The Art Of The Publisher, by Roberto Calasso
One can be most charitable to an author like Roberto Calasso if you see him as a blogger instead of as a philosopher. One expects a blogger, especially one who specializes in personal essays, to extrapolate from personal experience to more general principles, and to write about general subjects from a very particular and narrow perspective, namely the blogger’s own. Yet this author presents himself not as a personal essayist like a Montaigne, but as a writer who can provide general insight to other people who wish to publish and who might not find it to be as profitable as they may originally plan. And thus the reader of this book is left with a conundrum. To the extent that slack and benefit of the doubt are given, the writing is taken down from a large and even cosmic scope to the writer’s own narrow personal experience or reading, and to the extent that the reader takes the author’s claims to being an insightful guide seriously, the author seems to have made plenty of his characteristic leaps of fancy by which he goes from A to Z without explaining intervening steps or recognizing that his logic is often faulty.
This short book is about 150 pages long and consists of four parts, with various essays within each part. The author begins with an essay on publishing as a literary genre (1), in which he explores the way that publishers and their behavior shapes the way that books appear and are treated by readers and later researchers, using a particular publisher from the early 1600’s as a case study. After that the author looks at singular books and a letter to a stranger (2), in which the author discusses his own experience as a publisher interested in particularly original and creative works. There is then a series of essays on various European publishers, namely Giulio Einuadi, Luciano Foà, Roger Straus, Peter Suhrkamp, and Vladimir Dimitrijevic, showing the author’s own fondness for their approach. Finally, the author explores the paradox between people wanting to be publishers and viewing publishing as unnecessary, the way that the publisher’s identity can be and has been obliterated, and the inability of publishers to have made a solid reputation despite several hundred years of practice (3). After this the book ends with a textual note, leaving a rather short volume for the reader.
One of the more puzzling ways that the author shows his leaps of illogic is when he discusses writings that seem to spring from the experiences of the author as singular works, when singularity would not appear to imply authenticity to the author’s life at all, but could apply to any work that was unique and daring and creative, whether or not it corresponded with the author’s life or only their imagination or observation. To what extent this wild leap of fancy and poor logical consistency results from errors in translation or from the author’s own disordered thinking is hard to tell, but it does present a barrier for a reader to enjoy the author’s work where one does not agree with or follow the author’s line of thinking. To be sure, the author’s own experience is interesting, and the author has clearly done a fair amount of reading and thinking on publishing, but the author’s own experience in boutique publishing and his focus on reading about other more entrepreneurial publishing tends to limit his insight to that sort of world rather than the world of larger publishers who are able to make more money out of it than the author has. Given the author’s evident literary snobbery, it is not surprising that he views publishing as a money pit rather than as a money-making opportunity.