V. S. Naipaul has a new literary agent. After 30 years of working closely with U.K.-based veteran Gillon Aitken, the Nobel Prize–winning author of A House For Mr. Biswas has signed on with the mighty and ruthless American Andrew Wylie.
Mr. Wylie is known—and in some cases, hated—throughout the publishing industry for routinely and unapologetically pursuing prestige authors who already have agents, and recruiting them for his ever-expanding client list with promises of more money and better representation overseas.
His play against Mr. Aitken for the Naipaul account included an extra bit of drama, in that he was seeking to usurp not just a competing agent but a former partner who served as something of a mentor to him when, starting in 1986, the two of them worked together as part of the international agency Aitken, Stone, and Wylie. It was during those 10 years, which ended when the firm broke up in 1996, that Mr. Wylie got his first taste of working with Mr. Naipaul, selling his U.S. rights while Mr. Aitken handled the rest.
Though it’s tempting to trace the roots of Mr. Naipaul’s defection to those days, Mr. Aitken says his old partner would not have had much personal exposure to the author back then.
“Each of us remained the primary agent for his clients, and to that extent—also bearing in mind the geographical distance between the UK and the US—relations with the other’s clients were pragmatic rather than close,” Mr. Aitken wrote in an email Tuesday. “I do not know, since 1996, to what extent Andrew Wylie ‘actively’ or indeed otherwise ‘pursued’ Sir
V. S. Naipaul. Certainly, in the thirteen years that have elapsed, Sir V. S. made no mention of it.”
Asked whether he had been a mentor to Mr. Wylie during their time working together, Mr. Aitken demurred, saying he would “leave it to others to judge.”
“Certainly, when I agreed financially to back the US corporation we formed in 1986,” he wrote, “my experience of the publishing/literary agency business was substantially greater than his. I like to think that he benefited from that.”
Mr. Wylie did not answer questions about why Mr. Naipaul made the decision to change agents or reveal how many years the courtship went back.
“I think Vidia felt that it was, simply, time to move on,” Mr. Wylie wrote in an email. “I can’t say with any authority what considerations were involved, but I do believe there is work to be done on the foreign rights side, as well as in the UK & US, and we’re well suited to do that work.”
“A prospectus is always more intriguing than an account summary,” said Mr. Naipaul’s editor at Knopf, George Andreou. “It’s always the case: ‘What I will do for you’ is always more exciting than ‘what I’ve done for you.’”
Asked whether he expects to be paying more for the privilege of publishing Mr. Naipaul in the future now that Mr. Wylie is behind the register, Mr. Andreou replied, “I don’t think he was cheap before, but I don’t think the attraction to Wylie at this point had all that much to do with the American market.”
Mr. Wylie’s calling card, Mr. Andreou explained, is his global reach, meaning his pitch to Mr. Naipaul probably had more to do with foreign rights. But, Mr. Andreou said, the 76-year-old author’s reputation in some foreign countries may not be so easy to develop.
“It’s no small task Wylie has set himself, because although Naipaul is universally admired as one of the finest writers in the world, I don’t think that the selling of Naipaul in every market has always been as much a thing to be presumed as one might imagine,” Mr. Andreou said. “I would say his greatness very often inheres in subtleties that are specific to English—they’re not that easy to carry over. It’s not rollicking plots and so on—it’s perfectly wrought expression that puts an incredible burden on the translator. … To get it to do in another language what it does in English, despite the simplicity of the surfaces, is a translational task of degree-of-difficulty ‘10.’”
Patrick French, whose biography of Mr. Naipaul, The World Is What It Is, was published last year by Knopf (and edited by Mr. Andreou), said in an email that he was not surprised by his subject’s decision to sign with Mr. Wylie.
“This is all prefigured in The World Is What It Is,” said Mr. French, who himself recently left his previous agent for Mr. Wylie. “Vidia likes to cut off and move on—it’s how he works. Gillon Aitken managed to remain in the hot seat for 30 years.”
According to Mr. French’s book, Mr. Naipaul’s agent before the start of his long association with Mr. Aitken, in 1979, was Curtis Brown’s Graham Watson, who took him on as a client at the end of 1955.
“Looking back,” Mr. French wrote, “he called [Watson] ‘a very bad agent’ who ‘kept me in poverty for at least ten years.’” According to the book, Mr. Naipaul severed ties with Watson in 1979, writing him a note that said Curtis Brown was not giving him “the overseas representation I should be getting.”
News of Mr. Naipaul’s move to the Wylie Agency was first reported by the London Evening Standard.