Walking away from BEA on Thursday I spied Alpha and Omega heading toward the lounge at Lucky Strike, over at 42nd and the West Side Highway. The sky was getting dark and they were hustling. Pick it up, poot, I can hear thunder. I followed them in and ordered a pretty drink from a pretty girl in cool net stockings. Unfortunately, it tasted like Lysol with mint in it. Definitely not a pick-me-up. I was sitting about ten feet away from the two of them on an adjacent couch, listening in. Alpha spoke first.
"Not for nothin, but none of the loud-mouths who've been lambasting Jonathan Galassi for his comments at the opening session, you know, the ones calling him a dinosaur, an ostrich, an elitist gatekeeper, out of touch and a technophobe, those excitable boys writing their blogs, none of them have ever published one book as good as the many hundreds that he has edited and published, nor have they translated Eugenio Montale's poetry to within a hair's breadth of its original beauty as he has done, nor have they made a bestseller out of a book as daunting as Roberto Bolaño's 2666. So tell me, why're they flinging scheisse at him? Is it envy? Because he's Up There and they are Down Here? Or is it simply the typical fear-soaked animus shown by powerless initiates when they encounter a powerful High Priest? Remember what the poet told us, when you're swimming in shark-infested waters, you better not shed a drop of blood."
Omega loosened his collar, unclenched his jaw, and answered, "Envy who? Someone who wants to cram his elitist values down the throats of America's readers while bemoaning popular taste? I guess it's a terrible thing to be a snob and watch the distinguishing criteria that have allowed you to pass judgment on works you deem inferior evaporate into a cloud of democratizing technology. The old guard, represented by Galassi, are hopeless, man. They're too set in their ways to change, too crotchety to forgo their tired arguments, and too stubbornly wedded to the notion that art, like the life it imitates, is a Darwinian struggle out of which only a few time-honored works can survive. He and his kind are aesthetes. Effete aesthetes. Connoisseurs of a canon inscripted by the high and mighty have no place in a culture like ours. Literature is for everyone. It is our responsibility to make it accessible, and to draw up a new business model which will allow the next generation to earn a living."
Alpha spit out an ice cube. "You sure about that? Listen, poot, those who serve literature and, in turn, the culture it serves ought to write the books they want to write and not give a damn about the publishing process. You gotta have something to say and be itching to say it, no matter what. The world doesn't owe you a living. If your work is worthy, it'll find its way, for somebody's gonna have the good sense to bring it to light. Even if its immediate success or failure depends on packaging, publicity, and marketing, in the long run those things mean little compared to the intrinsic worth of the work itself and whether or not the writer gave to the work what it demanded. After a book enters the cultural bloodstream, publishers can do no more. In the end, only the best work will remain, the rest is dross, a kind of compost necessary to keep the culture alive from generation to generation. You can shake your fist at the clouds and curse the magma in the earth, but there's nothing you can do to prevent thunderstorms or volcanic eruptions. Life will go one despite your protestations. It's the same with the winnowing process leading to a shared literary heritage. Having been in the game for a long time, I know this. Your slings and arrows will barely graze the beast."
"Hey, man, come down out of that pulpit of yours. Don't you see that the work you refer to is only a single strand of a long ongoing conversation, one that takes place over centuries and borders, between those who preserve and protect and those who re-imagine and transform? In a revolutionary age like this one, the platform belongs to those who assault the watchtowers and scale the walls. This is no time to be a gatekeeper. Gatekeepers are gonna be consigned to irrelevance and driven into early retirement. In the 21st century, publishers must be conversation starters, like hosts at a grand party, not manufacturers or codifiers. Sure, it is inevitable that a retrenchment will take place, but only after new paradigms are established to conform to the new technology. Revolutions always breed counter-revolutions. But they're gonna be a long way off, after the world as we know it has been replaced by one you and I can hardly imagine. Clouds and mountains may have their own history, bub, but those are not our history."
I listened to the two of them go on this way for a spell. I thought to myself, we may be living in a age of abundant conversation but most of it is idle chatter. Ideas, discoveries, and excellent forms of expression are as scarce as they've always been. In the background, bowlers were knocking down pins and these guys couldn't hear each other through the din.
"The mass market is disappearing -- so what? Most folks are looking for entertainment, a break from the daily grind, and they'll gravitate to whatever is nearest to hand. And whatever has been marketed to them relentlessly by their rulers, whether the government, the church, or -- today -- the big corporations."
Maybe Alpha was right: an artist is not supposed to be interested in the mass market. She makes things because she has to -- she doesn't care about reaching millions of readers. But why not? Omega would have it that an artist can be interested in anything as long as they have the talent and the skill to make something of it.
"Suppose your artistry is found in publishing, in starting the conversation, in attending conferences and trying to egg the revolution on? Tell me, isn't that worthy work too? I mean, you and I, we're not just talking bar talk. Our lives depend on getting this shite right. There's a lot at stake here."
What goes around, comes around. "Speaking of bar talk, you ready for another round, poot?"