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Book Review: The Art of the Publisher

The Art of the Publisher by Roberto Calasso. Farrar, Straux, Giroux. 2015.

In the American popular literary imagination, there are two kinds of book publishers—both are placed behind the kind of iron mask where we put the business side, scraped and denuded of human qualities, or generative creativity, and put where we put our silver spoon or scrappy-capitalists like P.T. Barnum and Pulitzer—the publisher has the charm, the business acumen, the taste, but most importantly of all—the capital. Within this category though there are two publishers—the small, hyper-literary “independents” who naggingly remind us how independent and precarious and unique they are and how they’re the only ones who care about books and “real” literature in some ever-fading literary ecosystem, and whose houses we celebrate, but who make us privately anxious, because we know that these houses are the cast shadows of a single person or a couple or family and haven’t yet become fortressed corporate institutions, built to survive death, divorce and bankruptcy—the frightening thing about “the independents” is when that brave eccentric soul gets sick, goes into debt, goes crazy, or becomes tired of doing it, the quiet labors of many people could be lost to both the present and posterity.

The other publisher, in our imagination, is at one of the Big Five. They are a scion of one of those good kinds of Old Money Northeastern family where mum and dad taught culture, how to be a good friend and citizen, and these pretty young children were ingrained with values other than wealth accumulation or survival. They wear a suit, they have impeccable taste and manners, but to the writers and the others below them, they are somewhat faceless.

In this reductive dream, the writer fears the publisher as one fears a kind but symbolic authoritarian father, and knows that he or she must appropriately represent what this distant tyrant expects. The publisher has a deep respect for the artistic temperament and the generational myth of the creative individual and wants to be associated with writers and intellectuals and culture, therefore it is in everyone’s best interest for each to fully inhabit and embody their social roles.



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