Michael Antman
Most books aren’t all that well written. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad. Beautifully written books, on the other hand, aren’t necessarily any good at all.

Olga Gardner Galvin

[Mainstream publishers] are hoping for the next John Grisham or the next J. K. Rowling, not the first you.

Gregory Alexander
The book of the future could be made out of artichokes and underwear — or summoned out of thin air by a wave of the hand. But as long as it’s edited, it’s still a book.

Olga Gardner Galvin

Literature is and always has been a form of storytelling, not of art.


Michael Antman

James Dickey’s opinion that Poetry Is the Greatest Goddamn Thing Etcetera no longer passes the smell test.


Michael Antman

The world is full of poorly written books. Many of them are worth reading anyway, because they offer valuable information, or are exciting and suspenseful or – most important of all, I think – say something about our lives, or the lives of those unknown to us, which strikes the reader as real and true.

Then there are the beautifully written books, which are even worse than the bad ones. Or at least they can be, some of them, when they seduce us into believing they are worthwhile entertainments or real art when in fact they are ridiculous.

These thoughts came to mind because I recently read for the first time a very famous novel that pretty much every other reader has either already devoured or has declined to look into, in the latter case influenced, most likely, by the meretricious movie version.

The novel is The English Patient, by the Canadian author Michael Ondaatje, and it arrives dragging enough celluloid baggage behind it – the cover of my paperback version features the sand-grainy image of an as-yet-unburnt Ralph Fiennes gingerly kissing some now-forgotten flavor-of-the-month actress – that merely to mention its title is to elicit either sighs of approbation or, more likely, snorts of derision.

The English Patient was published 15 years ago, and not only has its reputation survived the mockery heaped on the movie version (by, among others, Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes, who spent an entire episode making fun of it), it actually threatens to achieve the status of a modern classic, a development that I think would be bad news indeed for readers who find it increasingly difficult to discover literature that isn’t merely “well written,” but actually reflects reality at some level.

The designation of “classic” has been implicitly accorded Ondaatje’s novel by its inclusion in an interesting though scarily titled new volume published earlier this year, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (I take this title to mean that if I make it up to 1000 but somehow neglect to read, say, Peregrine Pickle by Tobias Smollett until very late in life, I must shoo away my loved ones from my deathbed while, my eyes rheumy and my body entangled in tubes, I plow through the concluding chapters.)

In actuality, of course, there’s no chance I’ll ever read even half of the books on 1001’s list; my current total is 246. But I had a long plane trip coming up – I get much of my reading done on planes – and noticed that, of the remaining 755 volumes, one was not only very well known but had been sitting on my bookshelf since the movie-inspired paperback version had been published in 1993. So I packed The English Patient in my carry-on bag, and I was off.

The English Patient is the story of a horribly burned desert explorer (not English, as it turns out), the psychically damaged Canadian nurse who attends his slow death, the Italian-Canadian spy and petty thief who knew the nurse as a child, and the Indian sapper (bomb defuser) who has a brief affair with her, all of them installed through various plot machinations in a largely destroyed Italian hilltown villa in the final days of World War II.

But what is most noticeable about this novel is not these characters, nor the interesting and unusual mise-en-scene, nor the prodigious and impressive research Ondaatje has done on deserts and bomb-disposal units, nor the passably diverting mystery of who the titular character really is, nor the fact that this is a World War II novel without any fighting, nor any Germans, Americans, Japanese, or, it develops, English.

No, what really stands out front and center in this book is the style. Solemn, sensual, and unvarying in tone, it resembles nothing so much as a sketchbook filled with semi-abstract pastel-chalk drawings that have been slightly smeared by someone’s hand. Beautiful, yes. Absolutely. Gorgeous, even, in spots. But turn the page, and there’s another beautiful, semi-abstract pastel-chalk drawing that has been slightly smeared by someone’s hand and is utterly indistinguishable from the first. And so on, page after page, until after a while the temptation to flip through the book with thumb and forefinger, and then to flip the unfinished book onto the table, is almost irresistible.

Here is a typical passage that illustrates at once the sensuality, the abstraction, and the solemnity of this book’s tone: “Too many men in the house. Her mouth leans against the bare arm of her shoulder. She smells her skin, the familiarity of it. One’s own taste and flavour. She remembers when she had first grown aware of it…” And, just one paragraph later: “She sniffs the stone, the cool moth smell of it.”

Even at this stage, I’d imagine, you have a sense of the monotony, the soporific dullness of it. And why “the bare arm of her shoulder” rather than merely “her bare shoulder”? Then, too, there are the incomplete sentences, the comma splices (a sign of amateurishness in American prose, but highly prized in English and, I suppose, Canadian prose) and the portentous pronouncements: “A man in a desert can hold absence in his cupped hands knowing it is something that feeds him more than water.” I’ve been in the desert, which I love, and even, once, while hiking in Utah, ran out of water many miles from the trailhead. Absence, solitude, echoing emptiness: They’re all great, not to be missed. But really, when you’re lost and exhausted and lightheaded, trust me, water is the thing.

The most objectionable aspect of Ondaatje’s style, however, is the utter inappropriateness of it. The “English” patient, remember, has been burned beyond recognition in a plane crash, his skin “the colour of aubergine” (eggplant is the less-poetic American equivalent), and is barely clinging to life, and yet he tells the nurse, reminiscing about his desert explorations, “Ask a mariner what is the oldest known sail, and he will describe a trapezoidal one hung from the mast of a reed boat that can be seen in rock drawings in Nubia. Pre-dynastic. Harpoons are still found in the desert. These were water people. Even today caravans look like a river. Still, today it is water who is the stranger here. Water is the exile, carried back in cans and flasks, the ghost between your hands and your mouth.”

Not, “Oh my God, it hurts so much.”

Not, “Please give me more morphine.”

But, rather, “Harpoons are still found in the desert.”

And, as well, “Water is the ghost between your hands and your mouth.”

Is he raving, delirious, high on morphine, in a fever dream? Perhaps. And yet all of his disquisitions on desert exploration – and there are a great many – are cogent and poetic and suspiciously similar in style and rhythm to Ondaatje’s own third-person narration and to the dialogue of many of the other characters.

Or is the problem that I am too literal, in need of a little morphine of my own? Again, maybe so. But the “morphine,” which is to say, the magical ability to create in the reader the willingness to suspend disbelief, is generally understood as the author’s responsibility to supply, and not the reader’s.

Or, as another damaged character later in the book says, “Talk to me when the morphia wears off.”

So this is a book that does not recognize the incontrovertible primacy of pain, comparing as it does the color of third-degree burns to a purplish vegetable with a glossy skin. Or of thirst. Or, for that matter, of sex. In the hierarchy of human wants and needs, all three are shoved far down a pyramid in which true primacy is given over to a murmuring kind of poetry, or, more specifically, to, God help us, poetic prose. Here, for example, is the nurse making love to, or perhaps just caressing – it is impossible to tell – the Indian sapper:

“She sings and hums. She thinks him, in this tent’s darkness, to be half bird – a quality of feathers within him, the cold iron at his wrist…there isn’t a key to him. Everywhere she touches braille doorways. As if organs, the heart, the rows of rib, can be seen under the skin, saliva across her hand now a colour. He has mapped her sadness more than any other.”

But has this presumably well-trained nurse really investigated closely enough that alarming and anomalous “cold iron at his wrist,” which incidentally very few birds possess? Perhaps it could be the key to him after all!

Of this and similarly sexless (in the broadest sense of that word) writing, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die says, “Michael Ondaatje writes remarkable prose. Beautifully crafted sentences flow effortlessly through his work, hypnotic in their perfection …endlessly rich language.” And yet, just a handful of pages later in this generally admirable and inclusive collection of essays, the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami supplies a necessary corrective when he is quoted as saying: “Most Japanese novelists are addicted to the beauty of the language. I’d like to change that….Language is…an instrument to communicate.”

Just so. And when the language arises organically out of the novel’s situation and is appropriate to that situation, it is ipso facto beautiful, whether conventionally so, as in the work of modern prose masters such as Elizabeth Bowen or Rebecca West, both of whom write sentences more skillfully than Ondaatje could ever conceive in a fever dream, and both of whom are justly recognized by the editors of the 1001 volume, or brutally so, as in many great crime novels that are also listed in the admirably eclectic 1001.

Yes, it’s true that the majority of books aren’t well written at all, and it may seem pointless to pick on a book that’s 15 years old, except that this brand-new collection of essays has, in effect, nominated it for immortality. Apropos of which, I will go on record as predicting that The English Patient will not last as long in the annals of literature as, for example, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye, and most probably will not even make it into the next edition of this volume, tentatively planned for 2056 and to be titled 1001 Pill-Books to Swallow Before You Are Placed in Suspended Animation for Your Intergalactic Journey.

More to the point is the fact that so many other novels that are composed in a kind of spuriously “beautiful” prose that bears no relationship to the underlying subject matter are being published, and over-praised, every day, often to the detriment of books that are truer to the fundamental essence of the life they portray.

But even if we insist that books be not only, at a minimum, well-written but also congruent with their subject matter and to the reality of living in this world, there are still a multiplicity of great books to read, including many hundreds, if perhaps not a thousand, among those described in the volume at hand. 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die is a worthwhile collation, but not one to be taken literally: Even if you are a voracious reader you can safely look back on your life, many years from now, as having been well lived without, I think, reading books that are pretty, pretentious, and out of touch with life as human beings really live it. They are, though the brightness may at first mislead, merely colored chalk the next rainstorm will wash away.

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Olga Gardner Galvin

A little while ago, I came across a column by Argile Stox, Unhappy PublishAmerica Authors, posted on UselessKnowledge.com. Indeed, PublishAmerica has a controversial reputation of a vanity press masquerading as a “traditional royalty-paying publisher” to lure unsuspecting authors, and, indeed, some of its authors’ contentions, as presented on numerous writers’ message boards and Web sites, are more than legitimate.

However, a close look at many of the unhappy authors’ complaints yields a sometimes disturbing lack of knowledge and understanding of what publishing entails and what a publisher can and cannot guarantee. And, it seems, these misconceptions are not exclusive to PublishAmerica authors.

As a small independent publisher with experience in working in big publishing, I’m naturally concerned about unrealistic expectations that aspiring authors appear to have — concerned both because these authors are cruising for a bruising and because most small publishers don’t deserve the acrimony that frequently ensues when authors sign contracts without first learning a few things about publishing.

Currently, the U.S. publishing industry releases close to 200,000 titles a year, and this number continues to grow. At the same time, according to Nielsen BookScan, in 2004, 93 percent of all ISBNs sold fewer than 1,000 copies each, and accounted for only 13 percent of sales. The remaining 7 percent of ISBNs sold more than 1,000 copies each, and made up the other 87 percent of sales.

Bookstores buy books from publishers at 50-55% discount off the cover price. Because the space on brick-and-mortar bookshelves is finite, an average book gets its chance in stores for a few weeks, and if it doesn’t start flying off the shelves, its covers are torn off and it returns, destroyed, to the publisher for a full refund and pulping, soon after which the book goes out of print as a dud and another contender takes its place.

For big publishers, it’s a numbers game. They are prepared to give a thousand books a sporting chance and write them off when they fail, as long as they have at least one bestseller that year, which will pay for all the wasted expense of producing and printing and shipping and pulping those failures. Also, sometimes, a book nobody saw coming suddenly makes a splash. That happens about as often as hitting a jackpot. Meanwhile, the system is so rigged that the bookstore never stands to lose money, but the publisher either loses a lot on a book that doesn’t sell, or makes very little per copy. And bookstores don’t have to deal with any publisher that balks at the exorbitant discounts or refuses to accept returns.

Big publishers, of which only several are left in the United States, can afford it; primarily, because they are owned by media conglomerates that earn enough profits from their other holdings to be able to subsidize traditionally unprofitable publishing industry. This is summed up in the old joke still popular in big publishing: “Q. How do you make a small fortune in publishing? A. You start with a large one.”

Small independent publishers that publish books out of love of books, rather than out of a deranged notion that publishing is the way to get rich quick, cannot always afford to throw their titles into this meat grinder, unless they are seriously independently wealthy and need a hefty tax write-off. Unfortunately, it seems that many aspiring authors in search of a publisher base their expectations on the successes of the few bestsellers that make it big, because they never hear about the tens of thousands of other books, most of them published by big publishing houses, which get into and out of print without anybody noticing.

To quote Mr. Stox: “When an individual sits on their derrière for months — years at a time and creates a viable manuscript, and a ‘traditional royalty-paying book publisher’ accepts it, the author expects that the book will be available to be consumed by the general public. An individual does not labor over a manuscript and have it published just for their own edification (the exception would be contracting with vanity publishers). The author desires that the book will be offered for sale at bookstores, and the general public will purchase & read the book.” (Emphasis mine.)

Would that it were so simple. In order for a book to even get its shot at a brick-and-mortar, the store buyers have to make a decision to buy it. With this much competition, and payola being common (did you think the books that are displayed right in the front of your local chain bookstore are stacked there because the store manager deemed them worthy of the honor?), small publishers have little chance of getting their titles into national chains even if they follow all the traditional routes, hemorrhaging money every step of the way. Sure, it happens sometimes, especially in independent bookstores that have “local authors/publishers” sections and the publisher or the author happen to be local, but it’s not to be taken for granted. Booksellers simply have quite enough interchangeable merchandise to fill the shelves, and for a small publisher, to get a buyer’s attention and an order for even a handful of copies is quite a feat.

(You can find a very clear picture of big chain bookstore practices in these two articles, recently published in British newspapers Telegraph and Guardian. They are about bookselling in the UK, but it’s very similar in the United States.)

Any author owes it to himself to try every route available to get his book published by one of the big players. Only after he has exhausted all the avenues into the big presses, should he consider alternative publishing. And when he does, he should expect results alternative to what they would be had he gotten published by a major publishing house — and had his book turned out to be the next Da Vinci Code or South Beach Diet.

Small, alternative publishers come in, basically, two categories: the ones that do things the way big publishers do, only on a smaller scale; and the ones that do things their own way, disregarding general industry practices and trying to foster new ones. The advantage of going with the first kind is that your book is likely to be sent out to the usual book reviewers and included in catalogues for chain bookstores to order from. Will your book actually get reviewed in major book-reviewing venues and stocked by national chains? Given the sheer numbers of competing titles, not impossible, but improbable. The disadvantage is that these publishers are likely to have the same requirement as the big publishers do: your book should impress them as the next big thing, to make them hope that if they take a gamble, it will pay off. The standard definition of the next big thing, of course, is something very similar to something that’s already selling well. They’re hoping for the next John Grisham or the next J. K. Rowling, not the first you.

The advantage of going with the second kind is that your book will not be rejected just because they don’t see how they’re going to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. If they like it, they’ll publish it. They are more likely to appreciate something original and unprecedented. The disadvantage, of course, is that they are frequently boutique publishers and tend to rely on their online sales and, sometimes, book fairs, so the author had better be prepared to market his own book, which is highly advisable even if he wins the lottery of signing up with a big publisher.

With these caveats, and based on what I’ve seen and heard of small-press authors’ common complaints, I’d like to offer a few suggestions that an aspiring author might want to consider before even reading — much less signing — a small publisher’s contract.

Publisher’s Web Site

Start here. The majority of queries we get at our publishing house, ENC Press, make it clear that authors, in a hurry to pitch to as many publishers as possible, don’t do their research. Big mistake. First of all, if a small press doesn’t have a Web site, don’t even bother approaching it. In this market, the Internet is one of the best and cheapest tools available to a publisher, and if he doesn’t have the wherewithal to use it, how likely is he to have the wherewithal to do a decent job publishing your book?

An effective small publisher’s Web site should provide the following information:

* The kind of books the publisher is looking for — please take this very seriously; if the publisher is looking for murder mysteries, do not waste his and your own time by pitching him your collection of humorous observations about goldfish.

* Submissions guidelines — follow them closely; it’s the first test of your compatibility with the publisher/editor.

* The publisher’s self-perception (usually found on the About page) — are you on the same page morally, intellectually, philosophically?

* The publisher’s/editor’s credentials — who are these people and what, besides unbridled enthusiasm, qualifies them to edit and produce your book?

* The catalogue — what kinds of books do they publish? Hardcovers? Trade paperbacks? Both? Are the prices reasonable? (Compare their price for a, say, 200-page trade paperback with the prices of a few 200-page trade paperbacks at your local bookstore; a small press’s price shouldn’t be much higher.) Do the covers look attractive? Do they offer excerpts, so you can sample some of the books they’ve published? Consider buying a book from them, to see how efficient their customer service is and how well the book is edited, produced, and designed.

Publisher’s Books

Say you have found a small press that, judging from its Web site, might be interested in your book. Say you bought a book from them. Now, what are you looking for?

* Did the book arrive quickly?

* Does it have an appealing cover?

* Does its layout look attractive?

* Is its overall visual quality comparable to that of big-publishers’ books, or does it have a decidedly amateurish look to it?

* Is it full of typos?

* Do you like the content?

* Does the content read as though it’s been edited, or just printed out and thrown between the covers?

* Was it worth the money?

Publisher’s Promises

Let’s say you liked what you’ve read on the publisher’s Web site, you bought and liked one of his books, you pitched your book to him, he asked to see the complete manuscript, and, several months later, you got an acceptance letter.

* Does it read like a cut-and-pasted form letter they send to everybody, or is it personal, personable, addresses you and your book specifically, and makes you feel like you’ve established a personal rapport with the publisher/editor, which you both will enjoy?

* Does it sound like the publisher/editor thought your work was absolutely perfect and needed not a single change, or does it contain at least one or two thoughtful suggestions of how you could better accomplish what you’ve set out to accomplish with your book? (Hint: if they don’t have a single suggestion, they don’t know how to read and edit a book. There’s no book in the world a good editor can’t improve even slightly.)

* Does it sound like they are trying too hard to sell themselves to you? If it does, however flattering it might seem, that’s a warning sign: they shouldn’t fuss to entice you. Even a very small publisher always has a bigger pool of authors than you do of publishers.

* Do they honestly mention their limitations upfront (e.g., they don’t sell through national chain bookstores), or do they make exaggerated promises (e.g., they’ll have your book in all the Barnes & Nobles in the country, which, as you know by now, is not up to them but to B&N)?

* Do they mention advances and royalties? Small, alternative publishers typically may not be able to afford advances, but they compensate for it by much higher royalties; big publishers offer advances and sliding-scale royalties that rarely exceed 12.5%. If a small publisher offers no advance (a symbolic advance of $1 is not an advance), and only 10–12.5% royalties, that’s not a good deal.

Publisher’s Contract

Show it to an intellectual-property lawyer who has seen a publishing agreement before. Not a divorce or personal-injury lawyer, just because he’s your second cousin and won’t charge you — an intellectual-property lawyer who has experience with publishing contracts. If you care about what happens to your work, don’t balk at the fee. It’ll be worth it.

Before you do, read it yourself and mark any questions you might have — for both the publisher and the lawyer.

Think about the following:

* Does anything in the contract contradict what you’ve read on the publisher’s Web site? If so, don’t be shy, ask the publisher about the discrepancy.

* Does it say whose job it is to register the copyright with the Library of Congress? Many publishers do it as a courtesy perk for the author, many others, especially smaller ones that don’t have editorial assistants for this sort of thing, don’t, and ask the author to do it. If, with this publisher, it’s your job, do it before the contract is signed. (As long as you have the receipt postmarked before the contract is signed, it’s fine.)

* Does the contract have an expiration date? I.e., are the rights going to revert to you automatically after a predetermined period of time, no matter what? As appealing as that may sound, that’s a red flag. It’s become something of a misguided fashion among small independent publishers to sign five- or seven-year contracts, but a standard publishing contract, written by a competent intellectual-property attorney, expires when the publisher chooses to put your book out of print, and under no other circumstances. The author doesn’t get to terminate it. The publisher doesn’t lease your book — unless he’s not planning to enhance its value much between the time he accepts your original manuscript and the time he releases it in book form. And if he’s not planning to seriously enhance the value of your work with editing, designing, laying out, creating a cover, and printing it — which is the publisher’s primary job — then that’s very bad news.

Publisher’s Relationship with the Author

Since by signing the contract you are signing away the rights to your work until the publisher decides to let it go out of print and return the rights to you, or the publisher goes out of business, consider very carefully what you are getting into, because you are entering a serious, legal, long-term relationship.

It’s only human, especially after all the rejections from the big-publishing agents and editors, to get excited that somebody found your work worthy of publishing, but don’t let the excitement cloud your judgment. If something about the personal rapport you have with this publisher nags at you, walk away. If the publisher honestly tells you upfront how he works, and what he will and won’t do for you, and it doesn’t sit right with you but you’re just so happy about being offered a contract you can’t help yourself, walk away. Don’t sign the contract and then bug him, after your book is out and you don’t see the desired sales figures, to change the way he runs his business just to please you. Don’t assume that you know more about the economics of publishing than he does, and that he hasn’t done his research before making business decisions. And don’t throw tantrums, demanding to be let out of your contract, just because you belatedly regretted your decision to sign up with this publisher. You are not likely to be let out, and it will ruin the personal relationship between you and your publisher, which is the foundation of small publishing.

It may be better for you in the long run to contain your thrill at having your book accepted, turn the contract down, and continue looking for another publisher, with whom you’ll be more comfortable on a personal level, and/or whose approach is more in tune with what you think a publisher’s role should be. If everything else fails, you can self-publish and market your own book as you please, but at least you won’t assign the rights to your work to someone who won’t, in your opinion, do it justice.

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Gregory Alexander

Of the making of many books there is no end, goes the old Solomonic saw, first uttered in an era when the Good Book itself hadn’t even been completed, when narratives were still written by hand on papyrus and parchment (or scratched onto birch bark, or etched into stone) and when there wasn’t any chick lit, chariot repair manuals, or slutty-celebrity tell-alls to clutter whatever passed for bookshelves in those days.

Now, of course, there are so many books in print — 1.2 million in English alone, with another 195,000 aspiring classics shouldering their way into sales channels in 2004 — that Solomon’s observation has come to function not only as an admonition to get out and play ball every once in a while, but as a sort of gloomy prophecy. I mean, if it’s endless, why even bother getting started? Publish a new book, and it’s a drop in an ocean of ink, competing against not only the million or more new and backlist books in print, but the several million other books out of print, which Amazon and its ilk now make available to anyone with too much time on his hands.

And it’s just as daunting for readers: With the never-ending tidal wave of new titles, a serious reader of, say, fiction, needs to spend more time sorting through current releases — or finding arbitrary reasons to ignore them — than in actually reading. With so few universally accepted organs of official culture remaining, there’s hardly anyone other than Oprah to tell readers what they should be perusing. The result? Most readers just throw up their hands and buy what everyone else is buying; last year, only 7 percent of new books accounted for 87 percent of sales, and the remaining 93 percent of books sold 1,000 copies or fewer. (Incidentally, only a handful from among that lucky 7 percent actually become bestsellers.)

This, of course, means that if you are a writer whose goal is to forge a connection with your fellow humans, influence or amuse society at large or some subculture thereof, or just make someone (other than your sister-in-law or best friend, that is) feel something that you or your characters have felt, you are, statistically speaking, out of luck. If a tree falls in the forest and there’s nobody around to hear, it may or may not make a sound, but when a book that’s made from the merest fraction of a tree tries to make an impact without mucho marketing dollars to support it, silence is almost certain to follow.

But the number of books in itself is only a part of the profusion. There’s a confusion of forms and formats as well. It took 1,436 years after the birth of Christ for movable type to be invented; from that point until just a few years ago, the pace of innovation wasn’t all that much faster, despite an offset press here, a paperback there, and instant biographies of disposable pop stars everywhere.

Suddenly, though, there are so many innovations in the world of publishing that the very definition of “book” is in doubt. Writers, Walt Whitman among them, have been self-publishing for centuries; but now it’s so cheap and easy, thanks to print-on-demand technology and the ready availability through the Internet of book designers and cover artists, that it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference at first glance between a self-published book and a book from a major publishing house — not to mention the fact that many “legitimate” publishers use print-on-demand technology even though they are not print-on-demand (i.e., print-for-pay) publishers. E-books and audio books have added to the profusion; so, too, has the increasing acceptance in this country of nontraditional book formats, such as mangas and interactive electronic narratives that put the reader in charge.

At the same time, the traditional models of distribution are changing, too, thanks to Internet-only publishers and distributors that are challenging the dominant bookstore model. In order to compete, most major publishers are now involved in Internet distribution initiatives; at the same time, the big bookstores are becoming publishers themselves, as are some book clubs, bypassing the publishing houses entirely.

Where will all this lead? Whenever I hear this question, I think of the esteemed authority Waldemar Kaempffert, who, in an article published in Popular Mechanics back in 1950, predicted, among other things, that housewives of the future (i.e., today) would hose down their all-plastic couches and carpets, dishes would be made from artichokes and “dissolved in superheated water” after use, and discarded bedsheets and used underwear would be “bought by chemical factories to be turned into candy.” Yum.

In other words, don’t count on any of the overheated predictions of today coming true tomorrow. Although I think it is likely that at some point e-book devices will improve to the point that they become ubiquitous, I also think it is likely that the majority of readers will continue to revel in the sight and smell and touch of a traditional, beautifully printed book.

Other things are also unlikely to change. Despite the democratizing impact of the Internet and the e-book, it’s probable that the vast majority of published books will continue to sell few if any copies, while a small minority sell the rest. Even when there were more officially accepted organs of culture, most marketing dollars and most reviewers tended to concentrate on a few major titles. The only difference is that the new printing and distribution technologies and the influence of certain book blogs may make it easier for a larger percentage of that successful few to come from smaller presses and lesser-known but nonetheless deserving authors.

But book sales, needless to say, aren’t the ne plus ultra of what makes a book successful, valuable, and lasting; there’s no point in pointing out all of the great books that have sold very few copies, and all of the logic-slaughtering serial-killer sagas that have sold very many, when everyone has examples of their own to cite.

Indeed, the essential qualities that make a book successful (that is, in a literary, not mercantile, sense), valuable, and lasting haven’t changed since the time of Solomon and aren’t likely to change in the future. Again, it isn’t necessary to point out what those qualities are, when all reasonably literate readers have their own touchstones for greatness.

But while the literary qualities that define greatness are unlikely to change, many would argue that the process (i.e., publishing) and the product (i.e., what we call the “book”) are likely to change radically in the coming years, when anyone can be their own publisher, and when what is published no longer has to be a bound, leaved object that one holds in one’s hands.

But here again, at the risk of subverting the spirit of the great Kaempffert, there are certain essential qualities that are unlikely to change at all. Begin with the notion that books have always been, and always will be, “mediated experiences.” Put another way, virtually every good book that you have ever read or ever will read has been touched by multiple hands — most significantly, those of an editor, without whom even a great writer is unlikely to ever achieve greatness.

Because self-published books, or books issued by print-on-demand outfits, aren’t edited at all, or at best are spellchecked by a computer, and are certainly not the product of the vision of an author mediated and shaped by the vision of a professional editor, they may look and feel like real books, but are in fact a few chapters short of the real thing. However, this notion applies just as much to books that come from the major publishing houses, in those cases where the publisher has jettisoned editorial judgment in favor of short-term economic considerations and an over-reliance on focus groups, and has chosen to publish a book only because it may sell, rather than because it may sell and because it has real merit.

In fact, trivial details — like six-figure advances, New York real estate, and immense marketing and distribution resources — aside, the only real difference between the major publishers and your average vanity press, which by definition will publish any author who forks over sufficient funds, is editorial discretion. But since editorial discretion is what publishing is, in essence, all about, that one distinction creates a world of difference. Given that vanity publishers always and the major publishing houses these days sometimes jettison editorial discretion in favor of short-term economic considerations, and that small independent publishers rarely if ever do so, it could be argued that the only inarguably legitimate publishers left in America are the small independent publishers who do what they do for no reason other than a love of books.

Eliminate, then, from the 1.2 million titles in print the books that have been published for cynical and pandering purposes; that haven’t been properly edited, or even copyedited; or that have been published by an organization that will print and bind any manuscript they receive as long as it is accompanied by a check or money order, and suddenly the huge number of titles published every year seems slightly less daunting, for the books that remain are the ones that have been passionately written, lovingly edited, and designed to resonate with readers, not with stockholders.

If a book has been created with care, its physical format or the manner of its distribution becomes secondary, if not irrelevant. It could be written on parchment, or reprocessed artichokes and underwear for that matter, or exist only in the aether, its shimmery pages summoned up to the reader out of thin air by a magisterial wave of the hand, but if it’s well-written, it will last, and if it isn’t, it won’t. That won’t ever change — nor will the essential role of the publisher in distinguishing between the two.

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Olga Gardner Galvin

In her Fall Preview of Books, Washington Post book editor Marie Arana recommends a hundred or so titles out of the 60,000 yet to be released in this year’s unprecedented crop of 175,000. For the reader’s convenience, her fiction list is helpfully divided into “literary,” “popular,” “historical,” and “mystery & suspense.”

Of course, the “literary” section rounds up the usual suspects, from Wendell Berry to John Updike. What comes as a surprise is that Tom Wolfe suddenly turns up in the “popular” section, which reminds me of the question I heard so many times at the New York City flagship Barnes & Noble in Chelsea, back when I still shopped for books at Barnes & Noble: “How do I tell which is which in the Fiction & Literature section?”

The clerks’ standard answer was: “Um-m . . . It’s, like, if the author’s been dead at least 50 years, it’s, like, literature? If you, like, totally want literature, look for the Penguin Classics spines? The minty-green ones with the little penguin on them.”

Always a reliable source for finding out what words actually mean, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines literature as “writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.” “Fiction” is simply “fictitious literature,” but in big publishing, this word is used pejoratively, to indicate that fiction is literature’s bitch. (Appropriately enough, fiction pays the bills so that literature may continue to be subsidized.)

It will forever remain a mystery why the Merriam-Webster people would say “writings having” rather than “writings that have,” but for my book-buying money, John Updike, widely hailed as a literary author, had never even accidentally plopped on a bus seat next to a single idea of any interest or importance. As for his excellence of form or expression, I gave up trying after The Witches of Eastwick, when I realized that the man seriously believed he was the only person in the world who had ever truly seen a pickle spear in a jar.

The differences between “literary” and “popular” complement those between “literature” and “fiction.” As one of the definitions of “literary,” Merriam-Webster’s offers “bookish,” and a good definition of that is “inclined to rely on book knowledge.” Indeed, with a few exceptions (notably, Philip Roth), “literary” novels, written and praised by people often devoid of any street smarts, are unreadable on account of having little to say to a person who has to scramble to pay rent every month. “Popular,” on the other hand, is “adapted to or indicative of the understanding and taste of the majority.”

Perhaps Tom Wolfe’s new place in the “popular” section reflects his actual popularity. People do read Tom Wolfe, and nobody needed two PhDs and a huge intellectual-inferiority complex to appreciate A Man in Full. (It is interesting that Ms. Arana notes under her recommendation of Wolfe’s new novel that he’s the author of The Bonfire of the Vanities, as though he’d written nothing since then. Not to knock Bonfire.) A Man in Full was magnificently written, it was impossible to put down despite its bulk, its many intertwining ideas came through clearly, and most of them were not old and tired. I suppose that takes it out of the realm of the “literary.” But if ever there was an example of literature . . .

To loosely quote Aristotle, as storytelling goes bad, so goes the neighborhood. The contemporary literary establishment routinely confuses literary fiction with literature. What we’re sold as literature these days is usually (again, with a few exceptions) little more than an attempt to mask an inability to tell a story with disdain for those who can, to replace substance with a frequently pompous style of—equally frequently—questionable beauty, and to pretend that it’s not boring unless one is a “philistine” who sees only a blank canvas where only a blank canvas is hanging.*

Literature is and always has been a form of storytelling, not of art. If a novelist doesn’t have a story that he absolutely must tell, and tell coherently, there’s no reason to read his self-aggrandizing drivel. If a novelist doesn’t have a story to tell, then all he is doing is posturing. And posturing is best kept to chat rooms.

The whole “literary” fad, with its fashionably unpopular authors, intellectual-wannabe critics, and logrolling literary award committees, has gone beyond just thinking outside the box. This fad has climbed out of the box and walked all the way around the bend from the reader who still remembers that reading a novel is supposed to be a pleasure, not a chore. It’s time to get back in the box and figure out that literature is no more and no less than a well-written work of fiction that tells a compelling story about characters who come alive in the reader’s mind, and leaves behind a slightly expanded perception of the world. Kind of like what Tom Wolfe does. Which is why he is popular.

*The most effective argument against art-gallery accusations of philistinism is to stare the accuser in the eye for a full five seconds and then let out a horselaugh that pushes the gallery wine and cheese through your nostrils and onto the accuser’s tie or little black dress.

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Michael Antman

Poetry is “just naturally the greatest goddamn thing that ever was in the whole universe.”

These are the words of the late James Dickey, American poet and novelist, World War II fighter pilot, accomplished bow hunter, college track star, master guitar picker, legendary advertising copywriter, and, according to a recent Dickey biography, world-class fabulist.

Of course, this last attribute renders suspect all of his other purported accomplishments except for the poetry itself, where a tendency toward fabulism can come in handy, and his discerning and bullshit-free criticism of other poets, the veracity of which could be determined merely by reading the work of those poets he championed.

However, his opinion that Poetry Is the Greatest Goddamn Thing Etcetera certainly no longer passes the smell test. True, when I was a college student besotted with the works of Wordsworth and Hopkins, and homegrown originals such as Edward Arlington Robinson or Robert Frost or Theodore Roethke, I, too, believed that Poetry was the Greatest Goddamn Etcetera.

After all, what other work of man could create out of such simple tools—well-chosen words combined in a rhythmic way— sound and sight images so vividly memorable that they could give me an instantaneous case of the chills and yet remain stuck in my brain for years?

But to encounter Dickey’s words today, in the context of contemporary poetry, is to feel a sort of clammy embarrassment over half-forgotten adolescent enthusiasms, and worse, a sense of absolute absurdity, as if someone had declared, let’s say, backgammon or hacky sack to be the Greatest, Etcetera. (Yes, these fine pursuits have their supporters, too, but there was a time when poetry was more than a niche enthusiasm, but rather a great art and universal human pursuit.)

Here, taken from the pages of the current issue of the Paris Review, one of our most storied (and expensive) literary journals, are a couple of examples, randomly selected, of where this great art stands today:

The day I met Perry Como
General McCarthur had a parade.
I’d been given the afternoon off
from the office where I worked.
General McCarthur had a parade.
I could barely see through the crowd
in front of the office where I worked.
“Want a lift?” I heard a voice behind me.
I could barely see through the crowd.

As a point of interest, this excerpt is a pantoum, an ancient verse form, which accounts for the seeming redundancy if not the flatness. (Pantoums, by the way, were first composed in Malaysia, and were later adapted by French poets, including Victor Hugo—an exotic provenance for such a disappointing conclusion.) Any other points of interest? Anybody? Anybody? No? Alright, let’s move on to another excerpt from a different poet:

The Hispanic waiter at the diner
in town wants to take us dancing
at the Mexican bar. He told us
he’d teach us to ride his motorcycle.
This morning, we developed
an idea for a hit TV show. It will
star ourselves struggling to learn
basic skills, like fishing…

No. Really. That’s it. (And I’m pretty sure this one isn’t an ancient Malaysian verse form.)

Now, to be perfectly fair, these two excerpts aren’t the worst goddamn thing in the entire universe. Just, perhaps, the least interesting. Though they do, in an odd way, serve as a sort of exemplar: Skilled and ambitious young poets can learn from the Paris Review that the reason they haven’t gotten their poems published yet is that they just aren’t writing poorly enough.

They’ll learn.

The problem, of course, is the overwhelming and complete victory of the free-verse model over metrical, “formal” verse in what once was, way back in the 1950s and 60s, a spirited dialectic that benefited both schools of poetry. But at the present pass—despite a minor resistance movement by a handful of so-called New Formalists—the free-versers have completely routed the enemy, and free verse has established unquestioned hegemony.

To be sure, in past decades, there was a fair amount of compelling unmetered poetry being produced, though most of it was written by poets with a solid background in formal verse—Robert Lowell and Galway Kinnell come to mind—which they employed as a means of bringing cadence, concision, tension, and precision to their free verse.

But that generation is long gone. The one lesson that contemporary writers of poetry seem to have remembered is that they are unbound by constraints. The pitiful, withered poemlets that result, limp as a leaf of week-old lettuce, are an illustration of why this isn’t a good thing. It has become a cliché to say that contemporary verse is merely chopped-up prose (I’ve stopped calling the American Poetry Review the American Chopped-Up Prose Review because the joke was too obvious and yet too painful) but what is worse is that, when reassembled into paragraph form, the prose isn’t even well-written, not as sparkling or memorable as the work of the average big-city newspaper sports columnist.

Even worse than the limpness is the overweening arrogance, obfuscation and political and spiritual posturing of so much of contemporary poetry. This has occurred, I think, because readers know perfectly well that poets don’t write any better than anyone else in our society, so what makes them so special, and so deserving of publication in the Paris Review or grants from Guggenheim? Why because we’re spiritually superior people, the poets answer. I may not be an especially skilled craftsman, goes the subtext of the typical contemporary poem, but I’m nearer to the angels than thee.

Not all contemporary poems are arrogant. Some compensate for the plainness of their language by draping themselves in garlands, on the theory that the mere appearance of the words “fuchsia,” “lilac” and “chrysanthemum,” for example, will give a poem a borrowed beauty that isn’t present in the language itself. Others obsessively overuse words like “stone” and “soil” to communicate a bedrock integrity, or elementalism, or somesuch, that the metre itself is incapable of conveying. And still others employ vague, fugue-state tropes, as weightless as the wings of a dragonfly, that hint at the Ineffable (just like Hart Crane, but without his verbal genius) with the hope that you, the reader, will get the impression that there’s something profound happening between the lines of the poem (even if it isn’t actually happening in the lines of the poem).

I like to blame Gary Snyder for all of this. From the moment his sketchy “notes for poems” began being accepted as actual poems, all bets were off. He indeed seems to be a remarkable human being, but he is not now, nor has he ever been, a great poet. (He likes to write in his prose about craftsmanship and the proper use of tools, but if he built a canoe the way he built a poem, he’d sink within five feet from shore.)

Regardless of what or whom to blame, however, it doesn’t seem likely that American poetry will ever regain its memorability, its vigor, or its central place in our culture. Free verse is just too easy to write (yeah, yeah, I know, free versers spend a lot of time thinking about, oh, um, line breaks, but once they master that craft, what’s left—and what do most poets do after lunch, anyway?). And formal verse—not baggy pantoums, but true formal verse—is just too challenging, so why, when the easy stuff is so over-rewarded, would anyone want to work hard?

For it is indeed hard work, writing poems that people will actually want to read more than once. W.H. Auden’s Collected Poems have a permanent place on my bookshelf because he worked his ass off for me, thank you very much. If you choose to take it easy by writing free verse exclusively, it turns out that there’s a great cost over the long run. Never mind the fact that a great artistic legacy has been left to rot on the vine—of more immediate concern is that your poems won’t matter, and they won’t last.

A few years back, I read a baffling and dispiriting overview of contemporary poetry in a publication called Poets & Writers (clearly, this publication believes that the two vocations are mutually exclusive). The essay was grandiloquently titled, as these things invariably are, “The Great Work Before Us,” and the opening sentence read: “The dirty secret in American art today (besides a growing and brilliant renaissance in puppet theater) is that the most vital art form being practiced is poetry.”

This remarkable sentence immediately provokes a few questions, such as, “why, exactly, is it a dirty secret?” and “is there another kind of renaissance besides a ‘growing’ one?” and “he’s joking about the puppet thing, right?”

But mostly this claim (and the predictably insipid examples of the “vital art form” that its author cites) conveys not merely a denial of reality, but in fact a desperate attempt to reanimate an ice-cold corpse. Desperate and yet lazy—because the only real way to bring poetry back to life is to spend more time writing well-crafted poems that actually create life on the page. And that’s one step the vast majority of published poets are simply not prepared to take anymore.

The true “great work” before us, in my opinion, is restoring poetry, in a measured, metered way, to its former glory as a universal human art. It won’t be at all easy, and it certainly won’t be free.

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