“Literary Politics in America” and Corporate Publishing

In 1974, Richard Kostelanetz’s “The End of Intelligent Writing: Literary Politics in America” was published by Sheed and Ward, a company that has since vanished into the mists of corporate divestiture. When I first ran across Kostelanetz’s book, thanks to a recommendation by Jim Krusoe back in the mid-1970s, I remember wondering about the publisher: Why did it seem familiar? By that time, I had not been attending Sunday Mass for close to 10 years, “a lapsed Catholic” as they say; though not from indifference, but hostile antipathy towards the Catholic church’s repressive agenda. Oddly enough, Kostelanetz’s diatribe against an Establishment of Reviewers was published by a company founded to disseminate Catholic propaganda, and I had encountered a fair number of their publications in the form of pious booklets in the course of my altar boy youth.

Kostelanetz’s book must have had a modest amount of success from the publisher’s point of view; according to World Cat, over 500 libraries still have the book on their shelves, so I assume it sold enough copies to at least break even. And the book did get attention from the mainstream press. This morning I looked up the original review by Roger Sale in the New York Times (Dec. 29, 1974), in which Sale praised the second half of the book after rebuking the premises of the first half. The peculiar absence in the review was any mention of the economic aspects of publishing that Kostelanetz cites in the course of his argument; in particular, he specifically traced the mergers of various stand-alone publishing entities into larger corporations whose main market focus was not books but some other commodity. Within a ledger-book mentality in which maximizing profits reduced cultural work to a secondary side-effect of use only as marketing publicity, these mergers led to reductions in editorial finesse. It was not enough for a book to make a small profit, and the nurture of young writers who need two or three novels or collections of poems to build an audience for their mature work became more and more the province of small presses. Having foisted the hard work of mentoring aspiring writes off onto the unpaid labor of editors at independent presses, the corporate-owned publishers soon realized that there was little to gain from taking this work back on, especially in regards to poets whose work implied a comprehensive critique of American self-consciousness.

Kostelanetz’s warnings about the reduction of cultural outlets to a handful of major corporations were not news to those of us working in the small press field. My brief discussion of the origins of COSMEP in Holdouts: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance will provide an introduction to the counterweight offered by an ensemble of writers, poets, and editors intent on overthrowing the cultural establishment. The outcome was fairly obvious to everyone except the participants of the small press movement between 1970 and 1980: those who balance-sheets had backlists of canonical texts were hardly going to lose out to an insurgency largely working out of their rented living quarters.

At the present moment, the roll-call of major publishers salutes to entities for whom book production constitutes an aspect of the post-Fordist economy that gives every sign of continuing to be profitable. Who knows? Perhaps even robots operating on AI software will develop a taste for non-fiction. In the meantime, if you are 20 years old and want a career in this field, here are your employment options:

Penguin Random House, which might well soon be wholly owned by Bertelsmann
HarperCollins, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation
Hachette Livre, owned by Lagardère Publishing
Macmillan, which is owned by Spring Nature
Simon and Schuster, which is being sold by CBS/Viacom, and might well end up in Murdoch’s domain

In 1974, however, consider that your options in seeking employment would have include Viking Press, which traced its operations back to the mid-1920s, and whose idea of a merger was joining forces soon after its founding with Huebsch, who had published a rather distinguished list of books in the first two decades of the 20th century. The year after Kostelanetz’s book appeared, however, Viking became part of Penguin, which meant that it was on its way toward imprint absorption. Earlier this decade, Pearson and Bertelsmann decided to make one enormous publishing company by uniting Penguin and Random House into a single outlet. Viking and its logo are nothing more than the dreamscape of print culture back when it required knowledge of literature as well as a sense of market demand in order to flourish as a publisher.

There are still alternatives, however, in the contemporary scene, summed up best by my friend Brooks Roddan, at his website: ifsfpublishing.com

small press publishing

“The designation ‘small press’ should delight us, presuming, as it does, the existence of intelligent writers and readers intent on seeking out the extraordinary, realizing how rare the extraordinary is. The smaller the press the better, so small that the book a small press publishes might have been made by one writer for one reader. But this is an ideal; it’s enough that a small press can publish, independently, the work of talented, skilled men and women whose work deserves to be published. And what fun publishing such a book is, from beginning to end! It’s quite alchemical—the transformation of original material into an object—the book—that could only have been that book, so that writer, editor, designer, and printer become one. Will the success the book deserves follow? Good reviews? Sales? Awards? The answers could be yes, yes, yes and yes. Whatever the case, a small press is a small press is a small press.”

Brooks Roddan, Publisher

For further background:

Comments are closed.