched as a work of erotic fiction to an agent with an interest in cli-fi. ”I’m not sure it that’s climate fiction or clitoris fiction. I’ve got the novel for you either way.” My favorite was Pride And Pollution, but you will certainly find your own. The comps[3] also keep changing, and include Roberts Rules Of Order and the IPCC Report. Soon the excerpts[4] get longer and more incoherent. It’s not long before there is a melding and meltdown between the queries and the author’s life, as she starts her slide into environmental activism, where we are treated to the placard “I Like Being Choked But Not By Co2.”

We don’t get to read responses from agents to the many queries, mostly because there are hardly any. Most agents say in their submission guidelines that if you don’t hear back from them, they are not interested, a particularly cruel industry standard. The only real interaction that the writer has with agents is through something called a twitter pitch party where agents go live to say what they are looking for, then click a heart on a pitch to encourage a query, to which they also never respond. When an agent does acknowledge the writer’s existence it is with a form letter that includes the ubiquitous comment “the pages weren’t as gripping as I hoped.”

Another recent ubiquity among agents is their desire to see #Own-Voices or diverse manuscripts, about which Novikov has to say in one query: “Given your interest in #Own-Voices, where authors from marginalized communities commodify their identity for other people’s representation lists like they’re playing Diversity Pokémon Go, I believe this book would be a good fit for your list.” Agent wishlists as a whole are so vague as to mean anything and nothing at all. From another query: “Your agency bio lists that you enjoy ‘tightly plotted novels’ told from ‘a distinct point of view’ with ‘dynamic, engaging characters’ that make you ‘laugh or cry.’ Given that my novel, is, in fact, a book, I believe it would be the perfect fit for your list.” My favorite pitches are the ones where she is no longer currying favor, such as this to a Ms. Minho at Pea Pod Literary. “I know you’re looking for a happy ever after, or at least a happy for now, but honestly Lee Minho, I’m not even sure certain my book has an ending.” 

I wish I could say this epistolary novel is a parody of the publishing industry and the process of getting an agent, but sadly, for the most part it is a fairly straightforward representation[5]. I, too, have spent too much time querying agents lately, ever since my agent stopped representing adult fiction.[6] It was a disheartening undertaking that came to naught, but the good new is that there are many wonderful small literary presses in the world, including the one who brought Query into the world.

The only item on my wishlist is that I would have liked the letters dated, when all we get are hints, such as “global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have increased by 3.98 ppm since I sent my initial letter.” But that is a quibble. What I really wish for, is for you to read Query, then mail the book, stained with coffee, phlegm, and tears, to the 137th agent on your list who passed with icy silence on your eco-fiction novel, and then go out and save the world anyway.

[1] A query is a letter to an agent pitching a manuscript, usually with a sample chapter attached.

[2] Agents post the types of manuscripts and authors they are looking for, either on their websites or on social media.

[3] Comps are comparables, meaning, what other books you feel are most like your book .

[4] A few teaser sentences from the manuscript.

[5] No pun intended.

[6] I first thought “adult fiction” meant pornography, like “adult movie,” but apparently it means not YA, which still has a robust market.

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