An Open Letter to a Writer
Dear George Szanto,
I write in answer to your letter describing your difficulties in finding a publisher for your new novel. As you know, I have been reading your books for a long time now, and I admire your work, but I am not surprised by your plight. Your letter followed a number of other letters from well-known writer friends who find themselves in the same situation—writers who, sometimes after a lifetime of admirable work, discover now that their publishers are turning them down for anything but literary reasons. I think the problem can be outlined as follows.
Sometime in the Age of Thatcher, Reagan and Mulroney, English-speaking readers became ignorant. First, translation into English was practically stopped: today, less than 0.1 percent of everything published in English is a translation, and that includes Japanese computer manuals. Having once been the keen discoverers of Kafka, Camus, Sartre, Unamuno, Neruda, Dürrenmatt (in the first half of the twentieth century, for instance), English-speaking readers locked themselves into something worse than an imperial mentality, since at least the Empire forced them to look outside England: a state of stolid contentment. (See Stephen Henighan’s column, “The Insularity of English,” in Geist 61.)
Readers and writers in English today know practically nothing of what is taking place in the cultures of the rest of the world. Step into a bookstore in Bogotá or Rotterdam, Lyons or Bremen, and you can see what writers from other countries are doing. Ask in Liverpool, Vancouver or Los Angeles who António Lobo Antunes or Cees Nooteboom are (two of the greatest living authors, the first Portuguese, the second Dutch) and you will be met with a blank stare. But such a question would probably not be asked, because English-speaking readers have became prisoners of their own language, living off whatever the publishing industry chooses to feed them.
Even the literature written in English has become, by and large, watered down to canteen fare. Of course there are many exceptions, and great writers are writing superb literature all the while, but they work in an atmosphere of intellectual numbness. And while it has always been true that a new author has difficulty in finding a publisher, now (as you, dear George Szanto, have found out) even authors with notable careers are having trouble finding a home for their books. In the English-language publishing world of today there is no middle ground for literature: formulaic fiction and bland non-fiction occupy the shelf previously destined for literary works, which have moved either to small “experimental” publishers (as they used to be called) or to university presses. Doris Lessing’s English publishers told her last year, after her eighty-fifth birthday, that she wrote “too much” and that they found it difficult to continue publishing her work; her American publishers first turned down her new novel The Cleft on the advice of their marketing department and then reluctantly accepted to bring it out “as a kindness.” Bloomsbury, the publishers who once boasted Nadine Gordimer and Margaret Atwood on their list (though those now “safe” modern classics are still published by them), bring out Jane Austen and Charles Dickens in editions for an illiterate audience with cute introductions by bestselling “chick-lit” novelists such as Meg Cabot, of The Princess Diaries fame. Cabot writes: “OK, so I’ll admit it: I saw the movie first . . . But, as I had discovered from reading Peter Benchley’s book Jaws, sometimes there are scenes in the book that aren’t in the movie . . . The movies always leave something out. Which is what makes Pride and Prejudice such a joy to read over and over. Because you can make up your own movie about it—in your head.” The Bloomsbury edition also includes spoof interviews with the author: “My first book to make it into print was Sense and Sensibility . . .” Novels published under the Vintage imprint of Random House now include a how-to guide at the back, visibly intended for book clubs. These guides are demeaning catechisms that tell the reader what to think. Book club participants are usually not idiots, and have no need for artificial guides to literary conversation.
Like most things in our culture today, the publishing industry tends to undermine our belief in our own capabilities. I am certain that the vast majority of people are capable of intelligent reading if they are not made to feel inferior through theoretical jargon and arguments of authority; they have the experience and curiosity to ask intelligent questions and suggest thought- provoking answers. And if not everything on the page is obvious to them on the first reading, then (as my own teachers told me to do when I was little) they can look it up. However, the publishing industry is saying to its readers: “You’re not capable of understanding on your own, you’re not clever enough to enjoy a book without our help. Therefore, we will produce ‘easy’ books for you and assist you along with ‘easy’ answers.” It used to be a truism that a measure of difficulty added to the pleasure of an undertaking. Now difficulty is a fault to be avoided at all costs, especially at the expense of our intelligence. The keyword of our culture today is stupidity.
Not that the readership is stupid. But an organized publishing industry wants us to believe that we are not sufficiently gifted. Notice that I say “publishing industry” and not publishers. There used to be a time when publishers (though traditionally reviled by writers) were educated, literary people with a love for books. If they made money from their authors—and several did—it was more a question of happy chance than ruthless method. But since the 1980s, publishing companies, bought up by large international corporations, began to apply industrial methods to the making and distribution of books. Having discovered that books are sold and bought, these entrepreneurs reasoned that books could be bought and sold like any other artifact, from pizza to sports cars. This conclusion is based on a misunderstanding—and here I know I will be accused of elitism, an ancient insult traditionally cast at readers. Books are indeed sold and bought, but that is a circumstantial fact of their existence, not their defining essence. Unlike the merchandise on which our societies build their economies, books are intellectual repositories, the holders of our experience, imagination and memory. We have decided to exchange and share the products of these abstract qualities (literary creations) by means of ordinary commercial systems, because in some remote past we deemed this to be the simplest method of transmission. But that does not mean that we actually buy and sell a text, merely its receptacle. When you buy Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, you are not buying the story of Pride and Prejudice, you are buying a pile of bound paper containing a system of ink stains in which we have agreed to encode Austen’s story. I’m reducing the transaction to an almost absurd simplicity in order to make my point: that we confuse contents and container, another unfortunate characteristic of our society today.
To feed this confusion, the multinational corporations have turned publishing companies—as well as bookstores—into supermarkets and imposed supermarket rules on the commerce of books. Whether or not a book is to be published is now decided not by the editor (more or less trained to read manuscripts and assess their literary value) but by the marketing staff, whose literary skills are at best not proven. Decisions are made based on projected sales, an economic tool that does not apply to literary books, only to manufactured fake books—that is to say, to books created according to formulas for a specific market and a specific time. Somerset Maugham once said that to write a good novel there are three rules, but that unfortunately no one knows what they are. The administrators of these publishing companies believe otherwise: since there are rules for imposing a certain brand and type of soft drink on the market, why not apply these rules to impose a certain author and a certain book? Books now have “sell by” dates, like boxes of cornflakes, since booksellers cannot stock an infinite number of titles and publishers force them to take their ready-mades. Backlist titles (the classics old and modern on which our civilization is based) tend to disappear in a circular reasoning that argues that since they are not much requested they shouldn’t be stocked, and they shouldn’t be stocked because they’re not much requested. Furthermore, a huge investment in these fake books is made in tv chat shows, targetted advertising, purchased bookshop display space, etc., to ensure that a book will sell (though even these blockbusting tactics do not always work).
Bookstore chains have joined this scam. In old-fashioned bookshops (most of which have disappeared in the wake of the takeovers), booksellers recommended what they liked and judged appropriate for a certain reader; but in chain outlets, employees must display books in hierarchical spaces for which publishers have paid. Readers are thereby duped into thinking that what they are offered by the bookseller is the best, while it is merely the most richly promoted.
Why are we not up in arms about this? Imagine that sports fans were given only flipper games and table sports on the weekend instead of the live event. Would they accept it without protest if they were told that they would find real soccer and hockey “too difficult” to follow? Why are we readers such cowards? Perhaps we think that this onslaught of idiot’s fare will not affect us individually, that it is the other, that imaginary beast we call “the masses,” who will be the victim, the dumb consumer. But that is simply not true. No writer writes in a vacuum, no artist creates in an echoless room. Literature, art, exist through interchanges, from author to reader to author, along generations, so that Homer speaks to us today by means of a multitude of responding voices, and we, the readers, enrich Homer every time we open the Iliad. If the process is interrupted (as happens during dictatorships, for instance, when readers lose their books and writers are silenced), even though a few brave souls may carry on, it takes a very long time for the majority of readers to reconnect with the circle of voices that preceded them. The great problem is that the destruction of anything—in this case, the prestige of intellectual knowledge and the respect for our cultural achievements—is a terribly fast process; its reconstruction (because I believe the time will come when we will have true publishers and booksellers once again) is heartbreakingly slow.
Perhaps we will be lucky and the great multinational companies who have seized upon the book as another means to make money, will realize what readers and writers, editors and booksellers have always known: that if you want to make money, don’t deal with books. Be an industrialist, a cosmetic surgeon, an investment banker, a real estate promoter, a high-powered politician, but don’t bother with literature. Perhaps they will realize that their real fortune comes from the sale of weapons (as in the case of the Lagardere Group, owner of Warner Books and Little, Brown, among many other imprints), not of the novels of Vladimir Nabokov, and they will let the whole messy little business drop. Perhaps a period of catastrophe will follow, but (allow me a clichéd lyrical ending) a new, truer publishing world will emerge from the ruins, no doubt from the continuing efforts of the small, persistent editors and booksellers who have somehow managed to survive. And then, dear George Szanto, you will be honourably published and faithfully read.