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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




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 Butler’s 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: ”Butler’s 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 Y’s and the pious Z’s’ 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 war.”

Meanwhile K. Callaway was playing her “little string game,” a word-lover’s 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 Butler’s 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. I’ve 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, Andromache’s only boy (about the age of my friend’s own young son), heaved by the Greek victors from the wall of Troy to his death.

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 indignantly.

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? Isn’t 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 salesman’s sleight-of-hand. But now it’s 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 Disney’s 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 can’t say “house,” and “imprint” really won’t 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 didn’t 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 isn’t going to hire him, said my confidant, because the editor-in-chief there won’t risk the competition.

Nothing has changed; jealousy, insecurity, striving, having to please one’s masters were the qualities of Vanity Fair, as of Rastignac’s 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 marketer’s category), without national reputation, or who don’t 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 writer’s 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 they’re the unhappy, few. I’ve 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.



“The Artukovitch File”/“Little String Game”/Endnotes, Vol. 1, No. 1


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