This is the West Indies, this is that realm which once, in its
innocence of history, mistook the lantern of a caravel for a light at the end of a tunnel
and paid for that dearly -- it was a light at the tunnels entrance. This sort of
thing happens often, to archipelagoes as well as to individuals; in this sense, every man
is an island....
Joseph Brodsky on the poetry of Derek Walcott
ART and CAPITALIST RELATIONS and why PUBLISHING ON THE WEB MIGHT BE
The publication in toto of Ulysses in 1922 was indubitably
the most exciting, important, historic single literary event of the early Paris expatriate
literary colony.-- Janet Flanner
I was thinking of where a literary colony might be found, nowadays, and decided that,
if one exists at all, geographically and culturally it would be an archipelago. A fine,
hard word, archipelago, evoking rock-ribbed peaks with green life clinging to their
slopes, rising from some vast, erosive ocean. Evoking too, a terrible human history.
Since 1989, the world has changed, politically, historically, culturally. That was a
water-shed year, perhaps the real turn of the century: the year of the Velvet Revolution
and the opening of the Berlin Wall, that led to the collapse of socialism and the triumph
of unregulated capitalism; the year that began with a death-sentence laid against an
internationally-known novelist. Our minds have been different since then.
Contemplating that rather large idea I happened upon three articles of recent weeks
which seemed to throw a more precise light on the context in which this journal is about
In an article in the TLS (January 31) entitled The real scandal of Ulysses,
How literary modernism came to retreat from the public sphere, an American academic
named Lawrence Rainey follows the publishing history through France, England, and the
States, of Sylvia Beachs limited edition of Joyces novel. Prof. Rainey holds
that the market dynamics of the limited edition, meaning an edition designed
and priced high enough to be sold to collector-subscribers, eliminated the
ordinary reader as the normal buyer, reader, and critic of the novel; and
transformed the buyer of such an expensive book from simple reader into
investor/patron. Further, in order that an investment in this
relatively rare object, the limited edition of ULYSSES, bear value, the book had to be
sold a priori as great literature, before the slow accretion of
critical reading judged it so. This is the true scandal of this great (we can
say now) novel, argues Prof. Rainey: For the market-place is not, and never can be,
free from systemic distortions of power ... and its outcomes cannot be equated with ...
norms of equal and universal participation in discussions about cultural and esthetic
value. The operations of the market are not an adequate substitute for free agreement;
they are operations of an entirely different order.
Some readers may have thought the last point obvious, if not directly relevant to
ULYSSES. But perhaps the point is not so obvious as it should have been, for the February Atlantic
Monthly ran a lucid, primer-like essay by the financier-philanthropist George Soros,
who urges us to understand that our social belief in the magic of the
marketplace is pretty well mis-placed. The doctrine of laissez-faire
capitalism, he argues, which holds that the unregulated pursuit of self-interest best
serves the common good, doesnt allow for the recognition of a common interest
that ought to take precedence over particular interests. And, he warns, unless we
can temper the unbridled dynamics of the market-place with a strong, social
belief in a common social interest, the open society, which our present
system, however imperfectly, qualifies as being, is liable to break down.
Soros argument was nicely poised against the feature in New York magazine
(February 10), called How to Make a Best Seller, The Inside Story of One Publishing
Houses Attempt to Turn a Literary Novelist into a Marketplace Superstar.
(A solecism: Although Viking is named, there is no publishing house in this
story, except by convention. Viking, an imprint, belongs -- like Penguin USA, the imprint
-- to Penguin Worldwide, which is a conglomerate. Penguin Worldwide is owned by Pearson
PLC, a British holding company which also owns the Financial Times, Mme.
Tussauds, and diverse other firms.
(Penguins conglomeration includes, besides these two venerable imprints, the
respectable Dutton and, lately, the mass (or down)-market Putnam Group; an organizational
chart, so to speak, not noted in the article. Head of Penguin Worldwide is Michael Lynton,
who came from Disneys publishing arm, Hyperion. In the words of the man he replaced,
Lynton understood brand loyalty, corporate jargon the precise meaning of which
With fortifying mug of coffee at hand I read how Viking is marketing a
novel whose title and author will remain unnamed here. Rather, call him the writers
Everyman, and say his story is the Pilgrims progress: the fable of a young believer,
a writer of what the business has curiously come to call literary
fiction, who endures every possible trial as he slogs his way toward heaven,
or uptown, (according to his well-regarded agent) up there with Tim
OBrien, say, or Richard Ford. Actually, the author is only youngish (45) and
has written two good, although not high-selling, novels; a contemporary Writers
Everyman, W.E. in short, whose trial is that our temptations grow more subtle and
interesting as we grow older and more vulnerable to them.
For W.E. is in the hands of a publisher who asks: Well, [W.E.], what are you
going to do for me? And you understand almost at once that poor W.E., with his
fragile bag of beliefs slung over his shoulder, is expected to enhance his
publishers career within the Viking/Penguin Worldwide/ Pearsons conglomerate.
But she is an impassioned and lawyerly sort, and perhaps W.E. is right to
hope. When the word came that two Viking books, by Mary Karr and Terry McMillan, were on
the New York Times bestseller list, she leapt up. Yes! she
said, pumping her fist. Who says we cant sell literature here?"
We encourage readers to write us. We encourage them, also, to put this issue on their
hard drive, by clicking on the download link and following
the instructions thereon. ARCHIPELAGO can then be printed; it will appear on paper as we
have designed it, and fill about 50 pages. We urge our readers then to pass the journal on
to other readers. We are interested in the notion that the Worldwide Web might also be a
publishing medium and a distributor of literature; we think serious readers exist in
Buenos Aires, London, Paris, and New York as well as in the Dakotas, Key West, Modesto,
Charlottesville. We believe they have more in common than they might have supposed, and
will be interested to learn if we are right about this. We also hope that when they
disagree with us, and with each other -- we suspect that this might often be the case --
they will let us know. We are certain that well-formed arguments about literature, the
arts, and opinion help keep our minds open.