What mythological confusion is this? Since when has Mars been the god
of commerce and Mercury the god of war?
Karl Kraus in Die Fackel
HECUBA in NEW YORK
I desired to offer our readers a remarkable essay by the late Hubert Butler, and with
it, a remembrance by the British novelist Richard Jones, who was acquainted with Butler,
himself Anglo-Irish. By celestial coincidence, the New York Review of Books, in the
June 12 issue, has run a consideration of Hubert Butlers
writings by the novelist and literary editor of the Irish Times, John Banville. The
more we read of, and about, Hubert Butler, the better we are for it. Of his The
Artukovitch File, about a Croatian desk murderer of World War II, who with his family and under an alias had been given residence in
Ireland for a year after the war, Banville writes: Butlers outrage at this
enormity on the part of his own countrymen is expressed with his usual understated
elegance (The process by which a great persecutor is turned into a martyr is surely
an interesting one that needs the closest investigation), but we are left in no
doubt about his contempt for the patriotic Ys
and the pious Zs who would connive at the escape from
justice of a man who had taken an active part in some of the most terrible deeds of the
Meanwhile K. Callaway was playing her little string game, a
word-lovers diversion in which she traced the meaning of archipelago back
through philological branches to its roots in the Aegean. Then she followed it, via an
historical and geographical hposcotch, deep into the necessary recollection of what
anti-Semitism was, in the twilit years just before our 20th century
commenced its hate-filled, blood-soaked ways.
Hubert Butlers question -- how could a man who was a murderer, who was called
the Himmler of Yugoslavia, have found refuge, even welcome, among the decent,
ordinary people of Ireland? -- ought to remain before us. One answer (if answer there be)
may have been that the man appeared as a good Catholic, attentive husband, loving father;
types of the domestic virtues we ourselves, as a nation, profess to emulate. Another, more
particular, may have lain in an observation Butler made about two countries he knew well:
The Yugoslavs are, like my own nation the Irish, among the least pacific people in
Europe, and at the best of times it would not be easy to persuade them that liberty could
be won or maintained except by fighting.
Memento mori. Ive been thinking about a friend in New York, a Sarajevan woman who
with her family was forced to remain in this country while visiting, when the war ignited
Bosnia. In early June she appeared as Hecuba in a production of The Trojan
Women. The actors were, all of them, Bosnians. Hecuba, it will be remembered, was
the Trojan queen, wife of upright Priam, mother of the swoony Paris and valiant Hector,
him who was slaughtered and debased by Achilles. Defeated mother, also, who as final
payment must watch her small grandson, Andromaches only boy (about the age of my
friends own young son), heaved by the Greek victors from the wall of Troy to his
A recurring question in any war: Whose children are allowed to live?
In my town there are still two independent bookstores. A writer I know got into a
lively discussion with the owner of one of those stores, where I have an account. The
topic was publishing, by which the owner specifically meant conglomerate book-publishing
as it is practiced in New York. Why do writers put up with it? she wondered
I understood what she meant about publishing; but her faith in the social and economic
courage of writers touched me deeply.
What has changed since the great Viennese editor Karl Kraus wrote and published Die
Fackel? Isnt Mars still the god of commerce?
In the last issue I wrote about Viking, a respected, long-standing imprint that is part
of Penguin Worldwide (as I think they still call it), itself owned by Pearson PLC, a formidable financial holding-company based in London. Its publisher
was going to market a literary novel as a popular best-seller-to-be; a
salesmans sleight-of-hand. But now its said in New York that Viking is
owned by Putnam, the mass-market publishing company recently acquired by
Penguin, that is, by Pearson. Putnam is financially heftier and its publisher, a woman,
reports directly to the (male) head of the U.S. operation, who
ascended to his position from Disneys Hyperion. The publisher of Viking now reports
to the publisher of Putnam. Stairway to heaven: one female publisher subordinate to a more
powerful female publisher, though both may well be of similar temperament, that is,
ambition. But the prestige, what remains of it, of Viking is now subordinate, within the
huge corporation that owns them both, to the mass-market power of Putnam. And
this is just how it is seen and dealt with by the book industry; no critical thinking to
be expected there.
Meanwhile, editors grow younger, less experienced, badly-read, and shift from company
to company (we cant say house, and imprint really wont
do) one step ahead of being downsized. At dinner in New York with an agent,
who is a friend, who has been effective for her (very good) writers, and who, sadly but
understandably, talks of leaving the business, I learned the fate of an editor in the
Pearson complex with whom I was acquainted: youngish, ambitious, an adroit flatterer, seen
to have published reasonably serious, prize-winning non-fiction. He was fired. Why? The
buzz: he didnt bring in best-sellers.
And will he find a new job? These are jobs, after all; conglomerate publishing is a
world of employes controlled by six or eight men who make the important, that is,
financial, decisions. A certain established literary publisher isnt going to hire
him, said my confidant, because the editor-in-chief there wont risk the competition.
Nothing has changed; jealousy, insecurity, striving, having to please ones
masters were the qualities of Vanity Fair, as of Rastignacs Paris, which Balzac
likened to the savagery of a New World forest, and as they are of imperial capitalism in
its now-global proliferation. And yet, in the petty world I write about, everything has
changed. A writer friend got it spot-on: Publishing has become the Minor Leagues of
the entertainment industry.
Writers -- especially of literary works (literary is a
marketers category), without national reputation, or who dont earn back even
their modest advances -- find it ever harder to have a publisher in New York. Their
contracted agreements with conglomerate publishers are not as those made between equals.
Publishers, that is, their lawyers and accountants, push hard for advantage; no matter how
decent and skilled the remaining few genuine editors might be, their relationships with
writers are always unstable.
Déformation professionnelle, the French phrase for occupational dis-ease,
brilliant in its humane contempt, marks indelibly corporate publishing. Deformation of
imagination: this is every writers danger and the tactical problem he and she must
solve, for its possibility haunts us all. Mercury, god of commerce, is also the god of
thieves and artists.
When ARCHIPELAGO had just risen on the horizon, and I was
puzzling out my course, a beneficent friend e-mailed me a letter. I had many of the
same questions and qualifications you now have, wrote he, and I think I can
put the point of my experience in a sentence: Good editors think, they think through each
sentence and ponder its implications for the whole piece (to hell with the world), and ask
questions about it; writers DO.
That is not to commend one over the other...but to sort the tasks of each
calling. For some they conjoin, and those are maybe the happy, though perhaps theyre
the unhappy, few. Ive also learned that my nature is so made that I can only do one
thing at a time, a great limitation when doing a novel.
He is a distinguished writer. Unfortunately, it is his editor who is looking for a job.
Artukovitch File/Little String Game/Endnotes, Vol. 1, No. 1