The Late Word

Whatever happens to book culture, literature itself will always survive.

By Curtis White

Friday, October 07, 2011

Literary Characters Assembled Around the Medallion of Shakespeare, by John Hamilton Mortimer, 1776. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut.

When we speak of literature, we should not imagine that we are speaking of some stable and enduring Platonic entity. The history of literature has always been about its highly mutable institutions, whether bookstores, publishers, schools of criticism, or, for the last half century, the mass media. In other words, literature has always been about the struggle over who would have the social authority to determine what would count as literature. Early on, this authority seems to have been the possession of men who had the privilege of owning printing presses and bookstores. In our own time, the most compelling claim to this authority comes either from the capacious bosom of Oprah Winfrey and her bathetic book club, or from the arid speculations of those Hollow Men on a publisher’s marketing staff.

Matters were not always thus. When John Murray published the works of Lord Byron in London in the early 19th century, he risked prosecution and jail if the work was found blasphemous or libelous by the powerful. Byron, notoriously, didn’t help things, deliberately writing his poetry out along the razor’s edge of public tolerance, just as he lived his life. In another example, Shelley wrote to his publisher, Thomas Hookham, regarding the appearance of his poem Queen Mab: “If you do not dread the arm of the law, or any exasperation of public opinion against yourself, I wish that it should be printed and published immediately.” Hookham must have had such fears because he refused to publish the atheistic and revolutionary poem (Tory legislation against “blasphemous and seditious” literature was the order of the day). As a consequence, the first edition of the work was self-published in a run of a few hundred copies for distribution among friends. Even so, in 1817, the poem’s radical politics and atheism were used against Shelley in his suit to gain the custody of his children; he lost the suit and never saw them afterwards. In England, still in reactionary posture after the French Revolution and Napoleon, poets and writers like Shelley, Byron, and Leigh Hunt found it safer to flee the country in order to write. They conducted their on-going dialogue with their native land through their brave, nerve-wracked, and sometimes imprisoned publishers.

At that time, there was little difference between a bookstore and a publisher; bookstores produced the books they would sell. It was a business completely engaged with the public (an aristocratic public, to be sure). In fact, bookmaking and selling was then true “publicity,” the rallying of public support for ideas. Murray even hosted an afternoon tea for his writers, his “Four o’clock friends.” It may sound like a description of life on another planet (and it is), but a reader could go into Murray’s store and buy a book by one of his authors, Pride and Prejudice, say, and then have tea with the author!

“Biscuit, Miss Austen? Now tell me in all candor, about this fellow Darcy…”

As late as the 1950s there remained some of this family and community feel to bookstores, although the business of publishing had long ago been handed over to “professionals.” For example, in my own San Francisco, there was this:

Advertisement for Paul Elder’s Books, California.

If you wanted a book, you told Paul about it. If you wanted to know about new books, he himself or his staff could tell you, or you could receive a newsletter. Now, were the books at Paul Elder’s any more literary, or intellectual, or hip than those at Barnes and Noble today? I have no idea. I can say, though, that I found this advertising slip in a 1956 Modern Library hardback edition of Marcel Proust’s The Captive (that I bought over the internet, sigh!).

The thing that Paul Elder’s store was emphatically not was a place where ideas challenging the dominant political authority were first made public. No one had to go into exile for fear of what the authorities would make of the books Elder sold. This was so for a simple reason: once the selection and manufacture of books became specialized, separating writers, from publishers, from retailers, and once the centralized manufacture of books required real capital, the chance that this new industry would ever challenge the reign of free market capitalism and its multiform ideologies was reduced to nothing. Publishers made profitable commodities and they kept the lid on ideas. It’s hard to say which of those two purposes was the more important. As my late friend Ronald Sukenick liked to say, “What can you expect from Simon and Shoestore?”

Another thing I can assure you of is that by the 1970s most independent bookstores, even in an area as literary as Berkeley/San Francisco, had thoroughly conceded the authority to determine what would count as literature to the commercial presses. The independents sold the same things that were sold at Barnes and Noble: NYT bestsellers, genre fiction, current affairs, and whatever NY was passing off as literary (domestic realism, eternally). When I’d go into a store in the ‘80s and ‘90s hoping for a sympathetic ear for Fiction Collective/FC2 titles, with nothing more than the polite query, “Are you stocking our books?” I was invariably greeted with an arch incredulity and a pained look that said, “That’s not still expected of us, is it?” It was as if I were asking, “Would you like to burn some money?” It shocked me how little real understanding or sympathy (forget solidarity) we got from the so-called independents. With the forever-young West Coast exceptions of City Lights, Elliot Bay, in Seattle, and a very few others (the Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan, for example), I might as well have been in Barnes and Noble.

The unpleasant fact is that by the ‘90s the stores that could be counted on to consistently buy our titles were, ironically, Borders and Barnes and Noble, even if the books were mostly lost in their cavernous stores, or only sat in a warehouse somewhere until they could be regurgitated back our way in the form of murderous “returns.”

As far as I’m concerned, the book business deserves to die if for no other reason than that its business model is something out of the 1930s: send a bunch of loser Willy Lomans out as “reps,” people who don’t read and don’t understand the books they sell, and have them place the books on consignment, just as if they were old chairs that you were trying to unload at the local consignment store. As far as the bookstores were concerned, they were mostly purchasing decoration for their stores, so that it at least looked like a place to buy books. The few books that actually made money—celebrity memoirs, confessions of failed politicians, moronic self-help tomes, and jokey piss-jobs about not running with scissors—were profitably located on a few tables at the front of the store. Everything else was just ambience.

Bad as this was and remains, the really fatal flaw in this system is that it allows stores to buy new titles not with money but with the return of all the books you sent them months ago that they never sold, and never really had much interest in selling. How could they sell them? No one working in the store read books, and they were no more capable of recommending a challenging literary title than they were of shaping your investment portfolio or diagnosing a kidney complaint. Every few years in the ‘80s and ‘90s, B&N would take some sort of national warehouse purgative and back would come books you thought you’d sold months and years earlier. (I once watched in appalled amazement as two-hundred copies of a backlist title that had only sold maybe five-hundred to begin with was returned by Barnes and Noble five years after it was first released. I had to wonder, did we ever sell any copies of this book?) The best that most of our books could hope for was a short shelf life of four to six months, a single lonely spine out in an acre of shelves and books.

Now even that stupid and insidious racket seems to be failing.

With the death of each new generation of booksellers, each failed “business model,” the independent literary writer/poet/publisher wants to say, “Good riddance, they had it coming,” only to be mortified by how much worse the thing is that takes its place. In ten years, for people raised by computers (and by that I mean everyone), buying a book will mean buying an ebook from Amazon, Google, or maybe Barnes and Noble, if it survives. I asked John O’Brien, the legendary publisher of Dalkey Archive Press, what he thought, and he said this:

The greatest threat to book publishing in the United States right now is Amazon. Through various spin-offs, they have become a publisher, and this means that they are moving towards becoming both a distributor of books and a publisher, and no book publisher will be able to compete. In the future (and I am sure this is the plan) Amazon wants to control all distribution and all publishing. This is a very scary prospect: that a single company will have such power to determine what will be published and on what terms. Once the ‘Amazon plan’ is realized, they will be able to charge whatever they want to charge and will of course be able to decide what the best-sellers will be. They will have gotten themselves into the position of making such decisions because they will be the only game in town.

Even a year ago, O’Brien would have sounded paranoid to most people, but then came this article in the August 17, 2011 edition of the New York Times business section, “Amazon Set to Publish Pop Author.”

Amazon moved aggressively Tuesday to fulfill its new ambition to publish books as well as sell them, announcing that it had signed Timothy Ferriss, the wildly popular self-help guru for young men.

Amazon has been publishing books for several years, but its efforts went up several notches in visibility when it brought in the longtime New York editor and agent Laurence Kirshbaum three months ago as head of Amazon Publishing.


We know that the major players are positioning themselves for a very uncertain future, but there are really only two major players, Amazon and Google. Everyone else is trying to figure out the best way to go bankrupt or to become something else, not publishers, God knows, but “content providers” for whatever word vessels the future will offer. From their point of view, the book was just a “platform” that had its day but it’s done now, and so what? For its part, Amazon is merely doing what capitalist companies have always done: position itself to capture as much monopoly power as it can. That’s all this is really about. But for a few of us the question is still: How in the hell is “literature” supposed to come out of this?

Even allowing for the possibility that Amazon will be a benign monopoly and will encourage or at least tolerate the continued unruly flowering of this thing we have known as literature, if you thought it was hard to find a book spine out at a superstore, try finding that book of poetry that changes your life and that you didn’t know you were looking for in the web’s ether, “in the cloud,” as the techno-hip say. You’d have better luck finding a speck of gold in a bucket of sand.

Now, through word of mouth and blog site recommendations, some will find that book of poetry, although those folk will be, I suspect, mostly poets themselves, reduced now to a rarified species of hobbyist no greater in number than those enthusiasts who attend quilting fairs. (In all honesty, this is already a done deal.) But the population of people interested in finding that transforming book will become ever smaller. Literature requires a culture, a book culture, and the ebook and the web, for all of their wizardry, will forever be solipsistic.

Together, these things mean something murderous for the future of literature. But I wonder if there is really a reason to grieve the passing of this Platonic thing we have called Literature, with its periods, its crafts, its canons of major and minor “figures,” and, most precious, its faith that it is possible, as the critic W. K. Wimsatt once put it, for a work to “endure as a poetic monument.” There are at present few things more Ozymandian than the idea of a poetic monument. The “great works,” the classics, are themselves now “colossal wrecks,” and their only context is a culture “boundless and bare.” The respectful privilege we once reserved for a work like Shelley’s “Ozymandias” now seems like something from a past full of childish illusions. You can no longer refer to a work as a “classic,” as T. S. Eliot liked to put it, without provoking a kind of amused condescension, as if to say, “You don’t still believe in those, do you? It’s so 1950.” The narrative of the “Great Works” has lost its legitimacy, and we have lost our credulity. If that past, the past of the Great Tradition, is what something called literature seeks to preserve as its future, then I think it’s easy to say that it has no future.

For those of us raised among the New Critics, it is sad to live in this twilight of the gods, and we will grieve their passing with whatever quiet dignity we can muster. But perhaps what we cared most about was never really “literature” anyway. Perhaps we’ve always suspected that, as William Carlos Williams wrote in Kora in Hell, “There is nothing sacred about literature, it is damned from one end to the other. There is nothing in literature but change and change is mockery. I’ll write whatever I damn please, whenever I damn please and as I damn please and it will be good if the authentic spirit of change is upon it.”

Or, as Williams’ friend Marianne Moore put it in her poem “Poetry”: “I, too, dislike it.” Unless. Unless what we are talking about, unless what we are in danger of losing is of another order than mere literature. I believe that there is still reason to mourn if what is passing out of our culture is what Wallace Stevens called literature’s “nobility.” For Stevens, this nobility consists in, at a minimum, two things, two things that help us to live our still human lives. First, the Noble understands that literature’s beauties are dependent upon, as Williams says, “change.” Stevens put it this way in “Sunday Morning”: “Death is the mother of beauty.” It is the skillful openness to the world’s transience that creates a clearing in which the beautiful can appear. As Keats wrote,

Verse, Fame, and Beauty are intense indeed,
But Death intenser—Death is Life’s high meed.

But for the Noble Rider, as Stevens called it in The Necessary Angel, there is something beyond beauty. What poetry provides, and what we are spiritually impoverished without, are those moments in which it reveals the Real, a reality fully aware of its own fictiveness, its own final place in the mind. It is not “Literature” that provides this understanding, it is the efficaciousness (the force, the power) of the poem, an efficaciousness that the poem itself expresses best.

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird’s cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

That scrawny cry—it was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

This human Good cannot be touched by whatever happens to the institution of literature, let alone by what happens to our dismal book industry. The sordid avarice of media empires and their mendacious pimping of “content” cannot harm this Good, this Nobility. It not only has a future, it has its own eternity.