Empathy requires parallel situations. Literary agents must receive a lot of poorly written material. I can understand that. As a writing teacher, I have had distressing emotional reactions to plowing through one unexpectedly bad student essay after another. The reactions sometimes imitate the three-stage grief process of denial, anger, and acceptance. I cannot tell you which is worse of the three.
Denial can sound like this from the lips of a writing teacher:
1. I cannot believe you had the audacity to hand in this paper to me.
2. I deny you put any effort into this essay (potentially traumatic to the student who tried hard).
3. This is not your work. You accidentally gave me your second grade sister’s essay.
Anger towards the student can lead to nasty phrasing that does not complement the cologne, makeup or hat I have worn that day. Typical angry phrasings that I have been guilty of include:
1.What is this? (Pointing in general direction of essay, one eyebrow raised).
2. Let’s see–why don’t I fix this for you, then I can grade my own essay and give you an A (dripping sarcasm in tone).
Anger is an emotion teachers should definitely avoid. It is not attractive and can hurt the writing student immensely. Most teachers will try to avoid it because teaching is a face-to-face situation. Anger is less avoidable in faceless situations–as for instance, on the road (road rage) when cut off by a panicked or daredevil driver, we imagine an alien from outer space with lizard skin having his first fling behind the wheel on solid earth ground.
Acceptance, for a writing teacher, can be fatalistic: 1. I hate my job. 2. If I can connect with a single student in this class, I will be lucky. 3. No one listens.
For a writing contest judge, it is the same process. The problem with reading a slew of bad essays or books is that the nth book, which may be wonderful, will come under the tarnished vision of the teacher/judge/(literary agent?) in the throes of denial, anger or acceptance and suffer from the viewer’s unhappy state.
The viewer is human. The reaction we writers receive from a literary agent may be a reaction to 25 proposals just read, and not ours, the 26th.
If we could figure out a way to stop bad writers from submitting to literary agents, life would be peachy.