“[U]nder the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified — more supremely noble than this very poem — this poem per se — this poem which is a poem and nothing more — this poem written solely for the poem’s sake.” — Edgar Allan Poe, “The Poetic Principle”
To bring “the soul of the old cavalier” to the 21st century and share Mr. Poe’s sentiment, the world that artists inhabit—their interior world— sure can be a trippy place.
Some might say to be called an artist, you must be obsessed with your art; otherwise you’re not a true artist.
Others might say to self-identify as an “artist” is presumptuous, pretentious, disingenuous; unless you would starve for your art, you’re a charlatan, a sellout, a suit disguised in bohemian clothing.
A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it. He enters into this work of art the way legend tells of the Chinese painter when he viewed his finished painting. — Philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
The commercial arts world—the full spectrum of art, film, theatre, music, and literature—is one of the few places on earth where a person is both accepted and marginalized at the same time. Applauded and lambasted.
(We cheer and jeer politicians and athletes, too, and in private, we celebrate and bash our family, friends and associates, so perhaps these very words have painted this page a paradox.)
Art has no commonly accepted definition. It can be original or derived, political or pastoral, sophisticated or crude. When discussing or explaining art, we often use words like creation, interpretation, imagination. We also agree or at least are accustomed to hearing that art relies on a person’s sensibilities, tastes, aesthetics (or the appreciation thereof).
When you think about it, everything is art. Unless or until we determine it is not.
The artist’s world is limitless. It can be found anywhere, far from where he lives or a few feet away. It is always on his doorstep. — Photographer Paul Strand (1890-1976)
When I opened a bookshop in the 1990s, I used to say that nowhere is stranger than the world of retail, specifically trade book commerce, where daily I encountered people of all stripes and neuroses. With every customer interaction, I was never sure what to expect; their interests and social behaviors varied so wildly, I secretly wished the fortune teller next to my shop could fill me in on their lives and needs before they entered my building. This inside dope could have helped in my pursuit of finding them the perfect book. Bartenders may sometimes feel like underpaid psychiatrists, but booksellers are the unsung therapists in our society.
As a book publisher, I now have a much different perspective. I get to step in the basement and see Johnny, the novelist, mixing up the medicine. I get to see the artist at work. I get to inhabit worlds in which the creator lets me in before the stage curtain rises, before the bookstore’s OPEN sign is displayed, and before an audience with varying tastes simultaneously applauds and jeers the performance. Years of labor spent behind a desk seeking just that right blend of medicated goo.
The publisher of literary fiction has a great responsibility. It is to find that delicate balance between art and commerce. It is to have the instinct to tell the difference. It is to intuitively decipher works of artistic merit vs. pure entertainment and to have the confidence to green light one project while pulling the plug on countless others.
(This, of course, contradicts my earlier statement that “everything is art,” but such is the challenge of being a curator and living in paradoxical times. You’re permitted to tell me that I’m full of beans, too, particularly if you’re a writer whose work has been rejected, but this is the reality of a saturated field compounded by the limited finances of an independent press.)
Unlike gambling, publishing literary fiction does not entail luck or timing so much as it depends on belief. A belief in the writer. A belief in the work. A publisher should not take credit if a book sells remarkably well just as a writer of literary fiction should not take the blame if his book fails to sell. If a publisher has made a poor investment in a writer, it’s due to the market forces of popular culture much more than a lack of discretionary decision-making. Just as a stock broker would warn his client to never chase a stock, a publisher of literary fiction should never chase an issue because it raises the likelihood of success. This obsession with book sales destroys the art.
An artist is not paid for his labor but for his vision. — Artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)
Like writing, publishing is an obsessive game. It demands attention and passion, and most of all, it requires patience and fortitude. Publishing books of literary fiction can be likened to collecting books or objects of antiquity. There is no pragmatic reason to invest money in anything that most likely will result in a poor return, if not a loss. Unless, that is, you do it for the love. You do it for the art.
The book, A Gentle Madness, by Nicholas A. Basbanes, is a fine example of the lengths people in our crazy world will go to fill an undying desire to surround themselves with piles and piles of books. The book’s subtitle—”Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books”—sums up the curious affliction to which those of us in the profession can well relate.
One does not write or publish stories, poems, and other works of imagination because it is a profitable undertaking. There is little to no money to be made in the manic world of literature. We do it for the art. We do it for the love of all things artistic.
Photo Source: The Art Institutes