24 April 2006

Connecting the Dots

This morning's publishing news brings several dots to connect. At the end, one gets some kind of a stick figure… or perhaps His Noodliness… but it's still a worthwhile effort, if only to see the combination of paranoia and obliviousness that makes up the publishing industry we all know and love tolerate.

  • The British Library is proclaiming "go east, young people." And it's bloody well time. One of the main causes of misunderstanding of Asia in the West is that almost all of our knowledge (except for a very small class of scholars) comes from Westerners trying to explain it to other Westerners. That's not a good recipe for understanding. Further, the sheer egotism of the "if it's not published in English, it must not be worthwhile" that pervades both the US and UK publishing industries certainly doesn't help.
  • Speaking of neglected works, though, it's not just those originating elsewhere that have problems. A story in The Independent casts a little bit of light on the problem, from the perspective of a chain bookstore. What this really reflects, more than anything else, is the eternal size v. location struggle in book distribution. The farther one needs to go to a book outlet—whether a store, a cafe, or a library—the less likely one is to make that trip on a regular basis. This argues in favor of fairly small, widely distributed outlets. The problem with that, though, is that the smaller outlets force the collection to rush toward the center. Although having them at work for lunch-hour browsing isn't a bad alternative, particularly if those with eclectic collections of their own can bring themselves to contribute to a "book club."

    I have my own list of unjustly neglected works, many of which are borderline out of print or actually out of print. This one, and this one, and this one, are all currently available only in relatively expensive editions. $28.95 for a trade paperback of a novel?

  • Then, on the other hand, there are the twin questions of "How does a young writer get started?" (in one instance, by not relying on someone else's work at all)—or, more to the point, "How does a young creative person make a living?" Maybe that old saw about "prostituting one's art" has more than a hint of truth to it. After all, starving artists seldom paint daisies if they're too busy pushing them up. As an English Literature student perceptively remarked thirty years ago or so:

    Ignored by all the trendy boys in London and in Leeds
    He might as well have been making toys or strings of beads
    He could not be in the gallery….
    I've got to say he passed away in obscurity
    And now all the vultures are coming down from the tree
    So he's going to be in the gallery

    Hmm. You think someone in a club band named "Dire Straits" because the hundred quid from a gig was going to feed them for a week might know a little something about that? Of course, things have changed a bit since.