Literature and pure motives

An author I quite admire and enjoy, Ursula Le Guin, shares the widespread conviction that the book industry has been corrupted by financial motives.  Publishers--those lousy Philistines--don't care about the inherent value of a book, only about their ability to sell it at a profit.  Well, I suppose there may be publishers out there who only care about the inherent value of a book, but after they spend all their savings putting the books out, they go out of business, leaving only their filthy-lucre competitors behind.

It's only been in the last few centuries, though, that anyone even tried to make money off of publishing. Back when each book was a painstaking labor of handmade love, if the author wasn't pretty determined to write it for its inherent value, well, it just didn't get written.  Not many people ever got to read these supremely disinterested works, but that kept the unwashed masses from driving down the tone.  Then some bright guy figured out a way to automate the printing process, and suddenly books weren't just something that a few scholars shared with each other as fast as some poor scribe could copy them by hand.  The growing literate public started agitating for more and faster copies, and next thing you know people are saying, "Well, OK, I'll devote my professional life to churning out copies for you, but only if you're willing to pay for them.  All this paper and ink isn't free, you know."  Publishers got used to making a living and found that they might have to pay the authors who turned out stuff people were willing to buy.

It's still possible to write for the sheer inherent value of writing, if you don't want a zillion people to read it, and if you don't quit your day job.  But it seems a little odd to demand the right to make a living at writing, while complaining that other people don't value it for its own sake.


Grim said...

Malory wrote his book in prison. He was locked up for around ten years during the War of the Roses, not by conviction but because they found clever ways to keep postponing the trial year after year (a common practice in British royal politics that is at the root of our guarantee of a right to a 'speedy trial'). Since he'd spent his youth immersed in the French language Arthurian tradition, and with ten years to work on it, he was able to produce a work that has been reprinted and read by millions across generations.

Pulp American fiction has trouble being read across two generations.

Conclusion: Maybe we should put more writers in prison.

Although, I should add as a good Medievalist, the difficulty of acquiring books before the printing press is overstated. There were robust markets in books because, though each one had to be hand-copied, it was something people were quite ready to buy. What there weren't, before Gutenberg's press, was standard editions. Books tended to be compilations of specific favorites an individual copier (or, for the wealth, a specific client who had commissioned the book) thought were the 'good parts' of various works. That way, the work of copying was much diminished and the books had a kind of distillation of the best on a given subject.

This was true not only for religious books (a 'breviary' is in an important sense abbreviated -- it has everything you need, and no more, from the scripture, rites, etc). It was also true for popular histories and romances. Well-known poems tend to turn up over and over again in these personalized compilations that were both traded and read by merchants, knights, squires, goodmen and goodwives of the village, and not merely the nobility.

Malory's book, however, surely owes part of its fame to Gutenberg. His publisher, William Caxton, chose it to become one of the first mass-produced books in English.

Grim said...

I should say there weren't as many standard editions: the breviary example proves the rule, as the Pope tended to approve them and they were to be copied precisely. The Vulgate Bible is another example, although few people owned a 'standard' Vulgate: mostly they had abbreviated books containing especially beloved 'good parts' of Scripture.

Grim said...

I suppose the Medieval approach proves your theory, too: they weren't willing to pay to copy every word of the author's pure vision of how the story should sit on the page. The market was just at work in a different place: not what got published as much as which parts got copied.

Cass said...

Publishers--those lousy Philistines--don't care about the inherent value of a book, only about their ability to sell it at a profit.

Yanno, it's almost like these yayhoos were paying out salaries and rent and had expenses they had to cover... AND ON TOP OF IT ALL, THEY ACTUALLY EXPECT SOME SORT OF POSITIVE RETURN AFTER ALL THE EXPENSES OF DOING BUSINESS ARE PAID!

The *noive* of some people (nyuk, nyuk, nyuk) :)

If publishers were as high-minded and pure of heart as Ms. Leguin, they would gladly sacrifice their ill-gotten riches (which were, at one time, *PROFIT*) for the sake of Art.

At which point, no one would have any riches (no profit, no wealth) to sacrifice, but that's just a detail we need not concern ourselves with.

Texan99 said...

Grim, before I accept the proposition that "the difficulty of acquiring books before the printing press is overstated" I would need to see some sources. Every history of the period I have ever consulted has emphasized the seismic impact of the sudden availability of a vastly greater body of printed material, along with an explosion of literacy and an accompanying market for books. What do you think is overstated about that picture? No one would argue, of course, that books were absolutely unavailable before 1440, but the change is remarkable.

Cassandra, yes, it's surprising how few highminded authors publish at their own expense for the sheer love of disseminating art and knowledge--except us denizens of the intratubes, of course! (If someone offered to pay me for my online ideas, I know I'd refuse.)

E Hines said...'s surprising how few highminded authors publish at their own expense for the sheer love of disseminating art and knowledge....

Well, I do. Can't say I'm disseminating overmuch art (well, actually none at all of that--I am a peasant, after all) and knowledge. Not with the readership I have.... But that's love, not money.

Eric Hines

douglas said...

The solution is obvious- One would expect to see a new publishing house soon- bearing the mark "LeGuin", where only books truly worth publishing will be published, right?

Grim said...


See the new post.

Eric Blair said...

LeGuin is all wet. But that doesn't surprise me any. To back Grim's argument see Lisa Jardine's "Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance" particularly the chapter entitled "Triumph of the book" Jardine quotes (rich) people in the 1470s already complaining that they had these printed books sneaking into their libraries as opposed to the more prestigious hand copied and illuminated hand crafted books.

What Jardine is very clear about is that the whole business was just that, a business about making money. As in this quote from the printer Badius Ascensius in Paris to Erasmus on the subject of Erasmus letting others print editions of his work already in print:
"Dearest Erasmus, I have lately had two letters from you, and with the first a reprint of your 'Metaphors', which I accept s a token of friendship rather than a sop to Cerebus; but even so, since my friend Thierry Martens ahs printed it such a short time ago, I dare not trust it to my press for fear of causing him to lose money. I set a much higher value on friendship than the gentleman who reprinted 'On Copiousness' - which you had sent me as a handsome present complete with your preface - and not a little reduced the value of the work I had put into it. Or that other lot who, having solemnly promised me your 'Adages', sold them off for not less than a Phillip florin each which I had contracted to buy a year and a half before I received one copy (for even now I have not had them all). I had planned to make good my los by printing the New Testament in the same type, which I had aquired for quite another purpose; but I shall write it off and think no more of it in view of my friendship with you, dearest Erasmus, and our host. Your printers need have no anxiety about their earlier edition at any rate; I shall do them no harm. But I shall take it kindly, if they in their turn consider my interests.

Texan99 said...

Erasmus is often cited as the first author who adopted a truly modern or commercial approach to his literary output. It's not easy to find a lot of examples before him.

I'm not trying to argue that no one wrote or even sold books before 1440, only that it was very difficult to make a business of it before then, whereas afterwards the commercial approach rapidly became feasible--and with it, lots of worrying self-examination about the motives of authors and publishers.

MikeD said...

The phrase "something so absurd only an academic could believe it" comes to mind.

But I don't know M/r/s Le Guin from a hole in the wall, so she may not even be an academic.

Cass said...

MikeD!!! You're back! :)

Happy Friday.

Texan99 said...

No, she's just a science fiction writer, but a good one. I think she's married to an anthropologist, and her science fiction tends in that direction.

MikeD said...

I'm back! Strangely enough, Cass, I spoke about you to my wife on the drive back home. It was all complimentary of course! :)