I have never met Bill Clegg, but we seem to have a lot in common. I learned in his new memoir, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, that we’re both white people who come from dysfunctional families in rural towns who nursed dreams of getting out. We both moved to NYC after attending uncool colleges, with no plan other than to “become something.” We both became literary agents, falling into a career we seemed thrillingly, finally suited for. We both love photography, and Bill Eggleston in particular. We’re both single and into dudes. We both had problems with painful urination as children and we both have abused illicit substances with abandon. For me, it was Vicodin — or any fun pill I could get my hands on. For Bill, it was alcohol and crack.

Bill Clegg, for the uninitiated, is a talented and best-selling literary agent. The authors he represents, or has, are among the best-reviewed novelists and poets of the last decade (Nicole Krauss, Nick Flynn, Anne Carson) and the advances gleaned for his list are often noteworthy. But after a meteoric rise, at age 34, Bill Clegg took $70,000 and his crack pipe and in 2005 walked away from his stable of writers, his boyfriend, and his pregnant business partner, Sarah Burnes — dissolving their company in a single email to her — and disappeared. Rumors swirled and authors scattered. At the time I knew many people who had been burned by The Addict personally, and in every case they were angry, exhausted and resigned.

A year and a half later he reemerged, having been quickly snatched up by the maniacal Jennifer Rudolph Walsh to agent for William Morris (now William Morris Endeavor). He surprised nearly every agent that had inherited his mess by luring many of the same writers he’d abandoned back to his fold (Flynn, Stephen Elliot, Heather McGowan). Then in 2008, Walsh sold Clegg’s memoir for a widely reported $350,000 to Little, Brown. The proposal was eagerly passed among colleagues –- what would the book reveal about Clegg’s own personal Lost Weekend?

I should say that since his comeback, I have heard glowing reports from various authors he represents. Clegg is known to be a gifted reader, an intuitive editor and a person who understands the needs and temperaments of The Writer. Bill Clegg defenders and fans -– men and women alike — really seem to love him. And people who have been burned by him are really in a kind of angry shock right now.

But the recent publication of POAAAAYM and the barrage of praise heaped upon it (such as in Vogue and the New York Times), all seemingly accompanied by fresh photo spreads of a brooding and contemplative man reformed, have infuriated those scorned by Clegg and baffled early readers like me. These pieces don’t really talk about the writing or the book’s specific contribution to the so-called recovery memoir. What Jay McInerney, in Vanity Fair, calls “literary methadone” I call unbelievably pretentious, almost icky writing. (Sample sentence: “I sit back down on the bed and look out the window to the early evening light as it gentles the buildings across the street.”)

The packaging of this book, the title itself, the flashbacks to childhood written in the third person, and the dead serious tone are meant to introduce Clegg as a writer with significant literary gifts. But considering the content, I find it interesting that the author seems completely unaware of the ironies of his situation (when it’s time to put the pieces of his life back together, Clegg need only sell one or two of his Eggleston’s to buy the time he needs to get back on his feet).

More than that, I think Clegg’s depiction of his drug use is actually kind of glamorous. Despite all the hype about a man who “lost everything,” can someone please tell me what is so “brutal” about going on a drug and sex fueled rampage through Manhattan when you’re staying in its best hotels?  Though he is on the run from family, friends and The Law, Clegg remains steadfast in his aversion to slumming it even a little, never stooping so low as to enter even a Holiday Inn. Because crack is among the cheapest highs in the city, he probably could have gotten more bang for his buck if he hadn’t been so intent on constantly imploding at the Carlysle, the Mercer, 60 Thompson et al.

And I can’t help but think that Clegg’s brave reveals are actually super lame. In a scene meant to detail how desperate things had gotten, Clegg’s long suffering boyfriend Noah somehow finds him at the Gansevoort, just in time for some sex with a Brazilian rent boy. As the two commence, Clegg shares that he became aware that Noah was also there on the bed, holding his hand and weeping. (Where I come from, this is called “a threesome.”)

Then there is the alternate narrative: the chapters written in third person that describe a five year old boy and his shame over an inability to urinate properly and without pain. We learn that he is afflicted with this undiagnosed condition until he is 13, but he doesn’t remember it again until he is 26, and then all at once. I wait for the charges of molestation or some kind of connection to his addictions, but this story simply peters out. (By the way, Clegg, your condition was likely Interstitial Cystitis, and mine was cured once I discovered anti-depressants.)

I get that when one is caught up in the throes of drug abuse, one is not known for being rational or subtle or introspective, but something about this story feels like cheating. The appropriated title (Joyce), appropriated cover art (Flynn) and unrepentant narcissism (vintage Clegg?) feel forced and ultimately hollow. Sometimes writing is “spare” or “streamlined” because it’s not the whole truth.

The closest Clegg comes to apologizing to his former colleagues, friends and associates is not an apology at all, but more of a vague lament. Of those he left behind he writes, “At first I’m consumed with shame and fear and regret, but slowly, with the help of kindred spirits, these feelings evolve, are still evolving, into something less self-concerned.” What’s wrong with shame and regret if it’s genuinely felt and expressed? Could it be that this is a person who apologized to those he thought could help his career, and that this book, which couldn’t be more self-concerned, is for the rest of us?

Here he is now, heroic in his accomplishment. Not only has he conquered New York, he’s more successful than ever. He’s a well-regarded agent at WME. In addition to realizing his publishing dreams, he’s made a lot of money (the sale of the sequel to POAAAAYM, entitled 90 Days has just recently been announced). Celebrated photographer Brigitte Lacombe took the portrait that graces his book jacket. He’s recently appeared in all the publications that matter, including a featured excerpt in New York Magazine, and a photo shoot in Vogue that makes him look exactly like the very healthy, very handsome preppy power bottom that he was, is, but claims he never thought he’d be. In the New York Times, Clegg reveals the source of his issues as “deep-seated insecurities about making it in a city where everyone seemed richer, Ivy-educated and better bred.”

“I never got the handbook,” he said. To which I say to Clegg now:  I think you just wrote it.

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ERIN HOSIER is a literary agent with Dunow, Carlson & Lerner. She also writes about publishing for www.SheWrites.com.

37 responses to “The Talented Mr. Clegg”

  1. Claude Daigle says:

    Bingo.

  2. Tom Hansen says:

    Welcome Erin. Interesting to see you here. I think my book (I haven’t read Clegg’s, but it sounds like the antithesis of it) crossed your desk awhile back. Small world

  3. Interesting review, Erin. I read the excerpt in New York Magazine last week and have to admit it did sort of make me want to read the book. But not enough to buy it. More like being happily surprised to run across it in a bus station. The “preppy power bottom” (fantastic phrase) on a crack binge as lurid narrative still holds an undeniable appeal, even when done for the fiftieth time. The matter-of-fact relating of personal disintegration just keeps giving as an excuse, a veiled apology, and an obscenely large advance-fetcher. But I suspect at the point it shifts from cabs and pipes and motel sex into childhood flashbacks and personal renewal, I’m putting it back down on the plastic chair and looking for something a little less 350k-ish, you know?

    • Erin says:

      Thanks Sean. I think the bar is really high for memoir, as it should be, and this one is all hype. I think the whole point is, just because you’re in recovery, it doesn’t mean you can’t still be an asshole. I’m glad Clegg is sober, if only for the rest of us, but there are better books out there. But if you want my copy, email me at [email protected] with your address and I’ll mail it to you. Seriously.

      • dwoz says:

        oh, man that’s cold.

        🙂

        You sure you don’t have a parrot or budgie cage that needs lining, or glassware that needs packing or something? there’s lots of good use for ink-dirty #5 groundwood newsprint!

    • zoe zolbrod says:

      Love this comment. I felt exactly this way about another tell-all, fall-from-grace memoir I just read,

    • Tom Hansen says:

      “preppy power bottom”. Agreed. That is perfect. Also agreed, the bar on memoir (especially drug memoirs) should be high. It makes me wonder why exactly these people write these stories. That was the major obstacle I faced when contemplating doing mine. Why? Why do we need another one of these? The answer I came up with was that we didn’t. At least not of the “look at me, and everything I threw away-boo hoo” sort. Which led me to explore doing something else, which I think I did.

  4. Joe Daly says:

    Having been entirely unfamiliar with Bill Clegg, I found your review fascinating. A tremendous payoff in reading this type of memoir is the point where the subject acknowledges mistakes and/or learns lessons that change the person’s actions and outlooks. Which I know doesn’t always happen. From your perspective, it sounds like Clegg either hasn’t had that experience, or is not yet comfortable articulating it. I have to think that it would be hard to endure the situations you describe without experiencing some soul-crushing humiliation and I think that recovery from that point could make for a very compelling story.

    Thanks for the heads up on this book. Not sure if I’m going to read it yet, but I might now that I know it’s out there.

    And welcome aboard!

  5. Wiilliiaamm says:

    Bravo. At age 33 I closed a agency (artist managment), embarked on a cross country rampage using the holy trinity (bourbon/meth/porn), burned a few clients and supporters and eventually found recovery. It was trashed motels, street hustlers and ripping friends off while I crashed on their couches.
    I can tell some decent stories about that unfortunate period in my life–I choose to keep to the company of fellow travelers. I appreciate your unvarnished assessment of this fellow’s writing and motives. Recovery memoirs can be tiresome, suspicious and antithetical to the very values that keep the individual out of harms way today. But oh well. $350,000 is an intoxicating amount of money.

  6. Erin, this is really interesting to me personally because I was one of Bill’s clients at the time of Burnes & Clegg’s spontaneous combustion. Bill had, in fact, just submitted my second novel, on an exclusive, to an editor at Bloomsbury about a week prior to his disappearance. Unlike a lot of his clients, I was not an already-established or “star” entity. My first novel, My Sister’s Continent, had not sold in NYC, despite Bill’s unwaivering belief in it and his immense help in revising it–it’d had several very close calls, but ultimately seemed to be judged as “too dark” and too sexually graphic for the marketplace at that (immediately-post-9-11) time. Although Bill had clients pulling in huge advances and creating bidding wars, as well as winning prizes, he remained loyal to me through the writing of my second novel, which he read and commented on every step of the way, calling me basically every Monday morning during the writing and talking for at least an hour at a shot (some phone calls with him could last 4 hours, and he called even when he was on vacation) about each new chapter. He had shaped that novel enormously, and he’s a ridiculously gifted reader/editor, regardless of what one may think about him as . . . well, a writer or a human being or whatever, since I know the jury is pretty hung on those matters.

    But after about 2 years (I have a couple of day jobs and 3 kids) of writing, just as we’d gotten the novel ready to send out, Bill disappeared. Most of his clients were–you know, getting phone calls from Nicole Aragi or what-have-you the minute the word got out. I, however, was not in that rockstar boat. I had no previous book and felt unbelievably abandoned and bereft by the loss of Bill. Although I did fairly soon find a new, very reputable agent, who needless to say is more personally reliable than Bill proved to be, I have to admit that I will probably always miss the intense creative collaboration Bill offered to his clients. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that if his big-name, prize-winning clients loved this about him, his few “obscure” clients loved it even more. We did not have reviewers or fans yet, and Bill WAS our audience, to some extent. He was the kind of brilliant, deeply invested reader that authors dream of, and his constant input and dialogue on a project could almost make you forget the fact that the fucker wasn’t actually sold/published. He made the journey itself feel less isolating, more worthwhile.

    I knew Bill had an addiction history. I’d known about his time in rehab about a year prior to the agency collapsing. Also, to be blunt, sometimes you could just tell something wasn’t right. Sometimes when I talked to him, he could seem manic or grandiose, and sometimes he had mini-disappearances of a few weeks or months when you just didn’t hear from him, which served in stark contrast to his usual heavily-invested style, and it was clear that he maybe had some personal issues that would interfere with his work from time to time. There was a weird incident when I was in New York and supposed to hook up with him where he kept cancelling, claimed a bizarre injury, and I later got a call from his boyfriend begging off our rescheduled meeting at their apartment, and it was just kind of clear that something was fishy or weird about it all. I’m guessing most of his clients–some of whom lived in New York and knew him socially, too, whereas I was in Chicago and only met him once in person–probably had our suspicions. But Bill was unique/special enough that I never heard of anyone leaving him for these reasons, and as is much publicized in the media, most of his clients–especially the biggest among them–actually came back to him when he went to William Morris. He was/is truly one of those people who can garner immense love and devotion from people even though his flaws are not exactly subtle.

    Dare I say that such a person is more interesting, more complicated, and on some level more rewarding than those who are loved more for their mere lack of flaws? Dare I say that Bill was the sort of person his writers often WROTE about, or perhaps the kind of person some of us were ourselves, and we loved him not despite these things but in part because of them?

    I was one of the clients who did not hear from Bill after his return to agenting. This wasn’t a big surprise. After what he’d gone through, in such a public way, I concluded–rightly, I suspect–that Bill had decided that, much as he personally had loved my work, it just wasn’t going to be a money-maker or gain the needed endorsement of the New York literary establishment, and that he could no longer afford his time on “pet projects” of this nature. I’ve gone on to have two very-well-reviewed indie press books (a novel and a collection, both of which Bill had read and loved when he was my agent), but the indie arena is very different, much less based on “marketing departments” and shareholder profits, and different types of work thrive there than in corporate NYC, and–as we all know–there’s very little money involved. While Bill was passionate about all his clients’ work, he is also financially driven and concerned with status, and maybe my work just wasn’t what he needed to take with him to WME if he was going to remain the Bright Young Star. He gives a lot, lot of time to his clients, and if you’re going to give that kind of time, you want the Big Deal in return. This is not a criticism, even. This is the industry.

    So you are right that–although we were in contact while he was in rehab, and exchanged some warm emails when he first got back to New York (I sent him a copy of my first novel, etc.)–I was not one of those people who got the apology phone call, or the invitation to come back and let him “do right” by me. The novel he had helped me write for two years, and had professed to adore, remained (remains) unsold, but when I approached him once and asked him to read it again as part of his new role at WM, he enthusiastically said he would and then failed to do so: just never did it. Like I was a cold query, or like he had glibly decided the novel wasn’t for him–when he had practically MADE the novel with me. I mean, wow. Yeah, that hurt. It was sort of like being broke up with on a post-it note, if you know what I mean. I believe Bill that he feels guilty about having abandoned his clients. And yet it’s also pretty clear to me that this guilt is secondary to his own continued desire to succeed in highly visible ways, in a competitive industry, and to surround himself with obvious luminaries.

    All of which is to say that some of your analysis of Bill’s character, his agenda, seems legitimately dead on.

    And yet. A few years down the line now, I’ve recently been in a bit of contact with him again, and I found myself requesting a review copy of Portrait after reading the excerpt in NYMagazine, and when the book arrived I read immediately and enthusiastically. I intended to review it here, and even though I may not now, since you beat me to the punch, I have talked it up to people, and generally I enjoyed the read and have trumpeted that from the rooftops, countering people who have viewed the book unkindly or who (perhaps fairly) expected me to be angry about it.

    Hmm, am I an emotional or career masochist or something? Why would I want to stick up for this guy? Well, I don’t know. How can I explain the fact that I still kind of love Bill, and intensely wish him well? How can I explain that, for almost 3 years, he not only believed in my work but spent countless–countless–unpaid hours on it, even though I now suspect, looking back (and seeing his later, more cool reception once he moved to WM to “prove himself” anew), he had long since realized that I was not going to butter his bread, but that he continued to commit himself to my writing for those years (when he had his own shop) because he plain and simple liked it, because it spoke to him in a way that was not about money? During those years he read every short story I wrote, even though he wasn’t submitting my collection to editors–he even read work already in magazines, and commented, passionately and enthusiastically. I suspect even other agents would have to concur that–for a client whose book had not sold, and whose stories were coming out in indie mags that did not pay–this is not the usual response from an agent. And so, how can I explain that all of his writers loved him because he had–as POTAAAYM illustrates–the makings and the demons and the soul of a writer himself, and that he “got” us on a level other literary agents, even if more reliable, more professional, and more ethical, possibly did not?

    Anyway, I have to say that it’s a pleasure to read an agent laying her real opinions on the line like this, which in my experience is woefully rare in the industry. So I appreciated reading this, even where we differ. A warm welcome to TNB.

    • Tom Hansen says:

      Interesting. Now I know which book my agent was talking about in the Summer of 2008. She kept telling me that publishers, while liking my book, were reading and were hot for another memoir written by an agent who had disappeared. It was the main reason they didn’t buy mine.

      I don’t think you’re a masochist. It’s hard to find people who believe in our work, and when we do, we tend to be loyal to them. I get that. I’m that way too.

    • Erin says:

      Gina, thanks for sharing. (Not to sound like an AA meeting!) There is no question that some people are addictive, and Clegg is like crack for his clients. You’re definitely not alone.

  7. jp says:

    very cool article, plus commentary….thanks for sharing!

    i read the excerpts a few weeks ago and went wow…crack head is a crack head at the end of the day, though. that shit leaves deeps scars!

    good luck to all

  8. Erin, thanks for your review. And the comments have been so interesting. I heard about Clegg and his memoir way back, from various people in the NY literary scene. All the stories. (The stories I heard weren’t the I love him kind, btw.) So, now the book has arrived. And it’s been fascinating to witness the fanfare.

    I saw the book the other day, opened it, read the first page, and set it back on the shelf. I’ve been curious to read this memoir simply because I’ve heard so much about this one person. But I’m suspicious of any person in early recovery who writes about his or her addictions as if he or she is some kind of authority–or as a look at how awful I am, come slum with me piss contest. Usually, the same character flaws that plague the person as an addict can seep into his or her writing: grandiosity, entitlement, egotism, lack of perspective, dishonesty. And writing about it–garnering attention for it–seems to be anathema to what that person might need most, i.e. humility.

    I still don’t know if I’ll read it. Maybe if you haven’t given away your copy yet? I’m certainly not going to buy it. And I’m going to pass your review on.

  9. […] Hosier at The Nervous Breakdown has fiery stuff to say about Bill Clegg’s Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man.  For balance, here’s Dwight […]

  10. Jim Ruland says:

    He’s an artist all right — a con artist. Just like every addict I’ve ever known. (And I say that without a whisper of hostility; some of my best friends are/were addicts.) I get the forgiveness part, essential to the apotheosis and all that, but it’s kind of surprising so many writers took him back.

  11. Erin says:

    Victoria Patterson knows what is up! First person to email me their mailing address to [email protected] wins my copy of the book (which was purchased by the way at a bookstore in New Haven, CT. I still support retail).

  12. samuel peter north says:

    a group of agents could bukkake a writer and he/she’d come back for more. sorry to be crass but please. no surprise they took him back.

  13. melissa petro says:

    I haven’t read Clegg’s book yet but “pretentious, almost icky writing” and “super lame” doesn’t exactly present a logical arguement not to, nor does saying that Clegg’s depiction of his drug use “is actually kind of glamorous.” That just makes it sound accurate. Drug use IS, oftentimes and in many ways, glamorous– as well as devastating and ugly and disgusting and tragic. Pretty much the whole human spectrum– reason, I would postulate, why addiction memoirs do so well. It seems Ms. Hosier’s major critique of Clegg’s work is that it wasn’t an amends. Speaking as someone who’s been on both sides of addiction, who is in a program of recovery and who’s also a memoirist, I don’t see this as being Clegg’s obligation. As far as: “What’s wrong with shame and regret if its genuinely felt and expressed?”: I would argue plenty.

    I was looking forward to reading a well-stated argument why Bill Clegg doesn’t deserve the attention his work has earned him, but his just sounds like sour grapes.

  14. […] itself: one I’ve been wanting to get off my chest since early 2005. What I said in my response to Erin Hosier’s review of Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, by my former (and much beloved) literary agent Bill Clegg, was not the full story, and perhaps […]

  15. […] Portrait of the Addict As A Young Agent or something like that. This previously appeared in The Nervous Breakdown.  If you have a chance to read it, let’s […]

  16. Completely fascinating look at this figure, and interesting considering the amount of laudatory praise I’ve been reading. Erin, thank you for sharing your perspective.

  17. Lyn LeJeune says:

    (disclosure- also wrote this on Betsy Lerner’s blog)
    Erin, you are a very brave person.

    Well, it’s early but I have to respond to Bill Clegg’s tattle-tale memoir….wait, forgot to take my Prozac, be right back . .
    Okay. I treaded through parts of Bill’s wax and wane of a putrid period of his life. Not that the well-placed do not suffer as well as the grunts of the world, but as I read on, tried to picture him walking (sorry, stumbling) down the streets of New York, passing a whole host of humanity who have no chance of recovery given their non-status in the world, I had to, well, guffaw.
    His book also kind of reminded me of those stories in the old True Romance mags, I used to filch from granmere, thinking that sex was something discovered in a haystack(I was raised on a rice farm), but nothing ever happened except here came the rooster and the donkey and the cat from the city of Breman and then a couple of pigs (my cousins). Anyway, Bill lets us know that life really sucks. Really, it does. But then, the well-placed seem to have some abounding resource in their account at Skank of America and voila. I’m on the tele, telling the world about my plight. -boy, could I tell you the real story about the pigs in the haystack…but that’s another story.
    Bill, you suffered, I suffered (my story would even make your toes curl and I didn’t even take illegal drugs and try IBS if you think peeing is painful.), she suffered, he suffered, they suffered, we all suffered. New York, Rwanda, Haiti, Slovenia (at least they won that soccer game), New Orleans (Now I’m really crying.)
    All I can say Bill is that you,re a lucky bastard. And if you think I’m going to send you MY memoir to rep, well nein, nein, nein. I wouldn’t want to put you back into the throes of your personal inferno because Virgil has left the building.
    I know, I know, the rich are different and all that. Booya!

    • samuel peter north says:

      ibs and this pee thing are nothing compared to what i go through

      try having eipuaidfiagitis, the inability to capitalize letters

  18. Uche Ogbuji says:

    So now the first sentence I’ve seen by this dude is:

    “I sit back down on the bed and look out the window to the early evening light as it gentles the buildings across the street.”

    It will be difficult to convince me to read a second. Thanks sincerely for helping preserve us from over-hyped, awful writing. He also sounds like a precious popinjay.

    • samuel peter north says:

      the “gentles” line is horrifying in every possible way

      i hate writers like clegg verbing (clegging?) everything now

  19. Erin says:

    I just want to say that I know and love many, many addicts in and out of recovery, and I promise this piece was not meant to be an indictment of addicts or their ability to write honestly. This review was written to shine a light on a dialogue that has been buzzing inside of the publishing community for years, but for whatever reason people have either not wanted to go “on record” about their experiences with this person, or the New York Times does not want to. Regardless, I had the feeling while reading this memoir that its author lacked a basic humanity despite the harrowing experiences he was trying to describe. Does that make sense? I don’t think whether or not you’re a sociopath has anything to do with whether or not you’re an addict.

  20. Jessica Blau says:

    Wow. I really like the way you write. This line, “Where I come from, this is called “a threesome,”” had me laughing out loud. And your last line is fabulously smart. Maybe YOU should write a memoir, no? I’d read it.

  21. Gwen says:

    This piece slayed.

  22. […] Por fortuna son más los blogs que denuncian la insustancialidad del libro o la engañosa campaña de glamurización del autor. […]

  23. Marni Grossman says:

    I’m so glad that I’ve finally emerged from my month-long funk and got the chance to read this. So interesting and so smart.

    I tend to get somewhat resentful when glossy magazines publish familiar-seeming memoirs by pretty people with lots of connections. I doubt that I’m alone in that. After all, there are thousands of fabulous writers- with powerful stories to tell- languishing in obscurity because they don’t have friends in high places and a well-toned physique.

    Then again, this could also just be bitter jealousy talking.

  24. Rachel says:

    I’ve just finished reading Clegg’s memoir. I thought that the book was entertaining and interesting overall, but the closing lacked in so many ways. I would have liked a fuller depiction of his recovery and repentance.

    I have to say that I am actually quite turned off by the “threesome” comment. This particular scene had me in tears. As someone who has been on the receiving end of emotional and mental abuse as a result of substance addiction, this is no laughing matter. Making light of one of the toughest moments in the book is a low blow.

  25. Oliver says:

    I find it very interesting that Mr Clegg got another deal for a sequel to this book, given that this book has only sold 17,000 copies. 17,000 copies against an advance of $350K is surely considered a major flop by any publishing standard. What gives?

  26. Christopher says:

    Clegg cannot write his way out of a hat. And he sounds , from hi sown accounts, like a real jerk.

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