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The Thinker and the Doer

THE SUNDAY PROFILE

He writes feminist books. She's an agent for 'humane' writers. Keeping their activist ideals intact, Bram and Sandy Dijkstra have forged a literary way of life.

November 24, 1996|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It works like a normal kitchen--the refrigerator and dishwasher are where they ought to be. But Bram and Sandy Dijkstra also have a few extras--a solid wall of oil paintings above the stove.

"It's the result of our needs as collectors to find places to put things," says Bram, 58, heating up coffee in an actual pan in their rebelliously microwave-free zone. "One thing we did was put a huge suction thing on the stove that zaps everything out, and we turn it on when we cook."

Bram's wife, Sandy, calls their home a salon refusee because of their thrifty taste for representational paintings jettisoned by museums.

"American museums have this fascination with what's in, so inevitably what they do is collect certain things that are in at a certain time," Bram says. "And when it goes out of fashion, they sell it again."

"We just really follow our own eye," Sandy says. "That's how I operate as an agent."

Sandy, a literary agent known for discovering big-name talent such as Amy Tan, and her cultural historian husband Bram would rather not surf the prevailing waves around Del Mar, their home for 25 years. Indeed, they're still fighting the good radical feminist fight in an era and area where even "liberal" can be a four-letter word.

Erstwhile Berkeley activists, Sandy shepherded Susan Faludi's "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women" (Crown, 1991) to the marketplace, as well as Bram's latest provocative entry to the field of women's mythology, "Evil Sisters: The Threat of Female Sexuality and the Cult of Manhood" (Knopf).

"I'm interested as an agent in sponsoring books that have humane values, and which are pro-life in the best sense as opposed to pro-death or pro-repression," Sandy says, an acolyte of New Left political philosopher Herbert Marcuse when he was at UC San Diego. "Unfortunately, because I think publishing has come closer and closer to entertainment, all of us are in some sense guilty of seeking what is hot, and in the interest of hot, oftentimes the anti-humane, the shocking, the ugly, the grotesque is what we're encouraged to bring to market. And I try to resist that."

Berkeley historian David Reid, Sandy's client, says she still wears her political colors despite her foray into the big leagues of publishing.

"She was a firebrand during the '60s," Reid says, "and I don't have the impression that worldly success has in any way moderated her political views, to which I say, good for her."

But Sandy's firebrand personality has also earned her a double-edged reputation in publishing. On the one hand, she's regarded by many as the most powerful literary agent on the West Coast--a laurel New Yorkers nonetheless regard as "like being the best Ivy League football player," in the words of Dan Max, former publishing columnist for the New York Observer.

On the other hand, she got there in part by being a pushy, hard-driving West Coast outsider unafraid to rewrite the rules. Some agents say Sandy is known for being difficult to deal with. One writer briefly represented by her, Kate Braverman, says Sandy's brusque manner has verged on "cruelty."

Some rally to her defense, such as HarperCollins Executive Editor Larry Ashmead, who says, "I have high regard for Sandy, although I know other people might disagree with me. I have always found her very inventive, creative, original and fair to deal with."

Max says fewer publishers are gnashing their teeth about Sandy these days because her success has aligned her with the status quo.

"She has been mainstreamed, whereas several years ago she was kind of a guerrilla fighter on the margins," Max says. "Now the kinds of things she used to do have either become more commonplace or she has ceased to do them.

"One thing about publishing is that with each generation of new agents, the rules change. People yell about how they're behaving--not just her but also [maverick agent] Andrew Wylie. And then the industry moves with them. Because if you have the writers you can make the rules."

*

Interestingly, Bram's book, in sandblasting the roots of gender stereotypes, takes on the culture's hostility to strong women. "In almost every instance," he writes, "contemporary male attitudes hostile to successful women still express the convenient premise that such women resent being castrated males. Women who . . . try to do a 'man's job' are disparaged as 'ball breakers.' "

Did he have any particular beleaguered successful woman in mind?

"Moi?" Sandy pipes up, perched on a beige leather couch in their airy art-lined living room. A petite woman with a short shock of graying hair and a crisp manner, she bolts from phone call to phone call before settling in for the interview.

Bram, a comparative literature professor at UCSD since 1967, is totally nonplused. "In financial terms, I'm completely nowhere," he volunteers matter-of-factly, mere steps from the swimming pool Sandy has dubbed her "Joy Luck Pond." "I'm nonexistent compared to Sandy."

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