From 'The Hot Center' to the logline with Laura B. McGrath

Written by
Sarah Malone, Department of English
Feb. 22, 2024

In a public lecture on Tuesday, Feb. 20, Laura B. McGrath took an audience of Princeton students and faculty through a half-century of literary agents changing the landscape of American literary publishing.

McGrath, an assistant professor of English at Temple University, drew her talk title, “‘The Hot Center’: The Literary Establishment, circa 1963,” from "the red hot center," the term for agents in a "chart of power" — more a lava lamp than a chart, she said, bringing it onscreen — compiled by L. Rust Hills and published in Esquire in 1963 as "The Structure of the American Literary Establishment." Other "centers" in the structure include "the cool world," "the drama situation," "ivory tower," "little magazines," "commercial magazines," and "squaresville."

Laura McGrath and a chart of the 1963 literary establishment

Laura B. McGrath pointing to who's where in Esquire's 1963 “The Structure of the American Literary Establishment.” Photo by Sarah Malone

From 1963, McGrath stepped through the next years with stops at chapters from her book in progress, Middlemen: Literary Agents and the Making of Contemporary American Literature, tracing agent Candida Donadio discovering Joseph Heller and Thomas Pynchon, among many noted writers, rising to great influence, and falling into obscurity since her death, relative to editors such as Robert Gottlieb or Gordon Lish.

McGrath described the statistical analysis and ethnographic research, including interviews and surveys, that have gone into her work capturing agents’ influence on both the business of literature and the literature created. The notion of a debut novel — in discussion after the talk, McGrath and Professor of English Jeff Nunokawa noted the term's descent from debutante — is the creation of a publishing world with agents and authors, bid up to seven figure advances for first books, as two members of a troika with editors.

McGrath diagramed and close read the Publishers Weekly item for Zakiya Dalilia Harri’s The Other Black Girl. Faculty in the audience enthusiastically joined in the analysis, admiring the craft of the announcement, the mention of the novel being “pitched as Younger meets Get Out, with a dash of Such a Fun Age.”

The talk was a public lecture in connection with the graduate seminar “Postwar New York,” organized by Joshua Kotin and sponsored by Postwar New York: Workshops, a Humanities Council Magic Grant for Innovation, and the Department of English.

Middlemen is under contract with Princeton University Press and supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. McGrath’s editor from the press was among the audience.