How I wish I could agree with BaronCharlus in the discussion here, where he said, in part:
It’s only through commerce (ie identification of and action to supply a market) that most work reaches us at all. Had there not been a market for reading copies of Shakespeare’s plays at the time he was working no one after the last performance would probably ever have been aware of them. Most of Sophocles’s work, as I understand it, is no longer extant. Had there been a sustained market for those works over the centuries, we might still have them. I don’t think those publishing Shakespeare’s work thought they was preserving art. It was a side-effect of commerce.
Baron, I’m in your debt for presenting a case for the other side — and in such thoughtful and good-humoured posts. . . But, . . . but, . . . though commerce stimulates and lubricates the transmission of words, imaginings and ideas, surely it’s the Bard’s superior magnetisation, his talent for communicating what absorbs and enthralls audiences — and not anything resembling a ‘marketing plan’ — that explains his staying power?
Surely it’s his rows of words that created his audience, not a pack of salesmen who dreamt up the qualities of Shakespearean literature and then set Shakespeare to writing texts that fit them – or what very nearly describes the process in much of corporation-run publishing today?
Are you saying that there’s nothing wrong with the switch at publishing houses — thanks to which it’s specialists in the manipulation of numbers, rather than lovers of literature, who are deciding what books are published?
Somehow, Baron, I can’t imagine that you would seriously disagree with Sean Murray, saying:
The mainstream UK publishing houses are putting out very few lit fiction debuts — one per season in some cases. Imagine a major record label putting out one debut album per season — it would be fair to regard the industry it belonged to as dead or dying, would it not?
Death or the internet*: those are UK lit fiction’s options.
With this change Sean describes – sooner or later, and never mind that I’ve never actually been religious – I’d like to see a return to the idea of editing (of both books and newspapers) as close as possible to a holy calling. Now, I know just how mad saying that will make me seem, particularly to the youngest readers here who have never known publishing as anything other than a quest for pots of gold.
What am I talking about, exactly? The answer is the better part of a hundred years old.
The other day, I came across my (battered, when bought second-hand) copy of A. Scott Berg’s 1978 biography of the most famous great editor (among innumerable unsung others) who ever lived. For the uninitiated, Max Perkins discovered, published and tenderly nurtured the talent of Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, James Jones and Thomas Wolfe. He was revered for his ability to glimpse literary genius in seemingly the least promising – wild, neurotic, troubled, undisciplined and rough – aspiring scribes. After his exceptional discernment, his most outstanding qualities were humility and the kind of universal graciousness that should really be called something like good ‘manners of the heart.’
I found this extract on pages of the biography bookmarked by me in roughly 1990. As quaint as mentions of a deity will seem in our time of fundamentalist atheism, it’s a passage that perfectly fits recent discussions on this site . . . about publishing; writing & printing as tools of democracy; someone enraged about feeling shut out by the publishing establishment; and the role and attitude of a good editor:
There was one woman, in particular, an aspiring author whose novel had been declined, who railed at Perkins in a number of letters, each more inflammatory than the last. She felt she had been spurned because of her politics, [. . .] her ultraliberalism, [. . .] For two years, she maintained a running assault on Perkins.
Max thought the woman’s manuscript had some merit, despite certain serious defects in her mastery of the English language. He kept on replying, at first out of a sense of politeness, then for the sake of justice, finally in sympathy. His many letters articulated an informal credo for publishing [. . .]:
‘The ideal of publishing would be a forum where all sections of humanity could have their say, whether their object was to instruct, entertain, horrify, etc. Nevertheless, there are certain rules of quality and relevance, which can only be determined by some sort of selection and this the publisher, representing humanity at large, attempts – with many mistakes – to make. Or, to put it differently, artists, saints, and other more sentient representatives of the human race are, as it were, on the frontiers of time – pioneers and guides to the future. And the publisher, in the capacity mentioned, must make some sort of estimate of the importance and validity of their reports, and there is nothing he can base this on but the abilities to judge that God has given him.’
The woman accused Perkins of being afraid to publish her work for fear of public reprisal. But Perkins knew he was not a censor. He pointed out that Scribners had published Ben Hecht’s attack on anti-Semitism, A Guide for the Bedevilled, and Beatrice and Sidney Webb’s Soviet Communism: A New Civilization.
At one point . . . fed up with the woman’s continuing vituperation, Perkins stated: ‘Our correspondence is futile and had better be ended.’ The furious author asked Perkins just who he thought he was. ‘I am,’ he said in a letter dated May 19, 1944, ‘or at least should be if I fulfilled myself, John Smith, U.S.A.’ He went on to develop his view of himself in some detail:
‘He is the man who doesn’t know much, nor think he knows much. [. . .] . . He knows that he is a failure, and is bound to be, because he is not in the confidence of God, like some, and does not know God’s plan. He does know what he has undertaken to do, and he hopes to Heaven that he will manage, to some considerable extent, to do it. That’s what he is serious about, for he can’t, in view of his observation of the rest of the world, be very sure about himself, or think that his fate is a matter of moment […]
‘John Smith, U.S.A., is always aware of the fact that he may be, and probably is, wrong. That is tolerance. He simply does his best in the world and hopes to God that he will never let anybody down or betray any principle in which he believes.’
. . . I will concede that this passage proves how old certain arguments about print publishing are. It’s only the comprehensive victory of the ‘wrong’ side that’s new.