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Posts Tagged ‘publishing’

13 JANUARY, 2014

19th-Century German Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer Presages the Economics and Ethics of the Web and Modern Publishing

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A 19th-century critique of the moral failures of linkbait, cat slideshows, and needless pagination.

With the timeless quality of his writings, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) has influenced such celebrated minds as Nietzsche, Einstein, Wittgenstein, Freud, Jung, and Tolstoy. Despite — or perhaps because of — the pessimistic nature of much of his work, Schopenhauer presages with astounding precision the troubled ethics and economics of writing today, particularly in online publishing, in an essay titled “On Authorship,” found in the altogether excellent The Essays of Schopenhauer: The Art of Literature (free download; public library).

He begins with a taxonomy of writers, one that divides them based on the age-old question of what motivates writing:

There are, first of all, two kinds of authors: those who write for the subject’s sake, and those who write for writing’s sake. The first kind have had thoughts or experiences which seem to them worth communicating, while the second kind need money and consequently write for money. They think in order to write, and they may be recognized by their spinning out their thoughts to the greatest possible length, and also by the way they work out their thoughts, which are half-true, perverse, forced, and vacillating; then also by their love of evasion, so that they may seem what they are not; and this is why their writing is lacking in definiteness and clearness.

Schopenhauer’s distinction and his distaste for the second kind seems particularly prescient in the Buzzfeed era of vacant “writing” that exists solely for the sake of filling (web) pages and selling pageviews. He admonishes:

The author is cheating the reader as soon as he writes for the sake of filling up paper; because his pretext for writing is that he has something to impart. Writing for money [is], at bottom, the ruin of literature. It is only the man who writes absolutely for the sake of the subject that writes anything worth writing. What an inestimable advantage it would be, if, in every branch of literature, there existed only a few but excellent books! This can never come to pass so long as money is to be made by writing. It seems as if money lay under a curse, for every author deteriorates directly [whenever] he writes in any way for the sake of money. The best works of great men all come from the time when they had to write either for nothing or for very little pay.

It is curious to note contemporary versions of this affront to the reader by way of “filling up paper.” What might Schopenhauer say of online publishers who paginate their articles unnecessarily and create mindless slideshows that force us to click “next” over and over in order to get to the point or payoff, assuming there is one in the first place?

Indeed, though Schopenhauer, in his characteristic glibness, perhaps unfairly lumps all journalists into his censure, he is remarkably right about a lamentable majority of publishing today, from the entire content farming industry to various forms of Buzzwashing:

A great number of bad authors eke out their existence entirely by the foolishness of the public, which only will read what has just been printed. I refer to journalists, who have been appropriately so-called. In other words, it would be “day laborer.”

His critique of this failure of motive and its consequent failure of substance applies equally to the economics and ethics of online media as it does the state of traditional book publishing today, where the droplet of quality writing has to fight a flood of highly marketed mediocrity:

The deplorable condition of the literature of to-day … is due to the fact that books are written for the sake of earning money. Every one who is in want of money sits down and writes a book, and the public is stupid enough to buy it.

But one of Schopenhauer’s most prescient points has to do with the presentism bias and news fetishism of our culture, something I’ve long lamented. As someone who spends an enormous amount of time and energy on excavating yesteryear’s timeless and timely ideas about issues we grapple with today — those immutable concerns of the human soul, ranging from love to education to happiness to science and spirituality to the meaning of life — I am constantly astounded by how much more thoughtfully, thoroughly, and effectively many of these issues are addressed in older writings than in what we see on the news today. Schopenhauer, in a perfect meta-example, writes:

No greater mistake can be made than to imagine that what has been written latest is always the more correct; that what is written later on is an improvement on what was written previously; and that every change means progress.

At the root of this Schopenhauer finds the same failure of motive, which prioritizes money and ego over substance and cultural value:

An old and excellent book is frequently shelved for new and bad ones; which, written for the sake of money, wear a pretentious air and are much eulogized by the authors’ friends.

Caricature of Arthur Schopenhauer by Wilhelm Busch

What’s perhaps most interesting is that Schopenhauer was writing in the 19th century, a time when the economics of knowledge — knowledge being at the heart of literature — came down to overcoming the scarcity of information, a problem diametrically opposed to our present predicament, which is concerned with ameliorating the abundance of information. And yet Schopenhauer was ahead of his time in predicting that what separates good writing from bad isn’t the information, or “matter,” presented but the “form” of its presentation, interpretation and contextualization, wherein lies the writer’s true claim to merit. He reflects on the substance of great writing:

The subjects may be of such a nature as to be accessible and well known to everybody; but the form in which they are expounded, what has been thought about them, gives the book its value, and this depends upon the author. Therefore if a book, from this point of view, is excellent and without a rival, so also is its author. From this it follows that the merit of a writer worth reading is all the greater the less he is dependent on matter — and the better known and worn out this matter, the greater will be his merit. The three great Grecian tragedians, for instance, all worked at the same subject.

[…]

It is on form that we are dependent, where the matter is accessible to every one or very well known; and it is what has been thought about the matter that will give any value to the achievement; it will only be an eminent man who will be able to write anything that is worth reading. For the others will only think what is possible for every other man to think. They give the impress of their own mind; but every one already possesses the original of this impression.

Returning to the “foolishness of the public” (after all, people do want cat slideshows, don’t they?), Schopenhauer makes an observation that, while on the surface correct, somewhat tragically belies the responsibility of the great writer:

However, the public is very much more interested in matter than in form, and it is for this very reason that it is behindhand in any high degree of culture.

[…]

This preference for matter to form is the same as a man ignoring the shape and painting of a fine Etruscan vase in order to make a chemical examination of the clay and colors of which it is made.

(To be fair, Schopenhauer might have benefitted from talking to Richard Feynman in building a better metaphor here.)

In another especially insightful admonition, Schopenhauer presages the “hater culture” of comments and anonymous trolling online, affirming the idea that publishers who host such parasites are just as culpable as the commenters themselves:

The man who publishes and edits an article written by an anonymous critic should be held as immediately responsible for it as if he had written it himself; just as one holds a manager responsible for bad work done by his workmen [who] would be treated as he deserves to be — namely, without any ceremony.

An anonymous writer is a literary fraud against whom one should immediately cry out, “Wretch, if you do not wish to admit what it is you say against other people, hold your slanderous tongue.”

The entire The Essays of Schopenhauer: The Art of Literature collection is well worth the read — and regular reread — and is available as a free ebook here. Complement it with Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling’s critique of journalism and E.B. White on the responsibility of the writer.

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28 OCTOBER, 2013

Thoreau on Not Finding a Publisher and What Success Really Means

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“Sitting beside the inert mass of my works, I take up my pen to-night to record what thought or experience I may have had, with as much satisfaction as ever.”

A century before Anaïs Nin’s prescient discontent about the state of publishing and 160 years before our present-day grumblings, Henry David Thoreau — one of the most celebrated minds in the history of letters, who penned some of the most enduring and influential texts in Western literature — confronted the tribulations of publishing as he completed A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, his moving elegy for his brother John. Unable to find a publisher for the book, he paid out-of-pocket for a print run of 1,000 copies — but only 300 were sold. True to his belief that success comes from within rather than without, the legendary poet, philosopher, and abolitionist considers the experience in this funny and poignant diary entry from October 28, 1853, found in The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861 (public library) — the same timelessly fantastic tome that gave us Thoreau on why not to quote Thoreau and his irresistibly quotable wisdom on friendship and sympathy.

Rain in the night and this morning, preparing for winter.

For a year or two past, my publisher, falsely so called, has been writing from time to time to ask what disposition should be made of the copies of “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” still on hand, and at last suggesting that he had use for the room they occupied in his cellar. So I had them all sent to me here, and they have arrived to-day by express, filling the man’s wagon, — 706 copies out of an edition of 1000 which I bought of Munroe four years ago and have been ever since paying for, and have not quite paid for yet. The wares are sent to me at last, and I have an opportunity to examine my purchase. They are something more substantial than fame, as my back knows, which has borne them up two flights of stairs to a place similar to that to which they trace their origin. Of the remaining two hundred and ninety and odd, seventy-five were given away, the rest sold. I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself. Is it not well that the author should behold the fruits of his labor? My works are piled up on one side of my chamber half as high as my head, my opera omnia. This is authorship; these are the work of my brain. There was just one piece of good luck in the venture. The unbound were tied up by the printer four years ago in stout paper wrappers, and inscribed, —

H.D. Thoreau’s
Concord River
50 cops.

So Munroe had only to cross out “River” and write “Mass.” and deliver them to the expressman at once. I can see now what I write for, the result of my labors.

Nevertheless, in spite of this result, sitting beside the inert mass of my works, I take up my pen to-night to record what thought or experience I may have had, with as much satisfaction as ever. Indeed, I believe that this result is more inspiring and better for me than if a thousand had bought my wares. It affects my privacy less and leaves me freer.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861 remains one of the history’s most rewarding and notable diaries. Complement it with Thoreau’s philosophy adapted in a picture book and his ever-timely reminder of what success really means.

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05 MARCH, 2013

Publishing and Its Discontents, 1948 Edition

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“Keeping up with present-day costs is as tough for a publisher as for an author, and there does not seem to be an end towards the increase.”

There is little doubt that the economics of publishing and the arts are being dramatically disrupted today as we grapple with the challenges of post-industrial creativity — from individual crusades like Amanda Palmer’s brave quest for creative crowdfunding to the many models with which publishers are experimenting as alternatives to ad-supported media. Yet, like most problems that appear unique to our time, these issues are anything but: Take, for instance, book publishing and its discontents.

In 1942, dealing with many of the challenges authors face today and unable to find a publisher for her short story collection Under a Glass Bell (public library), Anaïs Nin started a small publishing house called Gremor Press, taught herself the art of letterpress and type-set the book by hand, printing a limited-edition of 300 copies with gorgeous engravings by her husband, which she sold via an innovative subscription model. But while the book became a prized collector’s item, exhibited in galleries and museums, it wasn’t bound for the kind of commercial success that would allow Nin to make a living, so she continued to look for a mainstream publisher. Eventually, Gore Vidal, whom Nin had befriended and enchanted, convinced his publisher, Dutton, to give Nin a chance.

In early 1948, writing in The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 5: 1947 — 1955 (public library) — the tome that gave us her meditations on embracing the unfamiliar, escaping from city life, and the role of character and personal responsibility — Nin records the following exchange with the president of Dutton, which mirrors many of the backward economics of contemporary publishing:

I asked Dutton for an advance on Under a Glass Bell.

* * *

My dear Anaïs:

Nick tells me that like the rest of us you are in need of some extra pennies. One of these days when we are really scratching the bottom of the barrel I think I will write to five hundred of our authors and suggest that they send us $100 each. That will come to $50,000 and help no end. Keeping up with present-day costs is as tough for a publisher as for an author, and there does not seem to be an end towards the increase.

At any rate, I enclose a check for $250 which is the amount of the initial advance due on November 1 1947 on Under a Glass Bell and Other Stories.

I hope that you are well and happy. With kind regards,

Sincerely,
E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
Elliott [Macrae]
President

Under a Glass Bell went on to become Nin’s first entry into the upper echelons of the literary world and is still regarded by many as her finest work, on par with her prolific diaries.

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