To say that Jonathan Clowes had an unlikely background for a literary agent would be an understatement.
“He was born in 1930, left school at 15, became a Communist and was thrice imprisoned for refusing to do compulsory military service (with spells in Wormwood Scrubs, Wandsworth and Brixton prisons, where he read avidly, as he’d done in school),” wrote Zachary Leader in The Life of Kingsley Amis.
|Clowes in 1970 (photo by Diane Cilento)|
An autodidact, Clowes also spent two years homeless. “Clowes was wholly self-taught as an agent, which he became by accident, while working as a painter and decorator. A man on his crew, Henry Chapman, had written a play and Clowes managed to get it to (theatrical director) Joan Littlewood, whom he admired but had never met. Littlewood loved it and agreed to put it on, after which Clowes got another friend’s first novel published by Faber and Faber. He then found a third client, a graphic artist named Len Deighton, whose first novel, The Ipcress File, made them both a fortune.”
A 1970 profile in The Guardian noted, “When he began in 1960 with books by two friends of his — Fred Ball’s A Breath of Fresh Air and a play by Henry Chapman — Clowes had never seen a contract in his life, bluffed his way through every situation by staying silent and getting others to do all the talking, and had only heard of one publisher ‘which explains why Fabers took all my first books,’ he says.”
“It was with The Ipcress File that Clowes negotiated his first film deal,” Leader wrote. “The producer Harry Saltzman sent him an enormous, largely incomprehensible contract. Clowes sent it back three times, each time with the message: ‘this is totally unacceptable.’ By taking careful note of how the contract improved with each rejection, a process which took a year, Clowes learned how to negotiate a film deal.”
“Clowes stuck out for a good deal and got it, but the struggle became so intense during the year of negotiations that both parties fell ill,” the newspaper noted.
“I know I am alarming,” Clowes told the newspaper. “People never know what I’m thinking, but that is a distinct advantage.”
Clowes went on to become the agent for the novelists Kingsley Amis and his wife Jane Howard. When American publishers proved skittish about publishing Amis’ 1984 novel Stanley and the Women, which was perceived as “anti-woman,” Clowes turned an obstacle into a stepping stone. He contacted the New York Times and passed along news of the novel’s rejection as “a form of censorship.” The controversy not only got the novel published, but increased its sales.
“The qualities that make a good agent are a good business sense combined with an ability to help a writer aesthetically,” Clowes told the newspaper. “A lot of agents have one without the other.” “Very few people know what an agent does,” Clowes once said. “I’ve had lots of people asking what I do and when I answer, ‘Sell the rights of books,’ they say, ‘Is that a full-time job?’”