Behind the Scenes
James Joyce does not exist
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about books considered legendary, classics, for their language and singularity in time. And then for how those books, over that time, have become books considered timeless and vital to the cause, innovators without which… etc. Joyce, Beckett, Stein, Faulkner, etc. The big names everybody deigns to have read, often via schooling, and who you often hear the more serious critics and often honchos in publishing referring to at large. Seems like I’ve seen or heard of a lot of speech where people in the publishing industry (particularly the larger sections) are talking about their influences and what they like, and many of them referring to these classics, and even if they haven’t said it aloud surely they would not shake their head at the idea that these books are the foundations of how we’ve come to where we are, and etc.
So, then, it becomes confusing to me, in this reckoning, when I think of how most any of these books, if approached today, would not exist. I can’t think of most any publisher, even the major and innovative independents, that would release Ulysses again right now, if instead of an accepted masterpiece, it were a third book by some Irish guy who had published a collection of short fiction and a weird novella. I can’t see even the more edgy presses like Dalkey doing it, or FC2 (EDIT: actually, FC2 recently published Vanessa Place’s La Medusa, which is the closest thing I’ve seen to doing what I’m talking about, which means they might have, maybe), or any of the other countless innovative-based upcroppings. Even the more “languagey” presses often don’t do books that are super-languagey, despite the seeming overwhelming admission that those monsters are the ones that defy time, and sell, perhaps gradually, forever. Maybe it would happen, but it would be a long fight, and a wellspring. I certainly can’t see a major doing it. That kind of freaks me out. Not only in that these works would not exist, but that their influences would not exist either, effectively turning off the power they’ve had in moving things forward over the time they’ve been around.
But those books sold then and sell now (and are curriculum!) for a reason, and part of it is because people since then are being taught not to read what they do not understand. A gradual and stuttered concept that could, over another gradual and stuttered period, be reversed.
It seems particularly confusing to me, this duality of “these are the important works, which also sell” and “we could never publish that,” when you think about how it’s been only pretty recently, say within the past 30 years, that these kinds of things really started getting shorted. Gravity’s Rainbow came out in the 70’s, after Pynchon had proved himself a seller, and V. as a first book is fucking bonkers, and there was Gass and Gaddis and Coover and that wholecrew, but that era kind of seems to me the last real monolith of pure “we are going balls out here.” Then there was the Lish era, which to now seems a total fluke, and the idea of another Lish rising to power in a big house the way he did seems almost so foreign that it is unreal. After that there is Nicholson Baker and David Foster Wallace and Rick Moody, which probably seems like right now the last frontier I can think of where true art was given territory and confidence and was successful in it, if not to the level of those earlier language beasts in the way of syntactic difficulty, but still. Art was put out, people wanted it, and money was made enough to float while still contributing to the pursuit of new language and new story and the idea that PEOPLE REALLY DO WANT TO BE CHALLENGED. Or they used to. And they can again.
If you love Beckett, Joyce, Stein, Faulkner, why in the name of god are you publishing Jonathan Franzen???? And not to pick on him (that’s a punchline), but why aren’t you publishing books that can be held up to those names, or, get this, extend their influence even further? What will they be teaching in schools 50 years from now that isn’t from a century passed? You don’t think people want it? You could sell a goat to a goat. The massage is the medium. We know this.
Because, and I am sure of this, it is not a question of money: at a certain level, people will seek things out. Not everybody, not immediately. Consider it a long long term investment. On many levels, not just $$$, but that too.
RT @kenbaumann: “Advertising is the tax you pay for being unremarkable.” -Robert Stephens, founder of Geek Squad, acquired by Best Buy in 2002
The first suit (or tee shirt) that could honestly say “Had somebody handed me Finnegans Wake at my desk today, I would stamp the Yes” is the face that will be kissed (though you’ll have to put your money where your mouth is).
The dwindling of this confidence in the art, the way it seems to taper off further and further each year as publishers become more and more afraid of losing money in the short term by what is essentially a lack of confidence in the progression of human minds, seems absolutely frightening and wild. In the 80 some odd years since Ulysses came out, and the days of those other aforementioned language freaks that are now so easily accepted as the basis of our literature. Again, even in the independent circuit, the number of outlets where books that can not be defined, can not be parsed fully even likely by their publisher, that can not be given a blurb, or encapsulated in some kind of way, seems to have shrunken so small that it makes me wonder what kind of damage is being done to the body tissue of the words. With such a sparse prolonging of those innovations, and making new language laid out in the face of people who only take what you hand them (and yes, though they may not put their dollar down immediately, they will be inundated by its mere propagation), how much more dead can these brains be?
This isn’t meant to be a manifesto to say how cowardly anybody is. Honestly the small press world is more healthy than it has likely ever been. There are more new outlets now than ever, and more making, and ultimately, things feel good. Good books are being published in good places, even in a couple of big house places, and being read and discussed. A lot of small presses, though, seem to me like little fortresses with the same minds that the big ones have, just with less funds and less marketing potential. I am wondering, also, about the overall direction, about the rising of the new, and about breaking bodies, and forcing weight. You can call me too hopeful (ha) or off base (sure) or even say, “Dude, what does it matter who reads what besides these 200 people we all know?” but it seems to me it does matter, and like the places that step up to the mic, especially right now, and take the book-as-body by the balls and just move are the ones that will be regarded, years from now, as the ones that were. And I believe, I hope I believe, maybe I don’t it at all, but I’m trying: it will become.
Ulysses is the most famous book of all time besides the Bible because somebody had some huge, terrific balls.