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Matthew Parkinson-Bennett

The Art of the Publisher, by Roberto Calasso, translated by Richard Dixon, Penguin, 148 pp, £5.99, ISBN: 978-0141978482

I took my copy of Roberto Calasso’s The Art of the Publisher with me on a trip to London. Reading it on my journey over from Dublin, I came across the name Karl Kraus, apparently a notable twentieth-century Austrian man of letters. I’d never read Kraus, but the name rang a bell.

On the second day of my trip I stumbled across it again. In the London Review bookshop I bought a collection of essays by the German Marxist writer Walter Benjamin, translated into English. In the bookshop cafe I first flipped to the back, where I found a note explaining that the editors had omitted Benjamin’s essay on Karl Kraus, on account of his being “practically unknown in English-speaking countries”.

The plot thickened; it wanted a third act. The next day I paused in the entrance to South Kensington Books to look at a narrow bookcase placed there; I immediately reached – in retrospect it seems as though the acts of reaching and seeing were one – for a book by the American writer Jonathan Franzen, entitled: The Kraus Project. Now I knew that bell-ring: just over two years previously I’d read an extract in the Guardian Review supplement from Franzen’s latest book, translations of his intellectual hero, the difficult Austrian contrarian Karl Kraus.

The circle was complete; it remained to read some Kraus. The first piece in Franzen’s book is the one that had been printed in the Guardian, and I reread with a thrill the ambiguous, arrogant, verbless first sentence: “Two strains of intellectual vulgarity: defenselessness against content and defenselessness against form.”

These days we English speakers hear a lot about “content”. It is never defined, but everyone seems to know what it means: content is stuff. Authors, notoriously, have been recast as “content providers”. We hear little of form, even in discussions about poetry, where it was once paramount. “Form” suggests unpleasant qualities of confinement and rigidity; our preference in all things (except the occasional dinner) is for the “informal”; we like our music, dance, furniture and swimming pools to be “free form”. Form seems to lack both flexibility and solidity, where content is somehow both solid and “reflowable”. You cannot hang your hat on form, and when it comes to keeping your hat off the ground, a lump of wood that hasn’t been given the form of a hatstand is at least preferable to a hatstand-shape in the abstract. Of course, this is to have it quite the wrong way around: content is the slippery, protean soup, and it is form which gives things their concrete existence.

Bad modern publishing houses, Roberto Calasso writes, “especially the larger ones, seem to be like formless stockpiles where you can find everything, with a particular emphasis on the worst”. And so it is to form that he turns to address the question, “what should a good publishing house be?” Quality, for Calasso, is first a question of form. The form of a publishing house is determined by a number of factors, among them the books they decide to publish; the typefaces they choose for text; the images they choose for covers; the way they interact with the public. A publishing house should give the impression that there is an overarching structure, some narrative under construction (publishing the wrong book is “like putting the wrong character into a novel, a figure who might throw the whole thing off balance”). Their books should be recognisable as their books, and the impression given that there is some affinity between all their books, no matter how disparate:

the idea of the publishing house as a form, a highly singular place that would bring together works that were mutually congenial – even if at first sight they seemed divergent or even contrasting – and would publish them following a clearly defined style that was distinct from any other.

If this model is followed correctly, the result should be that “All books published by a certain publisher could be seen as […] fragments in a single book.”

If all this sounds a bit precious, it may well be a good formula for commercial success. The form of the publishing house is moulded by the publisher’s “passionate and obsessive care […] over the appearance of every volume”; and this in the interest of “taking care of how that book might be sold to the largest number of readers”. When it comes to buying books, most readers select not on the basis of the publisher’s name but the author’s – that is how I chose the three books of my London mini-odyssey – and will probably fail to notice if the new book from their favourite novelist is from a different publisher than the last one. But some rare houses do manage to gain the kind of reputation that earns what marketers call “customer loyalty”, where readers will buy a publisher’s book on trust, or at least be influenced in their decision by a respected logo – and those publishers will, invariably, publish according to a particular form, as defined by Calasso. And so “the capacity to make people read (or at least buy) certain books is a key factor in the quality of a publishing house”.

How is the reader’s loyalty to be earned? Not by appeals to what the publisher thinks the public, that “vague and ominous entity who will judge”, wants. That will only lead to poor publishing decisions and the breakdown of the “relationship of complicity between publisher and reader”. Calasso affirms that the serious reading public doesn’t want to be pandered to, but will trust the good publisher who follows his own nose:

Complicity with unknown people can be created only on the basis of their repeated experience of not being disappointed. But how can we be sure not to disappoint? […] It’s better not to try. Or at least to limit ourselves to one basic rule: to think that what has not disappointed us […] will not disappoint others. If this rule is applied, the result (the published book) will be highly idiosyncratic, to such an extent that many won’t even pick it up, purely out of lack of interest. And these are exactly the readers who would certainly feel disappointed. The others remain: very few, generally speaking. But those few can also become many.

Meanwhile, the recent trend in publishing is towards what Calasso terms “the obliteration of the publisher”: “the name and logo of the publisher have become an increasingly discreet and at times almost imperceptible presence on book covers.” This goes together with the drift of the large publishing houses toward an identical form, which is in fact an indistinct formlessness, with the result that their “catalogs […] have now become so highly interchangeable in terms of their language, images (including photos of authors), and suggested selling points, and lastly in the physical appearance of the books”.

Calasso’s take on the ebook question is refreshing, starting from the belief that the banal ebooks-versus-books argument is not an exciting debate at the cutting edge of publishing innovation but an irritating distraction from the serious business of literature – and one embraced by a world that no longer knows how to talk about books: “Knowledge of single books is often nonexistent. The conversation would eventually devolve into casual snatches of conversation. And very soon, to general relief, it would go back to discussion for or against ebooks.”

Calasso sidesteps the usual debate by focusing on a single article published by the New York Times, written by what can only be called a digitisation extremist: one who hopes the victory of the ebook will be the obliteration of the printed book. This writer extols the openness, shareability, and most importantly, the connectedness of the ebook; “[t]he enemy,” Calasso writes, “is therefore the isolated, solitary, and self-sufficient existence of books. They are by nature asocial beings that have to be digitally reeducated.” The choice of language is appropriate – what Calasso perceives in this kind of utopianism is a totalitarian urge, dressed up as a democratic impulse; and he takes a swipe at the political reality of digitisation: “Like all American dreams, universal digitization is based on well-meaning sentiment and on a certain benevolence toward poor, distant foreigners – who, at the moment, serve above all to reduce the cost of digitization itself.”

Like all totalitarian impulses, in its extreme form the will to digitise is also a will to all-encompass, and to transform human knowledge and the world itself. The book is the emblem of the old order, and the key to its destruction: “universal digitization implies a certain hostility toward a way of knowledge – and only as a consequence toward the object that embodies it: the book.” The vaunted “connectedness” – not only between books but between users of books, their annotations and kneejerk reactions being instantly broadcast – will do nothing more than replace the world with the chatter about the world: “a concentrated babble that creates a new kind of unrelenting background noise, unfortunately crowded with meanings”. The digital dystopia Calasso envisages is beset by “perhaps the most advanced form of persecution: life besieged by a life in which nothing is lost and everything is condemned to exist, available always, suffocating”.

And as for “isolated, solitary” and unconnected books – well, there I stood in the doorway of the bookshop, dazzled by the coincidence of connection. This was an old-fashioned, three-dimensional, clunky analogue experience; would it have been richer if an algorithm had done the work of serendipity? Books’ status (like our own) is dual: on the one hand singular and self-contained, and on the other interconnected with the world and each other. The idea that they are islands in need of unification could only have been thought up by somebody with little real experience of the world of books.

To call it a manifesto or a call to arms would be to misrepresent the tone of this book – as well as the form, as it is a selection of essays, articles, and speeches delivered by Calasso over several decades rather than a unified text. The closest he gets to a rousing declaration of intent for the salvation of the art of publishing is the warning that “the publishing trade shouldn’t just be guarding against Google, but against itself, against its increasingly fainthearted conviction about its own necessity”. Nor is it a handbook for publishers, though Calasso does give his tuppenceworth on how to approach the various parts of a book: the preface is dismissed as the site of “contextualization and pedagogy, which inevitably [goes] with a certain paternalism toward the reader”; the selection of a cover image to match the text, a process of “ekphrasis in reverse”, is the most important aspect of the presentation of the book to the world; and the cover flap text must be approached with delicacy: “For a publisher, it is often the only opportunity to spell out what spurred him to choose a particular book. For the reader, it is a text to be read with caution, for fear of it being a piece of surreptitious hype.”

The literary form this book is closest to is memoir, as it is in large part a reflection on the author’s involvement over the past five decades with his archetype of the good publishing house: the Milan-based Adelphi Edizioni. Calasso has worked for Adelphi since its inception in 1962, and today is its senior publisher. After years of censorship imposed on Italian publishing, first by the political right and then the left, Adelphi sought to fill the gaps which left Italian bookshops lacking “a vast part of the essential”. They set about establishing a publishing house with a distinctive design: “We immediately agreed on what we wanted to avoid: whiteness and graphic designers.”

Adelphi’s editorial policy was largely shaped by Roberto Bazlen, a man with unorthodox literary taste. In perhaps the most fascinating passage of the book, Calasso describes how Bazlen was obsessed with the idea of books which came into being as a result, not of the author’s desire to write a book, but of some experience which the author then felt compelled to transmit to writing. The books, then, can be said to have “gone through [the author] in order to come into existence”; and because they required an author to have some profound experience, “[s]ingular books were therefore books that had also run a considerable risk of never having been written”.

Like all works of memoir, the tone is at times nostalgic; and there are the typical, thinly-veiled efforts to set the record straight and tell tales as the author would have them remembered. But the Adelphi story is, at least for a reader personally involved in the book trade, very interesting. It takes place in a serious world of bibliophiles sitting in a tiny office in Milan, debating at length the choice of a single word in a translation, or searching for just the right painting to illustrate a cover; men (all men) for whom “if our life as a publisher fails to offer sufficient opportunities for laughter, this means it’s just not serious enough”; literary types who “believe that by talking about books one enters a space that is much vaster, lighter, and freer than when one talks about the world or, worse still, about personal matters”.

Calasso’s assessment of the current state of publishing is pessimistic, but his misgivings are not always rooted, as he would like us to believe, in a thorough knowledge of the industry’s condition around the world. He claims that “the category of literary journal no longer exists […] The only periodical to have retained its preeminence, its authority, and its relevance is the New York Review of Books.” Well. When those words were written, for a speech given in 2009, the drb was just two years old, so perhaps Calasso’s oversight can be forgiven. But in Ireland today the literary journal, whether publishing reviews or original work, appears to be undergoing a renaissance.

He also believes there are but a handful of publishing houses today truly practising the art of publishing as form. That may be true of large houses with an international reputation. But Calasso is perhaps due a visit to Ireland, where there are several excellent independent publishers which would surely satisfy his criteria for “a good publishing house”. And for the sake of publishing professionals around the world, I hope there are no shortage of houses who satisfy Calasso’s “indispensable minimum”: “That the publisher enjoys reading the books he publishes.”


Matthew Parkinson-Bennett lives in Dublin and works as an editor. Follow him on twitter: @MatthewP_B