What Counts


Books & Books, Gibbs M. Smith

From Lapham’s Quarterly:

When we speak of literature, we should not imagine that we are speaking of some stable and enduring Platonic entity. The history of literature has always been about its highly mutable institutions, whether bookstores, publishers, schools of criticism, or, for the last half century, the mass media. In other words, literature has always been about the struggle over who would have the social authority to determine what would count as literature. Early on, this authority seems to have been the possession of men who had the privilege of owning printing presses and bookstores. In our own time, the most compelling claim to this authority comes either from the capacious bosom of Oprah Winfrey and her bathetic book club, or from the arid speculations of those Hollow Men on a publisher’s marketing staff.

Matters were not always thus. When John Murray published the works of Lord Byron in London in the early 19th century, he risked prosecution and jail if the work was found blasphemous or libelous by the powerful. Byron, notoriously, didn’t help things, deliberately writing his poetry out along the razor’s edge of public tolerance, just as he lived his life. In another example, Shelley wrote to his publisher, Thomas Hookham, regarding the appearance of his poem Queen Mab: “If you do not dread the arm of the law, or any exasperation of public opinion against yourself, I wish that it should be printed and published immediately.” Hookham must have had such fears because he refused to publish the atheistic and revolutionary poem (Tory legislation against “blasphemous and seditious” literature was the order of the day). As a consequence, the first edition of the work was self-published in a run of a few hundred copies for distribution among friends. Even so, in 1817, the poem’s radical politics and atheism were used against Shelley in his suit to gain the custody of his children; he lost the suit and never saw them afterwards. In England, still in reactionary posture after the French Revolution and Napoleon, poets and writers like Shelley, Byron, and Leigh Hunt found it safer to flee the country in order to write. They conducted their on-going dialogue with their native land through their brave, nerve-wracked, and sometimes imprisoned publishers.

At that time, there was little difference between a bookstore and a publisher; bookstores produced the books they would sell. It was a business completely engaged with the public (an aristocratic public, to be sure). In fact, bookmaking and selling was then true “publicity,” the rallying of public support for ideas. Murray even hosted an afternoon tea for his writers, his “Four o’clock friends.” It may sound like a description of life on another planet (and it is), but a reader could go into Murray’s store and buy a book by one of his authors, Pride and Prejudice, say, and then have tea with the author!

“Biscuit, Miss Austen? Now tell me in all candor, about this fellow Darcy…”

As late as the 1950s there remained some of this family and community feel to bookstores, although the business of publishing had long ago been handed over to “professionals.”

“The Late Word”, Curtis White, Lapham’s Quarterly