Wednesday, January 6, 2010


.Books are relics.

.In no way is this disturbing or sad or a cause for the usual dismay.

.Most of my life was spent in the time of typewriters but now the use of the typewriter is as common and as interesting as man bites dog.

.The owner of St. Mark’s Bookshop--- the great literary bookshop within walking distance and heir to the 8th Street Bookstore of memory--- was telling me a few weeks ago: there is no longer a book culture. No one waits for a new book as of old by certain authors. They had a midnight opening for the new Thomas Pynchon novel but it had the feel of something from the past… and even smelled of the fake world of publicity more associated now with sexy vampire books.

.I suppose I could tease out analogies with the culture of the relic in the middle ages… and fabrication of, the trade in, the veneration of, the function of… but that would take us into areas of theology…

.I suppose, I began to see the book as a relic as I was driving around in southern Arizona last January. Except for Tombstone, book stores are few and very far apart. But I did notice in places like Ajo, AZ and Rodeo, New Mexico and in particular in the latter place secondhand shops that also sold books. In the small grocery store, junk shop and cafĂ© in Rodeo were a couple of cases of books for sale. Most of them were mass market paperbacks that I surmised had been left behind by people using the trailer parks in the area… people are reluctant to throw away books… so they pile up in Rodeo in Ajo and in many of the little towns that one stops at… I guess I should have asked if anyone ever buys a book…

.I had celebrated Tombstone as a town full of books but they were of local interest, < the Gunfight at the OK Corral> some published by university and NY publishers but many by very small publishers locally… there was one bookstore owned by a prolific western themed books writer who published his own books… you see the staged gun fight and want to know more and you think a book: but in actuality all the information is on the computer right now and you can watch on You Tube various versions of the recreated gunfight you saw and you have yourself probably like I did made a littler movie… but did I buy a book?... yes, a reprint of an article about the surrender of Geronimo complete with the original photographs but then all those picture are on the computer and… but I had the feeling I was doing this more as memorial to my previous habit and this was underlined when I did buy in the Tombstone courthouse bookstore A TENDERFOOT IN TOMBSTONE The Private Journal of Geore Whitwell Parsons: The Turbulent Years: 1880-82.. I bought it because in the index it revealed the name: Endicott Peabody who had established the first Episcopal church in Tombstone and who later would go back East and establish the Groton School which my son was at that moment a student. IS it possible that anyone under the age of forty who would have done what I had done in the courthouse?

.A friend who doing the revisions of his book on a writer who originally well published in the United States in English now finds that only the French are interested in his books and are even prepared to translate his unpublished English language books. A new book by this author had appeared on the internet in an English version and my friend wrote that he was not really prepared to re-write the whole manuscript of his book unless someone was prepared to pay him to do it and since as he is subsidizing the publication of his own book he didn’t see much reason because in reality how many people will actually read a book about an author who now only has one book in print in the United States and even though it is published by a major NY publisher…

.This is a long roundabout way of getting to the idea that it is only very recently really in the course of human history that writers expect or are known for living off the books they write…. I won’t rehearse the whole history of authorship but we all well know those dedications to patrons, protectors that introduce books of poetry and prose that used to introduce the book before they were replaced with long lists of people that the author lists as helpers, friends etc ,etc, an incredible display of narcissistic anxiety. Did Horace, Catullus or Virgil have agents and receive royalty statements?

.So now that books are relics: what to do with this impulse to write… and to have read what one writes: now you are reading these words which cost you nothing and cost me nothing…

.Is it reasonable anymore to expect to receive money for what one writes?

.Of course: how is the writer to live?

.There are those relic embellishers: foundation prizes or fellowships, welfare grants from the government, teaching sinecures for those creating aspirant relic makers by passing on “tips” of how it is done.

.A POSITIVE NOTE. Denis Donoghue wrote an essay about how Ezra Pound through the writing of The Cantos was trying to urge into existence an ideal prince patron. I would do so also but well know that any prince patron who came along would quickly be ensnared in making sure the patronage would be distributed in the correct proportions along ethnic, racial sexual lines of retreat from any true excellence if there was any public hint of such largess.

.Now, I have been writing for some time a much longer thing for lack of a better word and soon it will be finished and it will be about 300 pages. I received no money in advance for writing this thing but I would like it to be read.

.In the old days two of my things--- THE CORPSE DREAM OF N. PETKOV and GOING TO PATCHOGUE were made into books and that is that..

.Since then I have written many things but they have not been made into books because editors like the late Richard Seaver for instance once said he could not make any money off of it as did Robert Weil etc…and a young guy at Harper Collins and Overlook…

.I suppose I could have gone down the list but some years ago after those two books were “published” and widely and well reviewed I had approached an agent who was honest enough to say, I cannot eat lunch off of you.

.And that is really what Richard Seaver, Robert Weil and the kid at Harper Collins were really saying: they could not eat lunch off of me or it… At the moment Weill is sitting pretty, someone said because he published a book of cartoons by R Crumb based on the first books of the Bible--- though Norton’s sales are off 25% last year--- what a fall off from the days of ZAP, for Crumb... but that is publishing : digging up the almost dead and seeing if you can make some money off of them if you teach teach them some sort of trick.

.In the mail the other day, a truly pathetic book by Patti Smith writing about her “relationship” with Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith once tried to convince people she was in the incarnation of Rimbaud but now she is wrinkled, long of tooth and should have remembered Rimbaud was finished with this stuff by the age of 21: and a memoir of a man whose claim upon posterity is the picture of himself with a bull whip shoved up his rectum…

.Of course publishers know they are a dying breed, both physically and metaphorically. No young person of a right mind would go into publishing unless possessed of a large trust fund and needed something to do to avoid the drug habit. That is the great fear stalking publishing: they know it is dying industry as they like to fashion themselves.. but are all hoping there are a few more years in the old way of doing things…

.But you are thinking of those electronic gadgets that are now appearing in the hands of people on the subway: Kindle, Sony readers and the awaited Nook? On the weekend I was in the Barnes and Noble on Union Square and asked the kid to demonstrate the Nook for me. I asked to see if Ulysses was available. HE tried to find the free sample but something happened and he couldn’t find it. He said this doesn’t usually happen but there are still some glitches… I can well imagine that these things are the future and people will learn to read “books” on their cell phones. The kid offered that while he didn’t use these electronic readers he also did not read books much anymore though he thought there would always be people interested in big old important books. The kid was Asian and I am sure he was trying to show some sort of respect for my obviously aged face…

.Just before Christmas the Los Angeles Times saw the book page staff reduced to two people… I expect it will soon be one person who will produce a page much like the page in the Newark Star Ledger…: it will mostly be a page of announcements… a telling of readers where to go and find out about new written things and where to read about these new written things or it will be… who really knows.

.Nowhere in the country is anyone adding staff to the book pages. In my short experience I have seen the Washington Post, Newsday and now the Los Angeles Times fade and fade

.HOWEVER, once again I turn when I finish this little thing to:::: NOTHING DOING because I am interested in recording these lives I met on the page: Herbert T. Lange, Al Wells, George Kamenov, Sean Patrick, the voice which has gone looking for its own grave and how it all began when once in The National Gallery, London standing in front of Nicholas Poussin’s LANDSCAPE WITH TRAVELLERS RESTING…

PS. I am a relic collector, a relic producer and from the mail as I am typing this: four equisite books: THE OTHER SLEEP by Julian Green, CHATEAU d'Argol by Julien Gracq, A JOURNEY TO MOUNT ATHOS amd THE SORCERER"S APPRENTICE both by Francois Augieras... 6 1/2 inches by 4 7/8 inches, paperback with flaps...books of a voice indifferent to time, without insidious reference to the present moment, consolations for aging flesh encasing minds that do not fade,... published by Pushkin Press in London, the only publisher ALIVE in London at the moment.

.Why am I not dead so that Pushkin Press or _____________ might think to publish my words?... (Edward Dahlberg told me in 1971 that he had been writing posthumously for most of his life. I now know what he means, maybe.)


James Street said...

This phenomenon is not new. Many a scribbler painted his literary work with the end of a quill feather only to fear that his work had become superannuated by scribblers with pens fabricated out of metal and wood. Fountain pens eclipsed inkwells and Bics finished them off.

I wrote my first novel with a Bic because I couldn't stand pounding away on a typewriter hours at a time. Computer keyboards were mana from technology heaven to my fingers and they never looked back.

However. I think everyone over the age of about 45 shares your feelings about the demise of book culture. It was a fine Sunday afternoon that could be devoted to book stores and coffee houses, reading.

But your friend (who sounds suspiciously like Paul Auster) does not get my sympathy. Why? Because popular literature has always cast its giant shadow over high brow literature and high brow literature has, all-too-often, drenched great literature with its very-dark-indeed rain cloud.

Think of Marcel Proust's, Against St Beuve. In it, he demonstrates that France's greatest literary critic missed most of France's truly great writers. For example, St. Beuve said that Stendhal could not possibly be a great writer because he, St. Beuve, had met him and Stendhal didn't have the personality and character of a great writer. Eo ipso, fait non acompli.

I could provide my own list of great American writers, from Dickinson to Melville, Twain and Whitman, and beyond, who were either completely misunderstood and ignored, or given faint praise and literary criticism which was little better than a politely muted gaggle of insults.

Even today, France holds Poe in the highest esteem but American critics can barely stifle a laugh, and cannot comprehend this monumental French error of literary taste and judgment from the heart of Western Civilization.

The list of writers whose editors could not eat lunch off their books is very, very much longer than the list of those who writers off whose books they could.

Looking at it another way, there was a time in England when one out of every four books sold, excluding textbooks and the Bible, was by Edgar Wallace.

Wallace published more than 170 hardcover books, 950 short stories, 23 plays and countless newspaper and magazine articles and yet, in 1982, all of his books had become public domain in England and only five of his books were still in print.

His books are unreadable today. (He was a high brow writer.)

I wouldn't get too depressed about that clerk in the Barnes and Noble bookstore who couldn't find Ulysses. I was in a Texas library looking for philosophy books and I was directed to a section that contained books about mysticism and magic. When I asked the librarian if there was a section that contained classic philosophy books by philosophers like Plato and Aristotle he said he had never heard of either one of them.

I thought he said it with a straight face and he looked guileless enough but you can never be sure.

Samuel Johnson said "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."

I respond, “ONLY blockheads write for money because it is virtually impossible to make (real) money writing.”

Anonymous said...

Man oh man....

Celine was right about the Chinese, huh, Tom?