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Two old publishing men - click opera
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Thu, Aug. 20th, 2009 01:42 pm
Two old publishing men

A British bookshop can feel pretty much like a confectioner's shop, stuffed with TV tie-ins and lightweight toothrot. Here are the titles currently displayed in W.H.Smith's web window, for instance:



To restore my faith in publishing and humanity, confronted with ugly-sleeved, formulaic, calculated-bestseller fluff like this, I turn my attention to the two stubborn old men of serious, transgressive British publishing, Peter Owen and John Calder, both 82 years old.



Interviewed by The Daily Telegraph two years ago, Owen described how he started Peter Owen Publishers from his bedroom in 1951, then moved to a small office in Old Brompton Road. Muriel Spark was his editor. It was the time of her speed-induced mental troubles:

"She'd had a nervous breakdown and converted to Catholicism and was in the last stages of recovery when she came to work for us. Muriel was a brilliant shorthand typist and very efficient. One of the authors she wanted to bring in was Samuel Beckett and that was one of my mistakes... Beckett was getting on for 50, had never made it. We had a choice between Beckett and the Japanese Dazai. Muriel said, can't we do both? I said we can't afford both, and chose Dazai." Beckett went on to have a career-transforming hit play with Waiting For Godot, which was published by Faber. The rest of his writing went to John Calder.



There's an interesting mp3 of Calder telling a film crew about the Last Exit To Brooklyn obscenity trial here. Calder, like Owen, struggled with censorship throughout his publishing career. (I recently described how Thomi Wroblewski, who did covers for both Calder and Owen in the 80s when he was doing my record sleeves, would give me copies of Apollinaire novels that Peter had published, which had had whole sections paraphrased in bold type to avoid the British censor's pencil.)



At the end of the Calder mp3 there's a funny anecdote. Calder heard that Christian conservative pundit Malcolm Muggeridge might be testifying against him in the Last Exit To Brooklyn obscenity trial. Muggerige was the rector of Edinburgh University and flew often between Edinburgh and London. Calder was on the same flight as him one day and sat next to him. Calder reminded him of a day in June 1962 when he and Muggeridge were walking across George IV Bridge, near the Edinburgh University campus, and saw a group of pretty students. "If I were a student today I would fuck myself to death," Muggerige remarked. Calder told his old friend that this would come up in cross-examination at the trial, and Muggeridge promised not to give evidence against him.

That pretty much sums up prudish-prurient 1960s Britain in a nutshell; there's a sense (as in Jean Genet's play The Balcony) that the radicals and the conservatives are basically on the same page. They'd all fuck themselves to death given a chance, but the papers pay some to be sententious blowhards, while others stay stubbornly independent, cool, obscene.

Calder comes out very much against trendiness, though. "Publishing is about more than getting a return on an investment or being fashionable," he told Textualities. "Publishers have a chance to contribute to making a better world. I recently published Jeff Nuttall’s Art and the Degradation of Awareness, in which [Nuttall] says ‘Art gives out of courage; fashion takes out of fear.’ Most of the ‘art’ we hear about today is fashion driven by commerce. Money is just a means of exchange, a means of keeping a roof over your head and all that, but to pursue wealth for its own sake is decadent. I agree with Samuel Beckett that one has to teach oneself not to want things. One wants many things for no better reason than that advertisers train us to want them... The point of everything I do remains the same: to make ideas available to people, to expand their minds."

53CommentReplyShare


(Anonymous)
Thu, Aug. 20th, 2009 12:00 pm (UTC)

it's a shame you didn't have a book published to promote in this entry on publishing. Funny that.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Aug. 20th, 2009 12:23 pm (UTC)

ach, fuck off anon(s)

for fucks sake, he's got 2 books coming out. why the fuck shouldn't he mention it on his own fucking blog. and, he didn't even mention it in this post.

such cynism is really fucking boring. and not very attractive.

if you(anon) are bobby gillepsie tho, then fair enough.

cheers
matt


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Aug. 20th, 2009 12:17 pm (UTC)

serious question: what would you say was the point of your books? I mean why did you do them?


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Aug. 20th, 2009 12:24 pm (UTC)

serious question: what's the point of your anonymous questioning?


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Aug. 20th, 2009 12:30 pm (UTC)

Well, Momus, I have to give it to you. A lengthy post about publishing with nary a mention of your own book. The restraint that must have involved must have been like being in a room of nubile naked teenage Japanese girls totally up for it and having to say no thanks. Of course, it could all be reverse psychology. You could be thinking: wait 'til the anon trolls get here to comment on the absence of anything about my recently published Book Of Scotlands, available for 15 euros at all good bookshops and on Amazon.de, and recently the subject of a rave review by my good friend whatsisname. Wait 'til they bring it up, the numbskulls! And before you know it the whole thread will be about me and my book, without anyone being able to accuse me of being a relentlessly narcissistic self-promoter!


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Thu, Aug. 20th, 2009 03:20 pm (UTC)

"Numskull" is the preferred spelling.

You are the weakest link, bye bye.


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autopope
autopope
Autopope
Thu, Aug. 20th, 2009 12:39 pm (UTC)

<snark>W. H. Smith is a bookshop? Who knew?</snark>

In other news: the anonymous wankers are becoming tediously repetitive. Maybe you should trade in your fandom for a new one?

Edited at 2009-08-20 12:40 pm (UTC)


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Aug. 20th, 2009 12:51 pm (UTC)

Yes - maybe that is because the majority of people using the 'internet' aren't signed up LiveJournal or wouldn't use OpenID.

Any real comment's to share?

Anon.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Aug. 20th, 2009 12:41 pm (UTC)

Yes, but did these Calder and Owen chappies have the nous to snap up a self-evident Meisterwerk like The Book Of Scotlands, by Scottish musician, performance artist, journalist and novelist Momus? No, they did not. How crap must they be!


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Aug. 20th, 2009 12:54 pm (UTC)

again:

cynicism, especially from anons is just really fucking boring.

sorry for the previows typo on cynicism


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Aug. 20th, 2009 01:15 pm (UTC)

Could it be that some of the anons could be Mr. Momus 'imself? After the twit opera thing you never know...

Love,

Anon


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Aug. 20th, 2009 01:36 pm (UTC)

Not today they ain't, and not 99% of the time, neither.

Hey, negation of the negation!


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Aug. 20th, 2009 01:38 pm (UTC)

England on 150-2, looked wobbly early on but seem to have recovered. Bell cruising towards a century. Can they pull it off and win The Ashes?


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Aug. 20th, 2009 02:26 pm (UTC)

Collingwood out and England looking wobbly again...


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charleston
charleston
Bonham C
Thu, Aug. 20th, 2009 01:53 pm (UTC)

"British bookshop" ?? man, look at any WHSmith equivalent in any city in Europe and you'll see pretty much display of dross in translation, same jackets even.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Aug. 20th, 2009 02:17 pm (UTC)

Well, it's interesting that you add "in translation", because you imply that dross is largely Anglo-Saxon in origin. And you're right!

Culture flows through English channels... but not for long was an article I wrote for Wired. It reports the findings of Rüdiger Wischenbart about the current realities behind book translation:

"Worldwide, he said, between 50 percent and 60 percent of all translations of books originate from English originals. It's sometimes higher: 70 percent of all books translated into Serbian, for instance, have English originals. In return, only 3 percent to 6 percent of all worldwide book translations are from foreign languages into English. English speakers, it seems, are talking a lot but listening very little. If this were the airline industry, we'd be talking about the kind of world where you can't fly from Moscow to Berlin without changing in London.

"Non-Anglo cultures are also listening less and less to each other, more and more to us. "In 2005," Wischenbart reported, "a mere 9.4 percent of all translations into German came from French originals.... Yet, this still brings French comfortably to second place in the overall translation statistics in Germany, as compared to 2.7 percent for Italian (number 3), or Dutch (2.5 percent, number 4) or Spanish (2.3 percent, number 5). Sixty-two percent of all translations were of English originals. All other languages and cultural in-roads seem like peanuts in comparison, and no politically well-intentioned process will ever mend this imbalance....

"Centrifugal forces are working against globalization, resulting in culturally fragmented islands and regions, with few cohesive lines in between."


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Thu, Aug. 20th, 2009 05:29 pm (UTC)

"Art gives out of courage; fashion takes out of fear.’ Most of the ‘art’ we hear about today is fashion driven by commerce. Money is just a means of exchange, a means of keeping a roof over your head and all that, but to pursue wealth for its own sake is decadent. I agree with Samuel Beckett that one has to teach oneself not to want things. One wants many things for no better reason than that advertisers train us to want them... The point of everything I do remains the same: to make ideas available to people, to expand their minds."

I have been thinking about this a lot lately, and am reminded of the prayer of Socrates -- "Pan, and any other gods that may be gathered in the garden, make me beautiful inside, and give me just as much money as may be necessary." I love how this prayer upends the usual and quite common inner wish of all humans to be beautiful and rich. It raises us, if just for a moment above the Darwinian (and dare I say Freudian) struggle to compete and win and ultimately dominate. To gain an advantage. The world is full of "art" based in commerce that constantly desensitizes us, plays our base emotions like a fiddle, that keeps us locked in to the world's preordained struggle. But the "art" that holds my interest anymore is that which re-sensetizes us to higher possibilities, to higher levels of consciousness, and to new outcomes. Beauty tinged with pity. Something to shake us out of our stupor and world weariness, and remind us of the quite uncommon "miracle" of consciousness itself.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Aug. 20th, 2009 05:36 pm (UTC)

Hallelujah, brother!

I'm watching a film just now which does what you say: Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel's "Why should I buy a bed when all that I want is sleep -- A chamber film with Robert Lax. Beautiful.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Aug. 20th, 2009 08:21 pm (UTC)
Money off topic

You might say it's a no brainer, but I was wondering what you think of this argument, which I personally think is cogent?

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=7065205277695921912


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Aug. 20th, 2009 09:50 pm (UTC)
Re: Money off topic

I think the picture that emerges there is fundamentally sound, but the money system is so fundamentally fictional that I would probably believe fiction about its fictionality as readily as fact about its fictionality, if you see what I mean!


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Aug. 20th, 2009 09:54 pm (UTC)
Tiresome in-your-face shockrot

The problem is that these days there are lots of talentless monkeys on a kind of parallel counter-culture bandwagon. They want to be the new Burroughs or the new Bill Hicks. The Tarantino of the page. Rad, extreme, shocking, "boundary-pushing". Depressingly childish.

Anyway, the world that needed obscenity is, surely, past.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Aug. 20th, 2009 10:05 pm (UTC)
Re: Tiresome in-your-face shockrot

the world that needed obscenity is, surely, past

There was no "world that needed obscenity". There was a world that created obscenity through various censorious institutions.

Edited at 2009-08-20 10:11 pm (UTC)


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Aug. 21st, 2009 02:28 am (UTC)

Hi Momus,

This is Thomas, your previously anonymous poster about Pro QM, Amazon and art book publishing etc (previously anon out of laziness): just to say great to see John Calder profiled. A courageous publisher from the start and still now. I worked for him between 1999 and 2001, from Edinburgh--before moving to NY--editing a boxset of Surrealist writings which, sadly, never seems to have got published--and will happily testify to the authenticity of his integrity. There's much to gripe about, regarding the integrity of the texts themselves, but the notion that a person of his literary tastes could survive in the UK so long is amazing. When his shop on The Cut opened (2001?) it seemed suicidal, and yet he made it work--I'm not sure whether it remains.

While I'm noting overlaps and dropping names, you also mention the Penzel and Humbert film on Robert Lax: just prior to working for Calder in 1998 I went to visit Lax on Patmos and spent several lovely afternoons reading to him, being read to, and--well, mostly laughing is what I recall. An extremely sweet-natured man, great beard of course... Penzel and Humbert (whose Frith film I still love) had just been there, I think, a few months previous. As a Finlay fan you may know Ian's beautiful Poor.Old.Tired.Horse issue that features his poems--"red//red//red//black//" etc--which the Greek secret police thought were CIA code, so that visitors to Lax in the 80s were often tailed...

best,

Thomas


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Aug. 21st, 2009 08:10 pm (UTC)

Wow, you're having an interesting life, Thomas!


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Aug. 21st, 2009 04:28 am (UTC)

good post buddy.. keep em coming


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Aug. 21st, 2009 10:14 pm (UTC)

Just in case you missed them:
http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2009/07/john-obrien-of-the-dalkey-archive-part-1.html
http://thegreenapplecore.blogspot.com/2009/07/interview-with-martin-riker-of-dalkey.html


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