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This is the West Indies, this is that realm which once, in its innocence of history, mistook the lantern of a caravel for a light at the end of a tunnel and paid for that dearly -- it was a light at the tunnel’s entrance. This sort of thing happens often, to archipelagoes as well as to individuals; in this sense, every man is an island....

Joseph Brodsky on the poetry of Derek Walcott



…“The publication in toto of Ulysses in 1922 was indubitably
the most exciting, important, historic single literary event of the early Paris expatriate literary colony.”-- Janet Flanner

I was thinking of where a literary colony might be found, nowadays, and decided that, if one exists at all, geographically and culturally it would be an archipelago. A fine, hard word, archipelago, evoking rock-ribbed peaks with green life clinging to their slopes, rising from some vast, erosive ocean. Evoking too, a terrible human history.

Since 1989, the world has changed, politically, historically, culturally. That was a water-shed year, perhaps the real turn of the century: the year of the Velvet Revolution and the opening of the Berlin Wall, that led to the collapse of socialism and the triumph of unregulated capitalism; the year that began with a death-sentence laid against an internationally-known novelist. Our minds have been different since then.

Contemplating that rather large idea I happened upon three articles of recent weeks which seemed to throw a more precise light on the context in which this journal is about to appear.

In an article in the TLS (January 31) entitled “The real scandal of Ulysses, How literary modernism came to retreat from the public sphere,” an American academic named Lawrence Rainey follows the publishing history through France, England, and the States, of Sylvia Beach’s limited edition of Joyce’s novel. Prof. Rainey holds that the “market dynamics of the limited edition,” meaning an edition designed and priced high enough to be sold to collector-subscribers, eliminated the “ordinary” reader as the normal buyer, reader, and critic of the novel; and “transformed” the buyer of such an expensive book from simple reader into “investor/patron.” Further, in order that an “investment” in this relatively rare object, the limited edition of ULYSSES, bear value, the book had to be “sold” a priori as great literature, before the slow accretion of critical reading judged it so. This is the true “scandal” of this great (we can say now) novel, argues Prof. Rainey: “For the market-place is not, and never can be, free from systemic distortions of power ... and its outcomes cannot be equated with ... norms of equal and universal participation in discussions about cultural and esthetic value. The operations of the market are not an adequate substitute for free agreement; they are operations of an entirely different order.”

Some readers may have thought the last point obvious, if not directly relevant to ULYSSES. But perhaps the point is not so obvious as it should have been, for the February Atlantic Monthly ran a lucid, primer-like essay by the financier-philanthropist George Soros, who urges us to understand that our social “belief in the magic of the marketplace” is pretty well mis-placed. The “doctrine” of laissez-faire capitalism, he argues, which holds that the unregulated pursuit of self-interest best serves the common good, doesn’t allow for the “recognition of a common interest that ought to take precedence over particular interests.” And, he warns, unless we can “temper” the unbridled dynamics of the market-place with a strong, social belief in a common social interest, the “open society,” which our present system, however imperfectly, qualifies as being, “is liable to break down.”

Soros’ argument was nicely poised against the feature in New York magazine (February 10), called “How to Make a Best Seller, The Inside Story of One Publishing House’s Attempt to Turn a Literary Novelist into a Marketplace Superstar.”

(A solecism: Although Viking is named, there is no “publishing house” in this story, except by convention. Viking, an imprint, belongs -- like Penguin USA, the imprint -- to Penguin Worldwide, which is a conglomerate. Penguin Worldwide is owned by Pearson PLC, a British holding company which also owns the Financial Times, Mme. Tussaud’s, and diverse other firms.

(Penguin’s conglomeration includes, besides these two venerable imprints, the respectable Dutton and, lately, the mass (or down)-market Putnam Group; an organizational chart, so to speak, not noted in the article. Head of Penguin Worldwide is Michael Lynton, who came from Disney’s publishing arm, Hyperion. In the words of the man he replaced, Lynton understood “brand loyalty,” corporate jargon the precise meaning of which escaped me.)

With fortifying mug of coffee at hand I read how Viking is “marketing” a novel whose title and author will remain unnamed here. Rather, call him the writer’s Everyman, and say his story is the Pilgrim’s progress: the fable of a young believer, a writer of “what the business has curiously come to call ‘literary fiction,’ ” who endures every possible trial as he slogs his way toward heaven, or “uptown,” (according to his well-regarded agent) “up there with Tim O’Brien, say, or Richard Ford.” Actually, the author is only youngish (45) and has written two good, although not high-selling, novels; a contemporary Writer’s Everyman, W.E. in short, whose trial is that our temptations grow more subtle and interesting as we grow older and more vulnerable to them.

For W.E. is in the hands of a publisher who asks: “Well, [W.E.], what are you going to do for me?” And you understand almost at once that poor W.E., with his fragile bag of beliefs slung over his shoulder, is expected to enhance his publisher’s career within the Viking/Penguin Worldwide/ Pearson’s conglomerate. But she is an “impassioned and lawyerly” sort, and perhaps W.E. is right to hope. When the word came that two Viking books, by Mary Karr and Terry McMillan, were on the New York Times’ bestseller list, she “leapt up.” “Yes!” she said, pumping her fist. “Who says we can’t sell literature here?"

We encourage readers to write us. We encourage them, also, to put this issue on their hard drive, by clicking on the download link and following the instructions thereon. ARCHIPELAGO can then be printed; it will appear on paper as we have designed it, and fill about 50 pages. We urge our readers then to pass the journal on to other readers. We are interested in the notion that the Worldwide Web might also be a publishing medium and a distributor of literature; we think serious readers exist in Buenos Aires, London, Paris, and New York as well as in the Dakotas, Key West, Modesto, Charlottesville. We believe they have more in common than they might have supposed, and will be interested to learn if we are right about this. We also hope that when they disagree with us, and with each other -- we suspect that this might often be the case -- they will let us know. We are certain that well-formed arguments about literature, the arts, and opinion help keep our minds open.






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