Friday, November 27, 2009

Dead Wood and Creaking Gates

Now the thing is this—I love and indeed obsess over books as physical objects, examining both their beauty and their minute imperfections. To some extent, I could even be said to collect them, but at various points, they have forced me out of house and home.

When I moved apartments two years ago, I owned approximately 2,000 volumes, some located on bookshelves, many in precariously tall piles rising from the floor, some under the bed, and hundreds more in boxes stacked in every available corner. There was a minor flood, with water damage and ensuing mold. A number of books—surprisingly few—were irreparably damaged

I envy Alberto Manguel his 30,000-plus volume library as well as the barn he has restored to house these titles. For those of us who live in small apartments, this sort of universal library isn’t really possible. When I finally moved, I took some 400 books with me, put 800 in storage, and disposed of the rest. “Disposed of” is something of a euphemism. I was able to sell or donate approximately 100, but the remaining 700 or so volumes I simply threw out, after much soul searching. True, I put them in clear plastic bags and placed them downstairs in my building. There they often sat for a week, before the super took them to the street to be picked up for recycling. My neighbors were welcome to take any of the titles they chose. Few did so. Two years later, I’m still paying for storage.

Nevertheless, I remain emotionally attached to books as physical objects that possess an aura (vide Walter Benjamin’s essay, “Unpacking My Library.”) But we all have to ask, does this intense attachment make sense? Is it in any way rational?

As for the human beings involved in book publishing, I cannot be said to love publishers, editors, or agents. Nor do I hate them. Despite my unfortunate interaction with the agent Ms. X, I don’t particularly want to disparage publishing people as individuals. But I do take issue when they function as gatekeepers who employ faulty criteria to judge literary work. By “faulty criteria,” I mean reliance on last year’s partially successful marketing parameters to select next year’s books, a sort of “one size fits all” approach to fiction. Each strong novel is different. Unfortunately, a genuinely unique and innovative novel won’t by definition conform to anyone’s marketing plan and won’t conveniently fit any publisher’s list.

The essential text here is in the collection Misreadings, by Umberto Eco, “Regretfully, We Are Returning Your…” In this piece, a reader at a publishing house quite reasonably rejects work after work of Western literature. He or she simply doesn’t understand what the authors are aiming at—the titles don’t fit either current marketing strategy or the reader’s preconceptions. And so, The Bible, The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, and Don Quixote are all rejected. I can see Dante posing a particular problem—The Inferno would be acceptable for its sex and violence, but would offend religious sensibilities. The Purgatorio and Paradiso might work as religious tracts, but would bore the general reader. As for Don Quixote, it is simply too long and uneven.

As for myself, I do not claim to have written the next Don Quixote (vide “Pierre Menard,” by Borges), but nor have I written the next James Patterson or Dan Brown novel. I therefore request that I not be judged by the same criteria. After all, I’m not even remotely attempting to do the same thing.

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